Meat Processors (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cylons)

There’s nothing at all wrong with the fact that we’ve all been totally geeking out over the last week or two, just breathing in the sweet air of sci-fi battle goodness. We could talk for an hour about the Galactica’s incredible arrival in Exodus, Pt. 2 — not to mention Pegasus’ save-the-dayjump— but…Wait. We did that in the last podcast, didn’t we?

OK,I’m going to take a short break to delve back into a subject we’ve spent a lot of time wondering about:Cylons are “machines,” but differ almost none at all from “pure” humans. How’s that work? What are the implications?

I’ve been catching up on some sci-fi reading lately, picking up some classics that I should’ve read before but just never got around to. Some of them have some serious bearing on BSG. Specifically:

If you havent read Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep recently, you’d do well as a BSG fan to pick up a copy and check it out. Sure, the movie’s a lot of fun, but (much like it does in BSG) religion and philosophy play a lot more of a role in the book than the snappily-titled movie.

There are a number of parallels between ‘Sheep and BSG, most specifically the quite forward-thinking concept of androids made entirely of meat — as opposed to Star-Trek-Data-like mechanical imitations of people. It’s easy to imagine that at some futuristic point the concepts and practices of bio-engineering and robotics could eventually merge, allowing software to run on both hardware and wetware (read: tissue-based computers).

In ‘Sheep (and the movie, Blade Runner) authorities could perform a complicated “bone marrow” test to differentiate androids from their almost-identical human bretheren, but this test wasmore easily (if not conveniently) performed after the subjectwasalready dead. Bounty hunters used a much simpler and more practical method to out “passing” ‘droids: the Voight-Kampff empathy test. By exhibiting different eye movement and other (mostly) involuntary bodily responses to emotionally-charged questions, ‘droids would give themselvs away because they were incapable of empathising with the plight of others — specifically animals, which held a special place in the hearts of those practicing the society’s foremost religion, Mercerism.

The novel explains this lack of empathy as a failure in human engineering;They just couldn’t create ameat processor that could handle those emotions. Could this be theCylons’ bane as well –that theyjust can’t create a meatprocessorthat can love? If so, might a test like the Voight-Kampff help to outunknown Cylons as well?

But what really intrigues me is the idea that the Cylons’ meat processors aren’t any different than our own. Maybe they simply have the “key” to understanding the programming (and de-programming) of meat processors while we (as humans) don’t. What if humans are just as capable of “downloading” as Cylons, but we just don’t know how (yet)?

It’s a pretty short jump from transferringthe minds (souls?) of (almost) physically identical Cylons tonew bodies and transferring the contents of human minds to, well, wherever,eventually be stored, processed, and retrieved — thus permanently blurring the line between man and machine. I also read William Gibson’s Neuromancer last week, along with one of its sequels, Count Zero, andthese novels definitely cross the human/computer boundary from both directions: AIs slip past the Turing Police to become truly independententitiesand the richest and most influential people use the “matrix” to store and duplicate themselves to manage their involvements around the world and in orbit.

Sowhy shouldn’t these transfers prove to be two-way, even in BSG? If Cylons are truly sentient beings and they can download their soul — or maybe “essence” for the non-religious crowd — and load it into a new body, why can’t humans? Wouldn’t this technology be the ultimate in safety? Forget seat belts — make a frakking copy of yourself just in case. Or just download on impact and live to tell the tale.

What’s supremely interesting is that in both novels, the new “freedom” of humans and machines to mix led to socio-political strife: In ‘Sheep, men hunted ‘droids and “retired” them — often with prejudice. In Neuromancer, the ‘police struggled to hold back the potential of AIs, afraid they’d overrun humanity.

But Metaplanetary, a novel by Tony Daniel — who was a guest on GWC a few weeks back inPodcast #8— takesthe concept (and theconflict that comes with it)to an entirely new level, not just blurring but smearing the distinction between man and machine — and forcing them to pay the price. In Metaplanetary, a self-replicating nano-technological material with intrinsic computing and networking capabilities (called grist) forms a solar-system-wide supercomputer capable of holding trillions of intelligent beings. Humans quickly take to the grist, copying themselves to simplify tasks. However, when those copies “escape” or are forgotten, they lead their own lives in the grist, becoming true individuals. Even bits of code from unrelated complex applications can eventually find their way intothe gristto grow into intelligences that occupy animals — and eventually human bodies.

Where does all this lead? To civil war, of course.Their fears: that non-human intelligences can reproduce without “natural” limits — that they’d “lose control.” Sound familiar?

We have a hell of a time trying to understand and protect our rights as individuals here on boring ‘ole Earth right now. What’d happen if we lost our sole hold on the title “sentient?” BSG shows us one answer, but if you’d like to see some more extreme possibilities, check out the books above. They’ll definitely help you get your “fix” between episodes.

Dick, Phillip K.. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. New York, NY: Del Rey, 1968. ISBN: 0345404475

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York, NY: Ace, 1984. ISBN: 0441012035

Daniel, Tony. Metaplanetary: A Novel of Interplanetary Civil War. New York, NY: EOS, 2001. ISBN: 0061020257

5 Responses to "Meat Processors (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cylons)"
  1. Nick says:

    Interesting thoughts here. It seems clear that the Cylons have been able to create a “meat processor” that can Love. Their fatal flaw is the skinjob Cylons are emotional adolescents. They have no understanding of love or any other strong emotions. Imagine that you are born a fully grown human adult and that the very first emotion you ever experience is Love. No frame of reference, no peers to help you understand or cope with this new found emotion. That would have to be like that first hit of Crack for a Cylon. Those that experience it would always persue that feeling again. Now what happens if that first emotion you feel is anger or hate (perhaps Scar) or jealousy. How would that model develop from that point forward?

    I found it highly amusing that the Cylons look down on humans as barbarians when they let you suffer rather than just flat out killing them. Even the reincarnation process is getting to be a big headache and they don’t like experiencing that pain. Sounds like if you can kick enough sand in their face they will pick up all their toys and go home.

  2. Ken says:

    Thanks for the reading suggestions. I’ve read Neuromancer and Sheep, but Metaplanetary sounds pretty cool too. I just finished reading a series by Gene Wolfe called Book of the Long Sun. It deals a lot with these kind of issues: artificial intelligence, personality downloads/uploads, religion, politics, etc. He is a religious guy, but not too heavy handed (I’m a non-believer myself) It can be dense stuff but, a great payoff is there for the patient reader. Something the BSG fan can sink her teeth into between episodes for sure.

  3. Pike says:

    A couple more reading suggestions:

    The “Ware Tetralogy” by Rudy Rucker. This deals extensively with sentience, conciousness, what it means to be human, etc. The first book is titled “Software”, and the second is “Wetware.”

    The venerable “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. One of the earliest ‘cyberpunk’ books, it has a running theme on the concept of ‘reprogramming’ peoples’ minds. Which dovetails nicely with Chuck’s idea of Cylons as superior mental programmers.

  4. Kirby says:

    Chuck, are you arguing that humans do not have a difficult time handling love? I would argue that humans have difficulties dealing with love and its many permutations. Caprica Six has stated that 1) she loves Baltar 2) and that her heart and soul are his. I believe—I want to believe—her when she says this. It feels genuine, like human idealized love. Although, to be sure, because of her nature we’re never sure how her genuine her professions are. Conversely, do we know how genuine it is when we say we love one another? Life—all life—is selfish by nature. As a whole, I do not believe that Six’s meat processor has a greater issue with love than ours.

    In regards to the flesh Cylons being machines, but also being indistinguishable from humans—obviously, that gap is hard to distinguish. Indeed, aren’t humans just biological machines? All our cells (factories), DNA (programming), mitochondria (more factories), and so forth, are simply interconnected biological machines based on billions of years of co-evolution (the cells working together). So, the Cylons by-passed 4 billion years of evolution, and presto-magico, there be a better human, release 2, in a dish.

    Asides from their superior physical strength, the only other clear distinction between Cylons/humans seems to be the Cylon ability to upload their mind upon physical death, making them immortal in the process. The human mind is a byproduct of 100 billion neurons interconnected with 1 trillion synaptic connections. This interconnectivity produces the mind; the mind is the by-product. Regarding the Cylon upload process—my take is that the upload process involves a mechanism that’s triggered at death, which takes a snapshot of all the synaptic neuronal interconnections, uploads this mapping through some radio frequency, is received and then burned (downloaded) into an awaiting pristine Cylon brain.

    As you state, what would be interesting is the ability to upload a human mind into a Cylon body, as President Roslin mused about on Colonial One with Adama as she was nearing death. Would that nascent Cylon—with Roslin’s mind—be human or Cylon? Would it be Roslin? Would humanity accept her as Roslin, or reject her as a Cylon? If our soul, if there is such a thing, were separate from our mind, wouldn’t the soul be lost during the upload process? Would the end product be like you, but not quite, somehow missing some intangible essence that gives us that uniqueness we seem to feel in others.

    Some related readings: Tad Williams’ Otherland quadrilogy: paints a near future society that attempts to recreate individual mind in the Internet, and once the mind has been recreated into non-corporeal entities in hyper space—at some unknown specification—the flesh humans ritualistically kill themselves in the real world to live out eternity in the hyper reality they’ve created in Otherland. Interesting.

  5. Armando says:

    I’m not much of a sci-fi fan and, therefore, can’t comment on the reading. I do remember a lot of talk about 6-7 years ago about the “age of spiritual machines” (the title of a book, I believe) and the expectations of scientists that we are at the cusp of an age of sentient computers (they put it to within 50 years). Does that mean that my PC will one day look like Tricia Helfer? Gods, I hope so! 😉

    The question of Cylons as emotional adolescents inexperienced with love is a good one. Interestingly, no one has yet to mention Sharon Agathon, who is, in my opinion, the most emotionally mature of all the Cylons–and some humans. Notice how quickly Starbuck was willing to end her relationship with Anders in “Collaborators”–although, granted, she’d been systematically mind-fracked for four months and is rather messed up because of it–while Sharon has stayed with Helo even through the (apparent) loss of a child(something which ends many marriages), inprisonment, rape, etc.

    And while on the subject–could this particular Cylon, who has betrayed her own people and sworn allegiance to the human colonists, actually believe herself to be human now? Could she be pursuing a path that the model that was originally on Galactica only followed because she was programmed to believe she is human? The look on her face when she runs into Anders on New Caprica and greets him with, “it’s been a long time” only to receive the reply, “funny, I feel like I see you every day” was perhaps indicative that, indeed, she is beginning to identify more with human beings than with Cylons.

    Is this, perhaps, what Cylons aspire to?

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