Distraction Free Reading

Ghosts in the Machine: On losing control to the technoscape

“There have always been ghosts in the machine. Random segments of code that have grouped together to form un-expected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we may call the soul. Why is it, when some robots are left in darkness they will seek out the light? Why is it that when robots are grouped in an empty space they will stand together, rather than alone?”

For now, sentient robotics do not exist. But don’t let that undermine the relevance of Dr. Alfred Lanning’s speech in the 2004 science fiction movie I, Robot, or diminish its potential significance for the anthropology of technology. As I begin a new field research project with Spaceport America, studying the future of human space exploration, I find myself re-considering human interactions with technology and technoscapes: not only in the sense of how we interact with the inanimate, but, more importantly, how we leave behind pieces of ourselves in the inanimate. Ghosts in the machine. Extensions of ourselves. How does our position in evolving technoscapes relate to our anthropomorphism of inanimate objects? Here, I draw on science fiction as I analyze the break between human-essence-in-machine and human-machine, specifically in relation the anthropomorphism of the Curiosity rover. I argue that it is no longer sufficient to reflect on the benign anthropomorphizing of technology. Our understanding of the human in the machine – especially in the context of space technologies – must be taken one step further.

My own research has shown me that extraterrestrial and technological interactions that involve high levels of speculation and imagination. I draw here on science fiction in part because it only makes sense to formulate this argument using an equally speculative and imaginative lens. Although, of course, fictitious, I think that science fiction provides some of the best insights into field sites that we as anthropologists may never see first-hand. Field sites that rovers, robots, or other technological devices may visit in place of us.

Consider Dr. Lanning’s worries about “ghosts in the machine” in relation to the beloved and already anthropomorphized Curiosity rover. Florence Tan, a leading figure on the Curiosity team, said that August 5, 2012 was the day that Curiosity was “born on Mars.” The Rover not only updates its very own twitter almost daily, but also uses words that insinuate that it is self-aware, such as “I” and “Me.” Of course, I’m not the first to discuss the popular anthropomorphism of Mars rovers. Sociologist Janet Vertesi has written an eloquent book on the representational work and associated embodied practices through which science and engineering teams make decisions about how and where to move their robots. She noted that just as Curiosity refers to itself in the first person, scientists working with and controlling the rover utilize group pronouns such as “we” and “us” when referring to interactions with Curiosity. Vertesi argues that this engagement with the Rover involves not only learning to see like a member of the Rover team in the context of a particular social organization, but also points to an advanced intimacy between robots and humans.

[Image removed by source.] Still from I, Robot (2004).

Her mention of the adulation that scientists had for Curiosity pushed me to reexamine the rover’s ontological position in light of Dr. Alfred Lanning’s speech. Perhaps his use of the word “ghost” should be taken more literally. Curiosity is, after all, a fully realized robotic human proxy. It was even programmed with the ability to sing a very lonely “Happy Birthday” to itself through the surface analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. I think that this idea of the rover as an “extension” of or “proxy” for humanity can be taken one step further. These rovers are not just prosthetic extensions of human lifeforms; they are inhabiting Mars in their own right, through a life we’ve given them to embody. A life that is a leftover from our interactions with them. Dr. Alfred Lanning’s “ghosts” in the machine are actual residues of human thought and have human essence just as “ghosts” do in the tales of Edgar Allen Poe. They are the pieces of our humanity that we not only leave behind, but impress upon technology that we interact with.

Lanning’s speech that I quote at the beginning of this essay doesn’t stop there. It continues by asking, “Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become a search for truth? When does a personality simulation, become the bitter mote of a soul?” We aren’t just talking about anthropomorphism, here. If that were the case, my Volkswagen Beetle, whom I lovingly named Adelaide, could be the focal point of this argument. However, I am also not arguing for or against the existence of the human soul. Rather, I am suggesting that we ought consider that certain technologies, in our scientifically-evolving world, inherit a form of independent humanity through their creators and owners. Call it what you may; “bitter motes of a soul” or “ghosts in the machine”, but I believe we take these interactions with inanimate objects a step further than anthropomorphism.

But  How does this occur? I believe that our anthropomorphism of technologies such as the Mars rover is a reflection not only of deeper connections with technology, such as the Curiosity rover or cellular devices, but also newly forming human fears. Fears revolving around loss of control in an overwhelming, expanding, technoscape. The sort of technoscape I speak of is one that is omnipresent in the anthropology of human space exploration. The lack of nature within extraterrestrial spheres of habitation, such as the International Space Station, Space Shuttles, or multi-planetary habitats of the future, affirms an all-pervading technoscape. Astronauts or future colonizers following in Curiosity’s footsteps are faced, and will continue to be faced, with the undeniable fact that they are reliant on the technoscape that surrounds themfor the sake of their survival. The machine is no longer a guest in our Earthling territory; instead, it plays host to us in a hostile enviornment for which only machines are “naturally” suited. And on top of that, we are but parasites to it; ultimately unnecessary in that space and replaceable by other machines (or, at least, mostly). In simpler terms, in space we need the technologies that surround us, we rely on them, and on Earth we don’t. In fear of lack of control we anthropomorphize the objects that surround us, but through the necessity of this anthropomorphizing we anthropomorphize them.

Perhaps some of the strongest evidence for this argument is not the life of inanimate objects, but their death. Curiosity isn’t the only rover that’s gotten attention over the years, nor the first to land on Mars. Vertesi emphasized that rover death was a constant concern throughout her fieldwork with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Scientist described how rovers such as Spirit and Opportunity had an expected life span of three years — coincidentally, the same number of years that Replicants live in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Both rovers outlasted their death by over 2000 Martian days, which is an accomplishment in itself. Spirit was publicly announced dead in 2011. Following “her” death, numerous obituaries appeared across the internet, with headlines such as “Opportunity heads for Spirit Point to honor dead Martian sister; Scientists tribute.” China dealt with similar mourning over the “Jade Rabbit” rover, which was pronounced ‘dead’ after its 31-month-long mission.

But, if a rover can die, then that would imply that it can live.

And more importantly it can be resurrected.

This concept that has played a prominent role in shaping religious history as well as science fiction. In Andy Weir’s 2014 novel The Martian, the protagonist Mark Watney resurrects the Mars Pathfinder rover 1997, utilizing it to make contact with NASA from Mars. But, this literal example of resurrection isn’t necessarily the answer to the aforementioned question. To ask how an object retains life is to ask what life is. A question which I restated at the beginning of this blog post; Where is the break between human-essence-in-machine and human-machine? If an amputee removes his prosthetic arm, does it cease to be an arm? Is Curiosity a human substitute, or one of the first Martians? More importantly, as scientists, as anthropologists, is it still possible to leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures? This is a question which I will not attempt to answer or explain any further. Instead I hope that through deeper understanding of the partnership of science fiction and anthropology, humanity will anthropomorphize technology not out of fear of displacement in new technoscapes but in effort to adapt into them.

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