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