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Replicants, Cyborgs and digital spirits

from Sara Bertsche | 9/24/2014

Who knows, perhaps the digital revolution is already over? At least, new technologies have already left the labs and entered the halls of industrial production and from there made inroads into our everyday lives. Increasingly, digital tools are at hand with which we can process and shape materials with great precision on the basis of complex data models. Meaning that compared to “analog” methods, objects can often be manufactured more swiftly, easily and fit-to-purpose, with even the details perfectly programmed and the smallest job runs possible.
All of this promises any amount of new scope when constructing and personalizing objects, and thus unleashes any number of fantasies. Small wonder that the advocates and the critics are intensely debating what opportunities digital manufacturing methods offer in terms of how we think, feel and act, and what this will result in. Because one thing is long since clear: Digital tools will (once again) change the reality of our lives.
Writers, artists and film directors have addressed how and in what way our world is changing – and not just since the invention of the computer and the omnipresence of binary codes. And have highlighted all the ambivalences with which they (and essentially we, too) encounter the resulting ideas, visions, utopias and dystopias. Irrespective of whether the changes have already become a reality or are still but flights of fancy.

From Star Trek to Star Tac

A well-known example of how the imagination races ahead of reality only for the latter to catch up and overtake is the communicator used in the sci-fi series “Star Trek”. Anyone watching the series today for the first time will notice that the handy device with which Captain James T. Kirk and his crew communicate cordlessly with both one another and the starship (complete with locating function, it opens at the flick of a wrist), resembles a clam mobile phone: The first genuine clam mobile phone, made by Motorola and quite deliberately marketed as the “Star Tac”, was clearly inspired by the “Star Trek” communicator. Astonishing if one remembers that the series was first broadcast back in 1966, at a time when cordless telephony had certainly not been invented.

Noodles from the replicator

Another appliance used in the world of Star Trek has remained an idea: On the starships in the Starfleet, a food generator, the so-called “replicator”, has replaced the cook in the in-flight canteen. The apparatus would be the dream of any housewife, and above all of all those nerds who were thrown out of the house by their mothers: It functions using a protein sequencer to produce any desired meal synthetically. The press of a button suffices and the meal appears on your plate as if by magic. What seems futuristic is already part of a NASA research project. Although the 125,000 bucks invested to date in developing a 3D printer to generate ready meals for astronauts certainly does not sound like all that much. Be that as it may, the basic elements such as proteins, carbs, and sugar are inputted in powder form and with them the various meals then prepared – these can be programmed at will. The advantage: Pre-prepared meals will no longer need to be taken along on long space missions. Initial trials have been successful, although word has it the meals’ consistency and taste needs to be optimized. Should the manufacturing method evolve ready for market, then this could also solve providing nutrition in crisis regions, or so the scientists hope. Modestly, they neglect to say that such a device would change the face of the entire food, kitchen and kitchen appliance industry. To put it mildly.

A probe that builds a probe that builds a probe

3D printers offer astrophysicists all manner of other opportunities, too. In 2006 British engineer Adrian Bowyer launched the first “RepRap” (Replicating Rapid Prototyper), that can build or print all the components of which it itself consists. Quite apart from the fact that a refrigerator, cooker or whatever you need can reduplicate itself using this method, the procedure resurrects the theory of “von Neumann probes”. It was put forward in 1966 by mathematician John von Neumann in his treatise on the “Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata”, in which he proposed the hypothetical concept of self-replicating processes sent out to explore space. The idea is ingeniously simple, if it were only to work: A “parent probe” is sent to an asteroid, where it replicates itself. The replicants then head off for even more remote areas where they again generate replicants; all of them transmit the data they collect along the way back to the parent probe. In this way, huge distances in space can be covered that would pose an impossible task for manned space missions.
In fact, the idea of replicants has been buzzing around in many minds since the biological variant as in cloning has come to seem more improbable. While the synthetically created androids in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) mine remote planets, but are barred from setting foot on earth and their lifespans are limited (as they are of course superior to their natural role models, with all the attendant complications), in Joseph Kosinski’s film “Oblivion” (2013) humans themselves become programmable material. Jack Harper, the film’s protagonist, is cloned hundreds of times and the memory of each of the replicants is first wiped and then filled with the information needed to combat a military mission by extra-terrestrials. An error in his programming means the one Jack clone dreams of events that his “original” experienced in the past – which prompts him in the final instance to rebel, what a happy ending.

Covering tough terrain with nanobots

Thanks to nanotechnology, digital fabrication also enables something to be manufactured in mini-lots, each revved up with data to give it “life”. For example, Harvard University’s Justin Werfel is currently busy developing “Swarmbots”. These are robots that are only a few centimeters in diameter and act like swarms of termites, independently erecting complex structures. Equipped with IR and ultrasound sensors as well as an acceleration meter, they can transport materials to a destination where they then assemble the individual components. Researchers hope that the miniature machines will be fit for use in otherwise impassable terrain, after flooding or disasters – to erect emergency shelters.
Impassable terrain is something sci-fi authors have interpreted in quite a different way. They have long since imagined situations in which “Microbots” zipped through the human body to repair damage done to it. This is the substance, for example, of the film “Innerspace” (1987), in which the protagonist, Lieutenant Pendleton, gets miniaturized along with a submarine and travels through the veins of his partner.

Cyborgs and man/machines

If we ignore the developments in robotics and fictitious androids such as “Mr. Data” from the second “Star Trek” season, or combat robots brought to self-determined life by a lightning bolt, such as “No. 5”, as robotics constitutes a field of its own within that of cybernetically controlled digital applications, then the man/machine seems to be a highly promising alternative. Many may not realize that such cyborgs are long since among us, as strictly speaking they include all patients with implants or artificial joints or pacemakers. Moreover, with the development of 3D printers that rely on a specific data model, you can make ever more prefect exo- and endoprosthetics, meaning prosthetics and implants are not only getting light, but fit better and are cheaper to produce. (On the use of digital fabrication methods in prosthetics, see “Prosthetic Sockets and Exoskeletons) Obviously, such applications are not only useful in medicine. For example, the US Defense Department has long since discovered the advantage of 3D-printed exo-skeletons and uses them to give soldiers more of a punch when in combat. Researchers at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University have gone a step further. Using a 3D printer they are trying to reproduce living tissue and recently the printer produced its first living cell. The long-term goal of the project, namely the reproduction of organs, is still a long way off, though.

The mind in the cybernetic skin

If the path leads from scanning technology and 3D bioprinting through to cybernetic organisms, then the question remains whether after all the digitalizing, what we call the “human mind” has got lost or refuses to comply. Or could those visions of immortality be fulfilled in which the human mind and the human body go their different ways and the mind can then be uploaded into a machine? It’s the theme that is addressed by Japanese author and illustrator Masamune Shirow in his manga “Ghost in the shell” (1989). In his dystopia, the human body is replaced by a cybernetic skin. Only a few cells in the “cyberbrain” are actually original, and contain the human mind. Here, the individual personality and identity are the only elements that cannot be generated artificially. The “Puppetmaster”, an unknown hacker, uses an omnipresent network to penetrate into the minds of others who, now subject to outside control, commit crimes at his command. It emerges that the hacker has no body of his own, but is a kind of AI that the network itself produced.
At the end of the day, probably computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum will be proved right: He was one of the first to consider the human body as that limit which distinguishes us from all kinds of machines, however highly developed they may be in the one way or the other. A machine can simply not feel its own body and never know what it means to possess a violable, mortal body of flesh and blood.

The ghost in the network

Digital processes are evolving not only in our analog world, but our bodies (or their representatives) are now penetrating virtual space. Our networks are buzzing with such digital “ghosts”; one need think only of “intelligent” software with which you can communicate verbally. Or the avatars that function as graphic representatives of the user’s body in the artificial world, a phenomenon well known from gaming. In his four-part novel “Otherland” (1996-2001), US author Tad Williams played with the idea of immersion, something hotly debated particularly in the context of computer gaming. The figures in his story identify so strongly with their avatars that they lose sight of the real world. Locked by implants permanently into a network, the protagonist Paul Jonas no longer even knows that he’s in a virtual realm. Detached from time and space, the figures are sent spinning through a surrealist world. This is not dissimilar to the Wachowski brothers’ film “Matrix” (1999), in which an artificially created world disguises the real state of things. While in “Tron” (1982) programs are represented as humanoid beings that look strikingly similar to their programmers and can enter into contact with the real world through an “Input/Output tower”. While many of the scenes were initially made using classic animation techniques, almost 30 years later 3D technology allows us to create an almost perfect set of surrealist computer worlds, on show in the sequel, “Tron: Legacy”.

Heading for new worlds

Fantasies are one thing, technology the other. While the former are indebted solely to probability, the latter hinges on what is actually feasible. In his movie “Avatar” (2009) director James Cameron transforms the actors into an extraterrestrial race with blue skin, thanks to motion-capture technology. First of all, the actors’ physiques, mimics and gestures were scanned and then computed 95 percent in a digital character. Because large parts of the film sets were likewise computer generated. Real film sequences had to be shot using a stereoscopic camera system (two synchronized 3D cameras in one casing) for them to be technically compatible with the animated scenes. In the final cut, it all seems as real as it is alien. Which does not say anything about the story the film tells.
What is clear at any rate: There’s still a long way to go until we can digitally fabricate perfect spatial illusions. We have not yet entered the Starship Enterprise’s “Holodeck”. At present, 3D movies are still fairly primitive, as they are confined to our eyes and ears. But who knows, maybe we’ll soon be smelling the breath of the monster in the latest horror movie and feeling the power of its claws on our skin? Or indeed softer touches and more pleasant fragrances. Until that time, we can enjoy the fact that we can discern what is fantasy and what is really the case. Even if both are often digitally made, or at least inspired.

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The communicator in the series even has a GPS-function. Photo © picture alliance/dpa
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Many years after „Star Trek“, the “StarTAC” was designed by Motorola. Photo © ProhibitOnions
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Rutger Hauer as replicant: “We are no computers, we are physical.” Photo © Warner Brothers Pictures
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In „Blade Runner“, Harrison Ford is hunting the replicant „Pris“.Photo © Warner Brothers Pictures
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In this scene, the perfect “Mr. Data” in Star Trek – The next generation” is in need of repair. Photo © Paramount Pictures
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In „Oblivion“, there are a thousand of Tom Cruises - as a clone. Photo © Universal Pictures
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No fly – a microbot, smaller as than a thumbnail. Photo © Francesco Mondada
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A micro-spaceship is floating through the human body in „Innerspace“. Photo © Warner Brothers Pictures