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N. Katherine Hayles on Being ‘Posthuman’

N. Katherine Hayles is among the more interesting researchers of cyberculture and the ways in which we are transformed as human beings in our new relationship with computer technologies. Hayles important 1999 book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics begins with this passage:

You are alone in the room, except for two computer terminals flickering in the dim light. You use the terminals to communicate with two entities in an- other room, whom you cannot see. Relying solely on their responses to your questions, you must decide which is the man, which the woman. Or, in another version of the famous “imitation game” proposed by Alan Turing in his classic 1950 paper “Computer Machinery and Intelligence,” you use the responses to decide which is the human, which the machine. One of the entities wants to help you guess correctly. His/her/its best strategy, Turing suggested, may be to answer your questions truthfully. The other entity wants to mislead you. He/she/it will try to reproduce through the words that appear on your terminal the characteristics of the other entity. Your job is to pose questions that can distinguish verbal performance from embodied reality. If you cannot tell the intelligent machine from the intelligent human, your failure proves, Turing argued, that machines can think.

Here, at the inaugural moment ofthe computer age, the erasure of embodiment is performed so that “intelligence” becomes a property of the formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human life-world. The Turing test was to set the agenda for artificial intelligence for the next three decades. In the push to achieve machines that can think, researchers performed again and again the erasure of embodiment at the heart of the Turing test. All that mattered was the formal generation and manipulation of informational patterns. Aiding this process was a definition of information, formalized by Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener, that conceptualized information as an entity distinct from the substrates carrying it. From this formulation, it was a small step to think of information as a kind of bodiless fluid that could flow between different substrates without loss of meaning or form. Writing nearly four decades after Turing, Hans Moravec proposed that human identity is essentially an informational pattern rather than an embodied enaction. The proposition can be demonstrated, he suggested, by downloading human consciousness into a computer, and he imagined a scenario designed to show that this was in principle possible. The Moravec test, if I may call it that, is the logical successor to the Turing test. Whereas the Turing test was designed to show that machines can perform the thinking previously considered to be an exclusive capacity of the human mind, the Moravec test was designed to show that machines can become the repository of human consciousness – that machines can, for all practical purposes, become human beings. You are the cyborg, and the cyborg is you.

Essentially, Hayles and other cybernetic theorists like her, argue that our new computer mediated relationships represent a fundamental transformation in the nature of humanity. We have uploaded parts of our memory and consciousness to computer servers and share important functions of intelligence outside our bodies. We rely on one another. Some call it a distributed consciousness, others a “Global Brain.” French philosopher and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin might have meant something like this when he proposed the noosphere.

Questions about artificial intelligence make us question what’s at the nature of intelligence to begin with, and whether or not our new symbiosis with computers, in fact, forces us to reconsider what we know as mind, self, and consciousness.

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About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University

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