Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Musing over Ghost in the Shell's philosophical context

I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine about research efforts in optic neural systems. A lot of the research involved probing neural signals by inducing reactions via various inputs. The data obtained from these efforts brings us closer to understanding how our eyes work to encode information received through our retinas and how it sends that information via electro signals to our brains to decode and finally construct an image.

Conversely, if we were able to map out the entire neural system, organ functions, and logistics rationalizing human behavior, it's not entirely out of this world to theorize the possibility of emulating an entire human as a system through circuits, machinery and sophisticated adaptive AI. Of course, I'd like to emphasize that to accomplish this monumental effort within our lifetimes would be a far cry.

In Ghost in the Shell, an anime series, this theory was realized. Similar to many sci-fi films and games such as Star Trek and Deus Ex, in GITS cyber implants, cyborgs, androids are the norm in the year 2030. Apart from the plethora of cool advanced technology, what made this series such a masterpiece was their emphasis on examining various topics with respect to philosophical debates, particularly dualism, or the separation of the mind and body. One of the main themes of this series is the constant reference to the concept of a "ghost" and the examination of this phenomenon.

To explain the title of the series, ghost in the shell refers to an ethereal spirit that is common referred to as one's soul, living inside a machine. This references the fact that the female protagonist in the film is a full body cyborg. The technical term used in the series is full cyberization. So the theory constantly being examined and evaluated is the capability of AI based systems to possess a ghost. The very first installment of this series was in form of a movie and it examined the psychological impacts of the female protagonist being full body cyborg. She constantly questions and doubts the existence of a ghost within her, because aside from her brain she is nothing but a machine. The implied effect of being a cyborg is the sense of delineation of the two entities, her ghost and the shell. However, another aspect of this concept was examined deeply in the first TV series.

The TV series introduced AI tanks called Tachikomas. They were experimental combat robots which possesses highly advanced adaptive AI with the ability to reason and learn from experience. This has led to interesting episodes in the series where they examine the growth of their AI systems. These AI tanks were portrayed with children like characteristics. Ignorant, yet extremely curious. So throughout the series they slowly start to understand concepts that commonly alludes a machine through discussions within the AI tank circle. Such as life and death, god, and individualism. The rate at which they were learning became so alarming that these AI tanks were at one point decommissioned as they were deemed too dangerous to operate as weapons having acquiring that level of awareness.

Dabbling in plot details aside, the real food for thought is if we were able to engineer an AI with human-like sophistication, does "it" have the capacity to possess a ghost? Or is a ghost simply a term coined to explain the observed phenomenon of our behavioral complexities which makes us human?