The future is sci-fi: How Ghost in the Shell, Deus Ex — Human Revolution foreshadowed humanity 2.0

Prahlad Srihari

Jan 01, 2020 09:12:13 IST

As we embark on a new decade, how do visions of the 2020s — imagined in books like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, films like Soylent Green, or even manga like Ghost in the Shell —match up against our reality? In this series, we look at seven pop culture artefacts from the past that foretold the future, providing a prophetic glimpse of the decade we’re now entering.

Words by Prahlad Srihari | Art by Trisha Bose and Sharath Ravishankar | Concept by Rohini Nair and Harsh Pareek

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We already live in a world where bionic eye implants have made it possible to restore partial sight for visually impaired people. In fact, augmentations to Second Sight's Argus II may enable future users to even see in infra-red, like the Predator. Ossur's implanted myoelectric sensors allow amputees to control their bionic limbs with their minds. Meanwhile, scientists in North Carolina are hard at work trying to build a future where 3D printers can churn out customised kidneys, livers and other vital organs for those in need.

Even if science fiction has had a headstart over science, the latter is catching up. We're not far away from the transhumanist futures of Ghost in the Shell, Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Robocop. Taking cues from these imaginative works, science hopes to aid and accelerate our evolution from human to post-human through genetic modifications, ironing out our limitations and pushing our limits. But as always, sci-fi has repeatedly warned us against the often unnatural nature of science — the importance of knowing when to tinker with technology to aid human progress and when to let nature take its course.

Masamune Shirow's manga Ghost in the Shell offers some vital lessons on transhumanism. Our story begins in 2029 at a time when it is all too common for humans to enhance themselves by replacing their organs with cybernetic parts. Our protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is a cybernetically enhanced officer of an elite cyber-crime-fighting unit called Section 9. Our plot follows the hunt for an elusive cyber-criminal, called the Puppet Master, a formidable AI who can take up residence in any cyborg body, take over their minds and essentially reprogramme them to do his bidding.

 The future is sci-fi: How Ghost in the Shell, Deus Ex — Human Revolution foreshadowed humanity 2.0

Masamune Shirow's manga Ghost in the Shell offers some vital lessons on transhumanism. Illustration by Sharath Ravishankar for Firstpost

So, Motoko has a crisis of identity when she begins to question the authenticity of her thoughts, her memories and the very nature of her being. If she is a human-machine hybrid, is her identity defined by her human thoughts or are they just exabytes of stored data? If she has no memories of her past human existence and her mind can be manipulated, then what makes her human? If Philip K Dick suggested empathy to be the defining factor of humanity, Shirow suggests it is the human soul (what he calls the ghost) that separates man from machine. But a hybrid made of human cells and a cybernetic body (the shell) brings with it its own unbridgeable dualism, as surmised by Motoko. "I suspect I am not who I think I am. Maybe I died a long time ago and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there never was a real me in the first place, and I'm completely synthetic," she wonders, before questioning, "What if a cyber brain could possibly generate its own ghost, create a soul all by itself? And if it did, just what would be the importance of being human then?"

(Note: Those averse to reading manga should watch the animated film, not the 2017 live-action film featuring Scarlett Johansson, which revels in cyberpunk spectacle rather than the murky waters of obscurity in Shirow's poetic reflections.)

The blurring of these lines between man and machine reaches its climax when Motoko's ghost merges with the Puppet Master to evolve into a new entity, favouring an immaterial existence free of physical boundaries (like Samantha and her fellow AIs in Her). Instead of trying to put Motoko in distinct human or AI camps, Shirow studies the implications of transhumanism in the intermediary phase between the two. He thus foreshadows the emergence of the posthuman or humanity 2.0.

The video game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, ventures further into a transhuman future, with one foot in a utopia, and the other in a dystopia. Its cyberpunk future of 2027 is a world where "augmentations" are what separates the upper classes from the lower. Like in Yukito Kishiro's Alita: Battle Angel, they have become so common they're like tattoos or piercings. After a terrorist attack leaves security guard Adam Jensen critically injured, his life is saved thanks to these "augmentations" that turn him into a Robocop. Stronger, faster, and smarter than before, he begins a pursuit of the terrorists, only to uncover a larger conspiracy involving radical supporters and opponents of transhumanism.

It is easy to see why transhumanism has its fair share of supporters and opponents. On the one hand, it represents the next stage in our evolution as cybernetic implants could extend our lifespan, enhance our physical and mental capacities, and help us shape ourselves according to our needs, our desires, or our environment. On the other, any extension, enhancement or reshaping beyond the natural barriers will make life less miraculous or spontaneous. So, rather than curing death, technology should be used to make life worth living.

However, in this quest to improve the human condition through technology, we should not forget what makes us human. Dick's right: It's our empathy. But it is also our ability to introspect, wonder and speculate. As long as these abilities are inherently linked to the human soul, it does not matter what shell it is, the ghost of humanity will forever be preserved in it.

Also read — Class structures and dehumanisation of the workforce, as foretold by Metropolis (1927)

Read our 'Decade in Review' series here.

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Updated Date: Jan 05, 2020 01:05:35 IST