by Mary Harrington
Friday, 3
December 2021
Debate
10:12

We are all turning into cyberpunks

Debates over 'xenobots' and abortion are making it harder to know what is human
by Mary Harrington
Credit: Getty

“The future is already here”, the cyberpunk author William Gibson famously observed, “it’s just unevenly distributed”.

The ‘cyberpunk’ style of science fiction imagined the future as one of relentless convergence between the human and the technological. It was a world of digital enhancements to consciousness, mechanical prosthetics, flesh/robot hybrids, and visionary experiences inside virtual worlds, all against a background of an ecologically degraded, rubbish-filled and brutally socially stratified world.


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Two recent stories about technology and reproduction reminded me of Gibson’s words: one about an American abortion debate, and another about ‘xenobots’. Taken together they hint at the emerging contours of a debate that we haven’t really started having yet: what it means to be human in a world where machine and man are difficult to disentangle.

One sharp corner of that debate surfaced in the oral arguments advanced in the United States. Here, a landmark Supreme Court abortion case seeks to challenge the Roe v Wade precedent that gives women a constitutional right to abortion.

During the arguments, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor drew an analogy between scans that appear to show an unborn child recoiling from pain, and the reflexes in a dead body. The implication was that a body appearing to experience pain doesn’t provide proof of a body possessing life or personhood.

Another sharp corner of that debate surfaced around another kind of reproduction: that of ‘xenobots’ created from the stem cells of a frog. It was reported this week that these can move independently and have developed an ability to self-replicate by compacting loose stem cells into ‘offspring’.

As lead study author Professor Josh Bongard put it, “it’s a robot but it’s also clearly an organism”. The report suggests that while this technology is at an early stage, applications could include cleaning microplastics from the ocean and regenerative medicine in the human body.

Technology, then, now gives us the power to create life — self-replicating ‘xenobot’ life that’s distinct from any existing life-forms out there in the natural world. It also grants us the power to end life with medical precision, in utero. How do such powers affect our understanding of what a person is?

Between the scientists creating non-mechanical, non-animal ‘xenobot’ life in a petri-dish, and the debates over women’s right to end life growing within their own bodies, we can see an emerging vision of ‘life’ radically at odds with now-deprecated concepts like nature, consciousness, or a soul.

Rather, it’s something wholly desacralised: mere meat. When and whether this meat is endowed with humanity, personhood or dignity becomes, accordingly, a wholly separate question: a matter not of anything intrinsic but of politics and power. As we sidle ever closer to global political norms in which citizens are routinely stratified based on their willingness to accede to mandated medical interventions, we should reflect on how willing we really are to disentangle our fleshly selves from our understanding of personhood.

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Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

“…The implication was that a body appearing to experience pain doesn’t provide proof of a body possessing life or personhood…”

The converse is of course equally up for debate: an entity showing no external visible signs of distress can be in absolute agony.

Alastair Herd
Alastair Herd
1 year ago

Excellent as always. Western Societies lack of binding moral consensus makes these questions all the more divisive. “Murderer” or “Freedom”, “Violation” or “Progress”. We all use the same words, but somehow have completely different meanings.

I can’t imagine how confusing our modern world would be to a Victorian.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
1 year ago
Reply to  Alastair Herd

Who was ‘a Victorian’? A Victorian Gradgrind or Dotheboy or a Mr Brownlow as it were. As in any period there is only the appearance of ‘binding moral consensus’. It’s easy to find contradiction and hypocrisy in Newman or Carlyle or Ruskin just like most humans in any period. You don’t have to be a leftie to be appalled, as many were at the time, at the dehumanised treatment of fellow beings during this time- workhouses, deporting of the Tolpuddle Martyrs? Peterloo? A confusing period of titanic change too.

Last edited 1 year ago by Terence Fitch
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

“…we can see an emerging vision of ‘life’ radically at odds with now-deprecated concepts like nature, consciousness, or a soul…
The reasons for this are trivial: we are circumscribed by the terms of what we can and cannot express in language (and by this I mean our mathematical language, because this form of language is the least vulnerable to attack). We then either have watertight definitions of those terms or we don’t. If we don’t, it’s hardly a surprise if they eventually start to melt. If we do, we can put those definitions under scrutiny – and discover if they are robust enough to stand up or not. Again, if not, then no surprises if the definitions start to mutate.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

Look at a stone and imagine it having sensations. – One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing? One might as well ascribe it to a number! – And now look at a wriggling fly and at once these difficulties vanish and pain seems able to get a foothold here, where before everything was, so to speak, too smooth for it. And so, too, a corpse seems to us quite inaccessible to pain.-Our attitude to what is alive and to what is dead, is not the same. All our reactions are different.- If anyone says: “That cannot simply come from the fact that a living thing moves about in such-and-such a way and a dead one not”, then I want to intimate to him that this is a case of the transition ‘from quantity to quality’ Ludwig Wittgenstein

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

So, how is it going for all you vacuous sheep today? Grazing good? The sheep dogs not being too much a hassle, fattening up nicely?

Because that is what one must be if the above article does not end up to you as being about ethics, morality, right and wrong, good and evil. That you just sort think ‘hmmm, that sounds kind of dodgy’, and ‘well – there is just no knowing’, and ‘those things sound like something a religious nutter would get excited about’……

You all gave up on Good and Evil, and replaced it with nice and not-nice, Correct and un-Correct, and so you have no ability to understand anything……… You have no metrics, no standards, nothing to use to judge things by, so you do not judge, being good little secular-humanists……baaaa.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Many of us gave up on a sage or priest or a Tavas or prophet telling us what was Good or Evil- or being a sheep to be herded into a church to be lectured at by a shepherd. Good propaganda that Christ Shepherd slogan.

David McDowell
David McDowell
1 year ago

If that’s the level of Sotomayor’s argument it’s really only a matter of time before Roe vs Wade is reversed.

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
1 year ago

If it turns out that God has insisted we must one day merge with the xenobots, rather than them becoming the size of us, I do hope it is us who are downscaled to their size, and we can design ourselves little aeroplanes and fly around the microworld. then we can forget about colonising Mars and instead build castles in water droplets send comment

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Sorrenti

plus I’d really like to square up to a tardigrade, see how hardy those water bears really are. I reckon I could take them. Could set up a little micro-colosseum and have them fight teeny gladiators, until PETA banned it

Lyn N
Lyn N
1 year ago

Xenobots, laws to protect future generations, safeguarding the unborn, “women’s” rights… whatever you think about these, it seems fairly clear that we are reaching a situation where ‘personhood’ is not a necessary requirement for safeguarding action, and that it will be the state, not you, that decides what is best for your personal well-being as well as the well-being of all sentient beings not yet born.
It seems fairly likely that as some point in the future, “organisms with a uterus” that contain “the unborn”, may have the right to say they don’t wish to carry those unborn children to term but the state will also have the right to say it is not safe for the unborn to be carried by that person. Either way, science and religion or ethics or philosophy (whichever is used) will converge. The inevitable end point of these arguments and our current trajectory is the corporate parenting of embryos outside of a uterus.
It is object-oriented ontology gone mad, no?
Imagine being served with a court order and having your growing embryos removed without your consent because an algorithm has calculated that people like you don’t tend to be good parents – and having that child grow in a sterile lab environment instead where it can be safe. (I so need to write that story.)
It’s hard to get more cyberpunk than that.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago

Forensic science can accurately determine if bits of blood, bone or meat are human remains or other creatures. Whatever its techniques are, it yields one simple base definition of ‘Human’. ‘Personhood’ is a vague concept, varying widely across human cultures and their legal systems, so much so that sticking with forensic science seems logical.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

Yes, but you must admit, it is strange when landmarks such as rivers are granted the status of personhood, but human embryos are denied such.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_personhood

Last edited 1 year ago by Julian Farrows
Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Wow! Thanks for the link … I should change my describer of personhood from ‘vague’ to ‘chimerical’.

Ian Burns
Ian Burns
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

Forensic science, does not inform the moral status of a person, neither diminishes nor affirms the sanctity of human life.