Insight: Transhumanists believe in the bionic body beautiful

Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters. Photograph: Suki DhandaAna Matronic of the Scissor Sisters. Photograph: Suki Dhanda
Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters. Photograph: Suki Dhanda
‘No of course there shouldn’t really be a religion based on The Bionic Woman – that would require you to watch the show and it is cheesy and definitely for kids,” laughs Ana Matronic, pop diva and Jaime Sommers obsessive.

We are having this conversation because, in her teens, she turned her fictional hero into a quasi deity – “the combination of the forces of science and nature” – and placed her at the centre of a belief system called Bionic Love. While she may now mock her fanzine flights of fancy, she still has faith in technology to transform humanity.

Matronic has been captivated by robots and cyborgs since C-3PO squeaked into her life at the age of three. Her right arm is a declaration of love – a half-sleeve tattoo which began as a mishmash of cogs and springs, à la Sommers, but now incorporates other favourites such as R2-D2 and Maria, the female robot from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.

Matronic, who was originally called Ana Lynch, has always been attracted to the blurring of boundaries. This is the woman who was once the only female drag queen in San Francisco’s The Trannnyshack. That was before she became lead singer of the self-consciously flamboyant Scissor Sisters: a band that revelled in its own campness.

A 28-year-old tetraplegic man known only as Thibault controls an exoskeleton with brain signals. Picture: Clinatec/Juliette TreilletA 28-year-old tetraplegic man known only as Thibault controls an exoskeleton with brain signals. Picture: Clinatec/Juliette Treillet
A 28-year-old tetraplegic man known only as Thibault controls an exoskeleton with brain signals. Picture: Clinatec/Juliette Treillet

Today, she has lost none of that flamboyance; she still hosts the BBC Radio 2 programme Dance Devotion. But, an academic at heart, she also tours the country evangelising about transhumanism – the merging of human and machine – as well as warning of the dangers.

Later this month, she will be appearing at an event in the Dundee University Festival of the Future, along with Graeme Gerard Halliday, aka Hallidonto, a Scottish-born, London-based artist, who creates images of cyborgs, and Kadine James, Creative Tech Lead with Hobs 3D, a company that specialises in 3D printing.

“I’m really interested in all aspects of technology, from the three-minute pop song to AI [Artificial Intelligence] and advances in medical treatment,” says Matronic.

“I am interested in how things work and how they affect humanity. Technology holds so much promise, but it moves faster than governments. That’s a dangerous thing and something we ought to talk about.”

The Dundee University event is timely. Not long ago, cyborgs were of mostly hypothetical interest, explored in science and speculative fiction, but not generally regarded as a contemporary reality impacting on everyday behaviour.

In the past year or so, however, transhumanism appears to have entered the mainstream; every day seems to bring a news story that could have come straight from Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror; a story that challenges our preconceptions about what it means to be human.

Some of the technology we are seeing changes us physically. Blade prostheses that allow amputee athletes to run as fast as able-bodied ones for example, and power-suits that strengthen the muscles of elderly people, mean cyborgs are already in our midst.

Just last week, we learned a Frenchman paralysed in a nightclub accident had walked again thanks to a mind-controlled exo-skeleton suit. Recording devices implanted either side of his head between the skin and the brain read brainwaves and send them to a nearby computer, where they are converted into instructions for controlling the exo-skeleton.

Technology is developing so rapidly that both scientists and philosophers are pondering the possibility that we may eventually be able to transform ourselves into beings with abilities so great as to merit the label “post-human”.

The extent to which the concept of transhumanism (if not the word itself) has entered the public consciousness could be seen in the recent Russell T Davies drama Years And Years in which one of the main characters, Bethany, wants to become part-machine.

She has mobile phone implants in her hands, camera implants in her eyes and brain implants that allow her to make a mental connection with the internet. Set just a few years hence, and building on existing technology, the interesting thing about the series is not how futuristic it seems, but how feasible. Even when, towards the end, her aunt Edith uploads her consciousness to the cloud so she can continue to exist after death, it does not feel too far-fetched.

“Martine Rothblatt, the founder of SiriusXM Satellite Radio, a super-fascinating person – No 1 on my fantasy dinner party list – is already developing the technology to create a mind file,” says Matronic. “The idea is you gather as much information on yourself as you can so that when you die your mind-file can be downloaded into a phone or into a robot and you – or rather a facsimile of you – can live on for your family. There are also people working on substrate independent minds – brains that don’t need a body to function. And people who are trying to extend life or eradicate death.

“But if death becomes an option then the fairy tale of unlimited economic growth becomes even more of a fairy tale. And that’s before we start thinking about storage. If you are a digital person, where do you live? And if the storage facility is so big it can store digital people then the computational power of that facility is not a ‘what’ but a ‘who’. The whole thing is a crazy, crazy rabbit hole I love to jump down.”

The first robot

Matronic’s right; it is a rabbit hole, and the further you go down it the more you lose yourself in an ethical maze.

At its best, technology has the power to tap into human potential; to make us the best we can be. When Makoto Nishimura created Japan’s first robot, Gakutensoku (the name means “learning from natural law”), he was conceived as an ideal.

At an exhibition to mark Emperor Hirohito’s ascension to the throne in 1926 – the year before Metropolis was released – spectators were awe-struck as the God-like bronze figure appeared before them clutching a mace and arrow – and smiled beatifically. Nishimura believed robots were a continuum of humanity – a natural evolution. “If humans are the children of nature, then robots are the grandchildren of nature,” he said.

Yet, ever since the industrial revolution, western society has tended to have an adversarial attitude towards machines, viewing them as sleekit creatures who will steal our jobs or turn against us, like Frankenstein’s monster. In literature too, we are accustomed to the idea of scientific progress producing dystopias such as Airstrip One in 1984 or the boarding school for clones in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Overemphasising the downsides of technological advance may be discriminatory, says Matronic. “When we have conversations about the evils of technology, we are being ablist. If you say, ‘social media is bad’, I will show you someone with locked-in syndrome or crippling social anxiety for whom it has opened up the possibility of friendship.

“Technology could also eradicate paralysis; there would be no more quadriplegics. Also, at present we only use 10 per cent of our brains. If we have machines that can help us explore more of that, then it’s amazing.”

Even so, neither Matronic nor Hallidonto is naive. They understand the potential pitfalls of transhumanism in a capitalist society where efficiency and profits are the most powerful drivers.

Technology initially developed for positive purposes may be subverted for negative ones, while the push to create a super-race of better, fitter, more cognitively capable humans veers perilously close to eugenics.

And then there is the question of marginalisation. We are already living in a world where those who do not own a smartphone are disadvantaged. How much greater will that socio-economic inequality become once it is possible to pay for superior physical strength and brain power?

Professor Kevin Warwick, the world’s leading expert in cybernetics, has been called the first cyborg. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, he experimented with his own body. First, he had an RIFD transmitter implanted under his skin which allowed him to control doors, lights, heaters and other devices. Then he had a BrainGate electrode array fitted which allowed him to control a robotic arm on the other side of the Atlantic – a feat that conjures up the image of Thing in the Addams Family. Finally, he linked his nervous system electrically to his wife’s in such a way that every time she closed her hand, his brain received a pulse. Was that not freaky? “It was very intimate,” he says. “You are getting signals from someone else’s body – and nobody else knows.”

“The link cannot yet be made brain to brain, but when it can, it will be the basis of thought communication: telepathy, but for real.”

Back in the 90s, Warwick faced criticism, “not technically, just people saying: ‘You’re a buffoon’, because they didn’t understand what I was doing.” In the end, of course, the joke was on them.

Yet today, some people are still dubious, not about the science, but about the morality. The ethical dilemmas sparked by some of these developments are huge. For example, if you can control an arm miles from where you are, then presumably you can use it to commit crimes. Meanwhile the linking up of brains – if achieved – would be a useful way to communicate with someone who couldn’t speak but, in the wrong hands, it could be used for coercive control.

Warwick accepts all this, but seems unperturbed. “As a scientist, you are aware of things potentially going in a negative way, but you hope society will look at applications and say: ‘Yes, this one is great – it will help people’ and ‘No, we don’t think this one should be allowed’.”

Asked if it would be ethical to amputate a normal human leg in order to replace it with blades that allowed an athlete to run faster, he says yes.

“I can’t see a problem. We have to look to the future. At the moment, we have a body. The body does things OK and the brain controls it and it’s all a pretty limited package. But we have the possibility of redefining what our body and our brains can do. Why should anyone lag behind with ordinary human body parts when they could have something that’s much better?”

When I suggest this will exacerbate the disenfranchisement of the most vulnerable, he implies a degree of inequality is a social inevitability and points out that wealthy people can already pay for physical enhancements through cosmetic surgery.

Not everyone is this sanguine. Hallidonto is as passionate about robots as Matronic. Growing up in the 80s, the first cyborg he encountered was the one in The Terminator. “I remember sitting on the sofa with my dad at three years old and being completely traumatised by it,” he says. “Later, I had Darth Vader toys and I would pretend I was wearing a robotic suit. I would feel quite powerful.”

When he was 12, Hallidonto suffered a collapsed lung. He was put in a machine and experienced visceral, morphine-induced dreams about babies with wires coming out of their eyes. Then when he was 25, he had a brain injury on a holiday in Germany and it changed how he saw the world.

A graduate of Duncan of Jordanstone College in Dundee, his work has always featured robots. At the launch of his exhibition, Cyborg Cadavers, in London last week, he explored some of the pitfalls. “I spoke about the Anthropocene and the Promethean allegory and pointed out that if we don’t watch what we are doing we may end up, not with the body we desire, but with the body that is required,” he says.

With technology developing so rapidly, Matronic believes there is an urgent need for tech companies and governments to talk about ethics before it is too late.

“Most of the negative stories about robots/cyborgs, from Frankenstein on, involve someone with a God complex thinking they can do what the Creator does. Those stories are a warning against hubris.

“So we definitely need to have conversations about morality and every tech company should have its own ethicist. They should be saying things like: “Dear Elon Musk – loving the SpaceX stuff, but do we really need a flamethrower?”

Matronic says some of her worst fears, technologically speaking, are already being realised with Facebook’s lack of transparency and people’s identities and data being turned into a commodity.

“I am really concerned about autonomous weapons too,” she says. “Mines are horrible enough, but guns that can walk and speak? That is a terrifying prospect. I don’t think they should be allowed to exist.

“The potential for technology to reinforce inequality will have to be addressed too because otherwise only some people will lag behind. It will be: ‘Oh my God – did you get the brain update?’ ‘No, I am still working with version 2.4.’ ‘Well, version 3 just came out and it’s amazing’.”

Chair of the Dundee University event, Karen Petrie, associate dean for learning and teaching in science and engineering, is developing educational software that can adapt to the learning speed of individual students.

Her biggest fear is the one feminist activist Caroline Criado Perez touches on in her book Invisible Women: that as computers take over more and more tasks, they will replicate existing biases.

“Most AIs are built on machine learning,” she says. “That means they take a large quantity of data, mine that data and learn behaviour. Unfortunately, if there’s any bias in that data, even if it is implicit bias, then the machine will learn it. A good example of this is a big tech firm that was trying to use a machine learning algorithm to scan CVs and work out who they should or shouldn’t employ.

“However, until now this tech firm has employed 95 per cent men, so when this algorithm was used it pretty much screened out all the women.”

Body hacktivism

For all the potential problems, the notion that technology could transform us – aesthetically, cognitively, spiritually – cannot fail to excite the imagination. The myriad possibilities it throws up are proving a rich source of inspiration for both artists and philosophers.

Indeed they have engendered a new art form: body hacktivism. Tight restrictions on the kinds of surgery that can be done on humans has led to a school of DIY body modification artists, who carry out “work” on themselves or others. There is Neil Harbisson, who sees the world in black and white, but wears an antennae that translates the frequency of colours into sounds; Tim Cannon, who had magnets implanted in his fingers; Lukas Zpira, author of the body hacktivism manifesto, who offers tongue splitting, implants, and subincision (the splitting of the penis); and Steve Haworth, who specialises in subdermal and transdermal implants, such as the “Metal Mohawk” – a row of spikes inserted into the head to replicate a punk haircut.

Despite her fixation with cyborgs, Matronic is a late adopter of new technology. “I am last to everything – I never even have the latest smartphone.” But she believes the future will be more fluid. Others have connected this fluidity to transgenderism; after all, if you can change the human body at will, then sex and gender become less important. And – if your consciousness can exist without corporeal form – then, arguably, they cease to matter at all.

“If you see yourself as a religious person and you believe in the soul, then, when your soul leaves, is it male or female?” says Matronic.

“You have just your body – you can be anything. Gender really is a construct – something that is mandated by society. Different societies have different expressions of gender and different codes. I think as we expand as humans, we understand there are different ways of being and definitions loosen, so we are going to have new words and new definitions and new genders.

“Everything will be new, new, new. It might be scary for some people – and difficult conversations will have to be had – but I believe that us humans learn to ‘human’ better as we evolve – and I look to the future with hope.” 

• How Robots Are Shaping the World We Live In, 6.30pm, October 19, Juniper Auditorium, V&A, Dundee