June 28, 2009

Exploring transhumanist themes in Battlestar Galactica: Caprica

Good news for Battlestar Galactica fans: the new Caprica series is excellent.

I finally caught the two-hour pilot and was quite impressed with the new direction. If this first episode is any indication, this is going to be a provocative and fascinating series -- one that will touch upon many topics near and dear to transhumanists, including artificial intelligence, whole brain emulation, consciousness transfer, virtual reality and even immortality.

Set 58 years before the events of Battlestar Galactica, the Caprica series will primarily chronicle the events behind the rise of the Cylons. The show will explain how they were created and why the Cylons attempted to destroy the Twelve Colonies. Caprica, which is dark and filled with foreboding, takes place in a civilization not too far removed from our very own; this is a futuristic society at its peak, but one that's self-absorbed, hedonistic, and fully distracted by its dazzling array of advanced technologies.

Caprica takes place in a pre-Singularity civilization, so unlike the previous series it speaks more directly to a number of issues soon to be faced by our very own. Set within a drama involving two families and their hopeful attempt to resurrect loved-ones lost in an act of terror, Caprica explores the ethical and philosophical implications of emerging and disruptive technologies -- many of which will soon be within our reach.

Warning: Spoilers follow.

Fully immersive virtual reality

A technology that's prominently featured in Caprica is virtual reality. By using the "holoband", a device that's worn like a pair of glasses, users are transported into a fully realized virtual reality world. How the holoband works is not made entirely clear (there must be something to those cheesy colored flashing lights), but unlike the brain-jacks of The Matrix, these devices bring conscious awareness to a simulated world in a non-invasive way.

Interestingly, the specific VR world that's portrayed in Caprica is an illegal one developed by hackers. It features a teen club complete with girl on girl sex, human sacrifice and gunplay. This is commentary that's clearly directed at Second Life, but the debauched nature of the club is also important to the story; this is a world of extreme excess and withering values -- one that's headed in a bad way.

Whole brain emulation

But there's more to the virtual reality than just that. The developer of the holoband, Daniel Graystone, only intended for it to be a soft simulation (meaning the user has a corporeal body outside the VR -- see my article on Simulation Taxonomy for more info). But his daughter Zoe, a genius in her own right, figured out a way to copy her own mind in the simulation and create a virtual clone of herself.

Virtual Zoe is able to live and function within the simulation, but because she has no body in the real world she cannot leave; her mind resides completely within the simulation's architecture.

This is what transhumanists refer to as whole brain emulation. While grossly over-simplified in Caprica, it's the concept that's interesting (hey, television science fiction refuses to go hard so we'll take what we can get). Whole brain emulation involves the complete scanning and mapping of a biological brain in detail and copying its state into a computer system or other computational device. In this hypothesized scenario, the 'simulation model' that's run by the computer is faithful to the source, and the agent behaves in essentially the same way as the original.

Virtual Zoe's existence sparks considerable debate and suspicion among those who meet her -- including her father. He initially refuses to believe that an emulated version of his daughter could actually be 'real' and worthy of serious consideration. Discussions ensue as to what is real and natural -- and whether or not there is such a thing as the human soul.

Daniel eventually changes his mind, however, and learns to accept that she is just as real as the original Zoe; as the motto of his own company proclaims, "The difference that makes no difference is no difference."

Mind transference (aka mind 'uploading')

Something I didn't mention in the previous section was that the original Zoe died at the beginning of the pilot episode. Her grieving father was shocked to discover that she had copied herself in the virtual world and that he could still interact with a representation of her.

Not content to leave virtual Zoe in cyberspace, and true to his role as the show's 'mad scientist', Graystone decides to upload her consciousness into a military robot that his company is developing -- what he's dubbed a cybernetic lifeform node, or Cylon.

You can see where this is going.

But while Graystone has the requisite robotic hardware for the task, he and his company have yet to develop a 'metacognitive device' -- a platform that can hold and express an artificial intelligence. Undaunted, he does the next best thing: he steals it from a rival company who has developed it.

So, Graystone now has all the pieces he needs: a robotic body, an artificially intelligent agent in the form of virtual Zoe and the cybernetic brain to house it. He then does something that transhumanists refer to as mind uploading or consciousness transfer -- he transfers (or copies, depending on your persuasion) Zoe's mind from the VR to the metacognitive device. The experiment proves to be a limited success, but for a fleeting moment Zoe has corporeal form. Before suffering some sort of malfunction, Zoe moves the cylon's body and tries to speak. The proto-cylon is born (for what it's worth, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end during this scene).

This is interesting for a number of reasons. First, based on where we know the series and the Cylons are headed, this is a suggestion that artificial superintelligence won't be coded from a discreet source, but that it will emerge from an existing human mind (a highly controversial topic among transhumanists and AI theorists). Second, it hints at something that roboticist Hans Moravec has said, namely that humanity will spawn its own mind children. Moravec has suggested that we'll eventually create our own successors through our technologies -- the next giant leap in the evolution of intelligent life -- and that these 'mind children' will allow humanity to go on permanent vacation.

And of course, the entire idea of mind transference is profound unto itself. It calls into question issues of the permanent and immutable self, and the broader philosophical and scientific quandaries about how such a technological feat could ever be accomplished.

Resurrection and immortality

Another theme explored by Caprica that's near and dear to transhumanists is immortality. The pilot episode suggests that people can be resurrected after their deaths by piecing them back together from all the artifacts that made up their life. Zoe, for example, didn't create a replica of herself by mapping her entire brain from the original (as I may have suggested above), but instead created an amalgam of herself by recompiling all the data bits of her life.

Personally, I believe this is a load of rubbish, but others take this possibility more seriously. One such thinker is the transhumanist Martine Rothblatt. She argues that in our cybernetic and virtual world of the future, genes are not going to matter so much. Instead, we’ll be concerned about ‘bemes' -- a fundamental, transmissible, unit of beingness. This will give rise to what she calls the 'transbeman person.'

Bemes will eventually become the currency of the future – the stuff that will help prospective persons restore their memories and sense of identity. She believes that people should create digital ‘mindfiles’ that chronicle their lives; eventually, after death, persons could be revived by means of ‘mindware’ transfer when the requisite technology is powerful enough (namely the advent of artificial intelligence).

According to Rothblatt, bemes can be virtually anything that could later be used to restore a person’s history, identity and tendencies. Bemetic mindfiles could be comprised of old photos, blogs, transcripts, diaries, and so on; these artifacts could later be used to restore and re-define a person’s personality (including mannerisms, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values). Most importantly, these files could restore a person's memory.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, there is much more to resurrecting a brain and a person than just piecing together 'mindfiles.' But the suggestion does bring to mind some provocative issues as they pertain to memory, the continuity of self and who we think we are.

Bring on Caprica!

All of these themes were explored in the pilot to Caprica, so it'll be interesting to see where they go from here. But clearly the writers have set an excellent precedent in the first episode; spaceships and laser beams have been replaced by cyberpunk, and that's a good thing.

Additionally, one of the strengths of Caprica will be the proximity of its timeline to our very own. Unlike the previous series, these issues are a bit more tangible and within reach (especially the commentary on the extended self and simulated worlds).

And as already mentioned, the science behind the science fiction may be a bit sketchy and pedestrian, but it's the broader philosophical and social themes that are worth discussing. This is the part that the writer's have gotten right, and that's why I have high hopes for this series.

Look for me to post more articles about Caprica as the show unfolds.


ZarPaulus said...

Caprica did indeed greatly oversimplify the process of uploading, though I seem to recall the virtual Zoe saying that records of Zoe's brain scans were used in her creation (I saw it back in April, might be wrong). Still I have to agree that using "mindfiles" to emulate a personality would not be a suitable form of immortality, in fact people would probably notice that the emulation wasn't the original. Of course, I don't like uploading very much, in my opinion the only kind of uploading that can be used for immortality is cyborgization.

qraal said...

IMHO the only sure way a copy can be felt to be a one-to-one mapping of the original is the neurone-by-neurone replacement idea, which replaces the brain with some suitable equivalent, while all the time you feel that You remains 'you'. Then one can be reasonably sure about the identity between the new and the old. Anything else is more like reproduction than 'uploading', though we might find that jumping between mind-clones doesn't feel like anything at all, thus we can hurdle that metaphysical barrier too. Maybe. No one has done the experiment yet and it'll be 10-20 years more before it becomes a reasonable prospect even in a lab.

Pablo Defendini said...

This is a fantastic post, and quite a spot-on and lucid analysis of the transhumanist themes in Caprica (no less than I'd expect from you, of course). I too have issues with the concept of the mind-file emulation in general, and I hadn't heard of Rothblatt--a lacunae which I'll soon correct.

More to the point, putting aside the simplification of scientific concepts which seen endemic to television production, I found the rationale for how to create a mind-file rather flimsy in the pilot, as well. The way they explained it away, it seemed like no more than aggregating someone's Facebook profile, MySpace page, shopping patterns, and other bits of internet ephemera, which I found, of course, rater hard to swallow.

Aside from that, though, I share your optimism for this show. If nothing else (and if the creators manage to broaden the show's fanbase beyond the die-hard Battlestar Galactica fans, as is their intention by positioning it as a 'family drama' or whatever), Caprica should help familiarize the public at large with some core transhumanist concepts. And that is a good, good thing.

Richard B said...

Thanks for the cogent analysis. I agree that the pilot was good but can now add that the following two episodes are both very well written and truly thought-provoking.

As to themes, there is a recurring reference to tragic consequences from human frailties and institutional malady. As British political theorist John Gray wrote in 2002:
"If people try, during the coming century, to redesign human beings, they will not do so on the basis of an enlightened international consensus. It will occur haphazardly, as part of competition and conflict among states, business corporations and criminal networks." This is Caprica's other message.

Is there any interest in a continuing discussion of Caprica?