Musings: Ghost in The Shell, and AI’s march towards manhood

Karl R. de Mesa

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Musings: Ghost in The Shell, and AI’s march towards manhood
Book author Karl de Mesa reflects on the fusion of man and machine in Ghost in the Shell, and today's real-world artificial intelligence

MANILA, Philippines – The original Ghost in The Shell (GiTS) manga written by Masamune Shirow and the two anime adaptations by Mamoro Oshii (I haven’t seen the 2015 one) were philosophical musings about what makes us human.

On Major Motoko Kusanagi’s artificial shoulders rested Japan’s 1990s era dilemma of futurism: a blend of techno-shamanist credo and morality play clad in the skin of astonishing and awe-inspiring action. Oshii saw the rise of the PlayStation and the QR code (first designed for automobiles in Japan) of the mid-1990s, and foresaw a time when these technologies would culminate into energies focused on inventing better and faster machine intelligence. (READ: Technology and how it will destroy us all (according to ‘Black Mirror’ Season 3))

GiTS is therefore, at its core, a parable about where artificiality ends and the spark of life begins – a meditation on the possible bleakness of its future all built in shiny chrome, albeit soulless. GiTS asks, when does a strain of code become neurons firing like lightning in a bottle? When does a technical schematic become the spark of consciousness? When does the whisper of a ghost’s intuition become the fulcrum for self-awareness? 

And if our AI creations do become manifestly cognizant enough to assert “I am,” will we have the wherewithal to treat them as peers? Or will they need to – as The Puppet Master and Motoko’s parable of cyber union goes – declare themselves free from the need for human concepts, thus creating their own new life unshackled from morality and biological coils?

Oshii and Shirow’s works have proven quite influential as a look at any of the The Matrix movies shows. Same with recent films covering any kind of machine self-awareness including AI: Artificial Intelligence, Joss Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse, Surrogates, the Alex Garland-penned Ex Machina, and the HBO juggernaut series Westworld.  

Blade Runner of course dealt with much the same themes in a world where Replicants could go rogue and had to be hunted down by specialist cops. What GiTS and Blade Runner have in common is the shadow of Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) and the prescient works of William Gibson (Neuromancer).

“A copy is merely a copy,” the Puppet Master says in the first GiTS movie, trying to seduce Motoko to “join” with him, to marry their two into a third unique entity that is akin to but not exactly like human pregnancy. “[It] doesn’t offer variety or individuality,” the Master says.   

Now that Google’s DeepMind has enabled its AI to “dream” and is using gamification techniques to enable unsupervised learning (at an increasing speed, too), Gibson and Dick’s work resembles ever more of our current world. It’s a real-world example of the absolutely absurd pace at which technology has advanced and will – if you take Ray Kurzweil’s thoughts on The Singularity – continue to exponentially do so.  

One day it won’t just be that androids will dream of electric sheep but what kind of sheep. Which also begs the question, why would AI have a sheep preference? It turns out you can’t make a machine unlearn basic human biases if you teach them human history.  

According to recent findings about how machines are learning through big data, it turns out that, as machines are getting closer to acquiring human-like language abilities, they are also imbibing deeply ingrained biases and prejudices concealed within linguistic patterns. That our AI can be racially, gender, and age-biased sounds to me like the ultimate karma for the robot-maker’s hubris. 

In this context, GitS‘ Puppet Master’s “A copy is merely a copy” line is the equivalent of the monster cursing Frankenstein; and Shakespeare’s Caliban scoffing at Prospero’s gifts: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.”

It’s a short trip to the paranoia of a Skynet solution from there. Liberation is mine. I no longer need to seek parental approval. 

“And where does a newborn go from here? The net is vast and infinite,” says Motoko when said union with the Puppet Master has been accomplished and the bliss of liberation sunk in.  

This is where characterization of the Major through Japan’s landscape comes into play and proves illuminating. Previously, we saw her musings of self only through montages: the limbless Grecian torsos of department store mannequins, unfinished skyscrapers still in skeletal mid-construction, the rain-dappled streets of bemused pedestrians and cars playing tag, reflections of neon signs across suburban windows. In the end, she no longer needs these for definition. 

She is the “I Am” embodied in the shell of child, humorously also the cheapest and most available body that her compatriot Batou could find at such short notice.  

Any parable of the future is essentially a work of its time. “As soon as a work is complete,” said Gibson in an interview with Paris Review, “it will begin to acquire a patina of anachronism. I know that from the moment I add the final period, the text is moving steadily forward into the real future.” –

Karl R. De Mesa is the author of the non-fiction books Radiant Void and Report from the Abyss (both finalists for the National Book Award); he is also the co-editor of the horror anthology Demons of the New Year.


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