Archive for November, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Blue

Posted in Divine Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Courtesy of Dr. Pablo de Heras Ciechomski/Visualbiotech

A computer simulation of the upper layer of a rat brain neocortical column

OK, so perhaps this should have been the first post of this category, since it is arguably the top project at the intersection of cognitive science and artificial intelligence. Yes, by “Blue” I am referring to Henry Markam’s Blue Brain project, started back in 2005. What we encounter in the Blue Brain project is nothing less than a possibility of a simulated “consciousness” and other complexities of the brain (although only on the level of a rat’s at the moment, and at 1/10th of its speed), approached from the other side of computation, namely by creating individual neurons instead of the more common top-down approach in grammatical computing — the revolution of third wave cybernetics, as Katherine Hayles would have put it.

Even the strong AI skeptic John Searle in one of his lectures commented that [citation needed], even though the mind is not a software, and the brain is not a supercomputer, the computer may be constructed as such to simulate the brain. He denies by all means the grammatical approach to consciousness with his famous Chinese Room argument, but he never did deny semantic approaches, only stating that such approach is not yet possible. But with the Blue Brain — although this project leans towards cognitive science instead of AI — such an approach is, at least, on the horizon of possibility.

You can read more extensively about the Blue Brain and its progress here and here, but now let us continue on to our analysis. What do we have here with the Blue Brain is no less a science simulating the full complexity of a mind, right down (or, rather, up from) its neuron basis. How do we integrate this into our cognitive mapping? What we need to understand first and foremost is how this project requires an understanding that, 1) the mind comes from a whole, not of any one of its parts, and therefore, 2) non-localizable to any kernel whatsoever.

This, of course, is what Slavoj Žižek, in his The Parallax View, called “the unbearable lightness of being no one”. Are we not, today, with cognitive science, confronted with the fact, already acknowledged with Hume, that the subject does not exist? In today’s context, however deep we pry open the skull and dig the brain, we find nobody home, no kernel of the soul, no subject. This is the paradox of the 21st-century narrative of the subject.

What the Blue Brain project provides is no less than a common ground for us to think about silicon-based versus carbon-based life — whereas before, we see carbon-based life as evolving, as beings whose consciousness comes later, silicon-life were beings programmed through “consciousness” (grammatical understanding of the relations of objects, etc. — which is where I suspect the true “uncanny valley” lies). Artificial Life provided a change by introducing chaos and emergence into the foray, but did not necessarily look into complex nervous systems. If and when the Blue Brain project succeeds, what we will have is no less than a complete brain simulation of a species, a silicon-based brain, “comparable to the Human Genome Project,” as Markam put it on the link above.

While I remain an agnostic to the Moravecian idea of downloading minds into computers (and totally an atheist apropos the idea that the subject will remain the same), I do believe that the Blue Brain project and its completion will require us to rethink our subjectivity and humanity as a whole. Silicon-based and carbon-based life will have a fully similar grounding, and so many new spaces of cognitive science will open up, as well as new spaces of transhumanity and ubiquitous technology. All of us will have to confront not only the fact that there is nobody home, but also that home is temporary, shredding every last bit of our humanistic grounding — the unbearable lightness of being Blue.

If (and possibly when) the Brain is implemented into a body, then things will go much further. Thoughts? Feel free to comment away!

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Chinese Room and the Cogito

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Chinese Room

The Chinese Room

Cogito ergo sum is perhaps the most abused three-word phrase in our contemporary intellectual sphere, so much so that most of us no longer bothered to read further on the subject and what Descartes really meant. “I think therefore I am” has been recycled over and over by changing the verb into every other activity, from shopping to tweeting. All these has of course one underlying assumption, a false reading of the Cartesian subject as a substantial subject. Truth be told, the mind-body split did not come from Descartes at all — the idea has obviously been around since the pre-Socratic era (why else would we have the narratives of heaven and hell?). The true Cartesian revolution is in fact the opposite one: that of a total desubstantialized subject.

This does not mean, again, a subject desubstantialized of of a body and becoming a free-flowing mind, a (mis)reading found everywhere today in the intellectual sphere, and especially in the area of third-wave cybernetic research. Among the most fiercest proponents of this version of Descartes is none other than John Searle, the proponent of the famous Chinese Room argument. Unknowingly for Searle, however, the Chinese Room argument is, in fact, at one point, an ultimately Cartesian paradox.

What does the res cogitans, the thinking substance, mean, then, if not the common misreading of it as a declaration of a subject of pure thought? Here, it is crucial to look at what kind of thinking the cogito is first formulated under. The thinking that brought upon the cogito is none other than pure doubt — the doubting of reality and my existence within it. This doubt is irreducible, so much so that, in what may pass as a rather desperate move, the doubt itself becomes the only positive proof of the thing that I doubt — I exist only insofar as I doubt my existence. Rather than a substance of pure thought (“that can be downloaded into computers”, as Hans Moravec put it, etc…), the Cartesian subjectivity is a void of pure self-doubt.

(It is of course true that, in Descartes, there is ultimately a mind-body duality: the subject does not depend on the world, res extensa, to truly exist. This is, however, not because they are two separate substances, but because the former is a precondition of the latter; because the cogito is a prior void around which res extensa can only emerge as such.)

Does John Searle not reproduce exactly same motive in his Chinese Room argument, but instead of doubting the true existence of his reality, he doubts the cognition of computer programs? The famous Cartesian doubt, “What if God is a liar” is here replaced by Searle’s “What if I ultimately do not understand the symbols with which I communicate, but only know its perfect grammar?” Of course, the path they take in the end is different: If Descartes were a Searlean, he would have claimed that he cannot prove his own existence; if Searle were a Cartesian, he would have acknowledged that it would not be possible for one to know grammar without knowing semantics, for ultimately meaning is generated from structure, as the Structuralists already have it.

A great answer to the Chinese Room argument, and so far the best, I think, is the systems reply, claiming that it is the whole room instead of the person that understands, because cognition could not be localized to a single source. This would be the true Cartesian revolution, that cognition is separate from any particular subject, and the true Lacanian experience of the subject as barred. Searle rejected this argument by saying that if the entire room is located inside the brain, that would not make a subject understand any more than he does, despite his being able to communicate — which, of course, presupposes an ideal subject that “truly understands.”

Here, Daniel Dennett’s reply is worth noting: Dennett claims that if such non-thinking-but-nevertheless-communicating subjects exist, they would be the ones surviving natural selection, hence we would all be “zombies”. Does this not perfectly mimic the humanists’ fear of the post-struturalist alienation of the subject from language? Dennett, perhaps rather unfortunately, then goes on to say that the Chinese Room is impossible because we are not zombies — which, again, presupposes an ideal, non-alienated subject.

Distributed cognition is where the barred subject takes its place in contemporary cybernetics, and this is, contrary to popular belief, ultimately a Cartesian move that fully separates cognition from its local basis, as the separation of mind from its carbon basis. It turns out that Descartes was not only the first Lacanian, as Žižek put it, but also the first third-wave posthumanist. It is a sad fact, thus, that leaders in the field of cybernetics overlook this fact and, in both sides of the argument, tend to return to Aristotelian ideals, to illusions of wholeness.

Semen Cookbook and the Symptom of Political Correctness

Posted in Posthuman Perversion with tags , , , , on November 23, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

I guess I will continue this month to talk about the meaning of life qua posthuman, that spans already over several categories, posted here and here. What I am going to talk about this time may bring either a “WTF!?” laughter or a lost lunch, or perhaps an erection and appetite gain, depending on your taste. As for myself, I had a shock when I came across this news this afternoon:

Natural Harvest - A Collection of Semen-Based Recipes

If you ever feel like eating cum.

Yes, this picture is the front cover of a real cookbook, which you can buy here. Be sure to read the comments.

So, what are we to think of future food ingredients? Meat grown in labs on one hand and freshly ejaculated semen on the other? Of course, pardon the bad taste and a seriously disgusting joke for most of us. But I asked the question to point to a more serious question; the fact we should address is a much more fundamental one.

The activity of eating, of course, does not happen only at the biological level of need — it works as well on the Symbolic order; we only need to recall animal sacrifice rituals and eating taboos for proof. So, the main question we should ask would be: how is this event possible at all? What are our coordinates of the Symbolic today, in regards to our notion of the self and the meal, that enable this transformation? Of course, beside taste, there is all the defense that semen contains a lot of protein, etc. But the taboo, the disgust, of course, lie in the fact that semen is is a product of a human being. Is eating it not a form of cannibalism, then? Of course, I am here not talking about the sexual context since people do it all the time in sex. But the fact of someone making an entire cookbook out of it proves that semen-eating has taken on a totally different discourse.

How does this shift happen? I think it has a lot to do with our image of the human today. Are we not, practically, with all the information saturation in the media, becoming more and more a being of tolerance and multiplicity rather than a being of flesh? Is it so wrong to eat something we produce ourselves, when we do it already all the time in sex? Is there an objective negative answer to this in the coordinates of our expected ethical stance today? The radical transformation of the state of science and political correctness, our disintegrating coordinates of nature and culture, are all crystallized into a symptom of perversion: the semen cookbook.

There are a couple of curious things to take note of. First, in the book, the entire notion of semen is already radically desexualized, made into a positive fact rather than an embarrassing secret. The injunction behind this is the same as the one driving all the porn-positive and sex-positive arguments: the imperative to make more mainstream a previously deviant idea. The second is how, in the comments, people relate this phenomenon to the “crisis” and the “love for nature”. This book is all the politically correct ideas crystallized into one — what could be a better political correctness than letting a group of energy-saving, nature-loving, sex-positive minorities have their say in the wider world?

Thus, the cookbook is not simply a disgusting artifact, a deviance of culture, a perverted idea of a bunch of sick people. It is rather the opposite: the semen-based recipe cookbook is our politically correct, nature-confused culture at its most elementary.

NOTE: via Digg, the submitter says, “WHAT THE F**K!! THAT’S F**KING DISGUSTING!!” — I say, “Isn’t that what they said about anal sex several years back?”

The Cyborg’s Implosion of Visual Space

Posted in Divine Science with tags , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Scleral Shell, Prosthesis designed by Dr. Danz. Photo by Jonathan James

Scleral Shell, Prosthesis designed by Dr. Danz. Photo by Jonathan James

Recently San Francisco-based artist Tanya Vlach made several headlines with her Call for Engineers to develop her a prosthetic eye that would be able to take still photos and video, use 3X optical zoom, be Bluetooth enabled and hold space for a 4GB SD card. Just below the blog title she quotes Donna Haraway’s definition of the cyborg. Shortly after the news my blogger/designer friend Atherton Bartelby told me of a similar artist, Rob Spence of Eyeborg (graphic images, NOT for the squeamish). One thing is clear: both are obviously aware of their being cyborgs.

What is our relationship to spatiality and the visuals today? Jean Baudrillard has introduced us to the postmodern implosion of the signifier and the signified, where our semiotic sphere loses its grounding and spins around in confusion. But, I think, with the birth of the cyborg — itself a being born out of implosion — as well as surveillance technologies and the evolution of HCI, things get a bit more complex. Here, we are witnessing not only the Baudrillardian simulacra that confuses the signifier with the Thing-in-itself, but also the implosion of the trompe-l’œil with the object. The field of vision itself is objectivized

(This, of course, can only happen qua a posthuman subject, a subject of modular organs: in the past few years, the seeing subject has changed from a subject with eyes to a subject with a nervous system and a camera. It is no longer the eye that sees; it is the brain.)

What does it mean, today, to see? There is nothing natural about sight — the vantage point, the subjective point-of-view is not merely this illusion that locates the existence of the subject, but also at the same time that which radically cuts the subject from within — my gaze is effectively not fully my own. Is this not the reason, the primeval trauma behind all those fantasies of an out-of-body experience? (We can recall here the same formula by Lacan of the voice, and its equivalent ghostly experience of being possessed by a voice.)

It is worth recalling Bourdieu’s famous claim — although ultimately the reference to any “natural” state is a false one — that perspective drawings are not the natural way to see things, but the educated painter’s way to do so. Today, what we take as “natural” comprise of the zoom, the image and video capturing capabilities, the memory in the eye, and so on (suffice it to recall how advertisements of HDTV always feature natural objects). But if the perspective drawing was a way to draw, what we are now effectively dealing with is a way to see — we are now not manipulating how we represent reality, but reality itself, insofar as what we take as reality is nothing but our perception of it (post-structuralism, quantum physics, autopoietic cognitive science, etc.).

And a second point: does not the elevation of the gaze into a cyborg’s render perfectly the notion that our gaze is never our own? Once that trauma is revoked, once the fantasy is realized qua networks and data transfers, it is easy to imagine the paranoia such technology will cause: what if the visions I am seeing is not the way things really are, but are in fact footages and animation transmitted from somewhere else? More ideals, more paranoia. Eyehacking, anyone?

Cultured Meat and Totem Culture

Posted in Divine Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
In Vitro Meat (c) DC Spensley/H+ Magazine

In Vitro Meat (c) DC Spensley/H+ Magazine

Let us now go on to discuss further on the issue on how to deal with life (in accordance to this Cat Bag post). It is interesting today to see the debate surrounding cultured meat: meat grown in labs, without any animal being sacrificed. The idea is of course to care more for the animals (which is why PETA would give $1 million to anyone who first come up with a successful way to cultivate the meat), less energy consumption and less pollution by decreasing the number of butcher houses… Basically following the fashionable standard of environmentalist use of science.

It is incredibly hard to miss the Žižekian logic of decaffeinated culture at work here: is not the meat without sacrifice the example of decaffeinated consumption par excellence? But now let us take a moment and look further into the response of society surrounding this very topic: do a quick search for “cultured meat” on the internet, and you will see that most people reject the idea. Why is this? Are we not supposed to celebrate the progressive development of this decaf ideology with joy? In the case of cultured meat, however, even the famed transhumanist RU Sirius commented, “Yuck!”

The answer is not that hard to find: people still find it strange and uncanny to eat meat that was not taken from a live animal. Why? Here we can clearly see the symbolic ideological dimension of a purely biological everyday act of eating, one that Freud has explicated in his Totem and Taboo. In eating meat, are we not also eating the other species’ death? The death of the sacrificed animal is more of a symbolic necessity than an unavoidable fact. This is the reason we have all those kinds of sacrifice rituals and forbidden meals.

What is very interesting, of course, is how this primitive logic of totemic rituals still turn out to play a large role in an age where we are supposed to no longer believe anything anymore. What is the state of affairs of totem and interspecies relations in the world today? Clearly, we are stuck between two conditions: novel technologies enable us to have capacities of which only God himself would be able to do just a little over a hundred years ago — the “divinity of science” that goes with the rapid advancements of quantum physics, bioengineering, and neuroscience — and ancient symbolic necessities, the totem and taboos of our primitive ancestors.

In the end, perhaps Paul Virilio was right: we are caught between the contradicting dromologies: the ecstatic high speed of cyberspace and the slowness of human minds. Or perhaps, Hayles and Haraway was right, that this is not a deadlock after all, and what we need is a new formulation of subjectivity itself. Or, perhaps, all of them are correct in a way, and we need to see — to put it in Kierkegaard’s terms — the primitive totem-and-taboo subject as this new posthuman subjectivity in-becoming instead of its enemy.

What about you? Would you eat meat grown in labs? More ideologies at work you find? Feel free to comment away!

Cat Bags and Cyborg Significant Others

Posted in Companion Species with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

The Cat Bag

What is life today? Obviously I am not talking about another kind of New Age mysticism here, but nonetheless I think this question is crucial if we are to fully grasp the notion of significant otherness in interspecies relations. If Haraway talked about cyborgs and companion species, today, with ambient intelligence and wearable computing on one hand and increasing atomization of society in the other, we are entering more and more into a realm of cyborg companion trans-species — the land of ambient life in the glorious age of “hybrid wearables”.

I was intrigued by these photos the “Cat Bag”, pictured above. What is so interesting is that how this bag will breathe, purr, light up its eyes, radiate warmth, and even beat its heart. If the OncoMouse, the first species with a trademark register, is the prime example of the convergence of biotechnology, scientific research, and capitalist production, what is the Cat Bag if not the example par excellence of the convergence between the romantic realm of significant otherness and the realm of stupid, elementary practical usage?

How is this possible? What do we see in the potentials of technology today? From Mediamatic‘s review of the Hybrid Wearables Workshop, we can read:

I do not need my laptop to be merged with my overcoat. I do not want to receive email on a tiny screen mounted on my eyeglasses. I do not have enough attention to distribute to real and virtual life at once. Nevertheless, applications like these are some of the first which come to mind when one mentions wearable computing.

Instead, what if your shirt would hug you every now at then? What if your bag would warn you about forgetting your keys? What if your socks explained how to give a fantastic foot massage?

If you are familiar at all with Lacanian psychoanalysis, one thing is clear: not only that technology is driven to be made as a means to gain the object little a from other human subjects, but technology itself is seen as possessing the object little a, as the treasure box (or hard disk?) in which the agalma is hidden  — a posthuman cultural construct at its most elementary.

Animal domestication was among one of the crucial steps in the development of modern man, in par with tool use itself. The relationship between the human and the nonhuman has continued, of course, to be a crucial relationship. And it is evolving with technology, as we can see. In psychoanalysis, already with Freud, we have theories of the totem, animal spirits, and so on. But what about the evolution of the discourse of species itself? Here, I think, the cyborg subject is not so well theorized.

Orgasms Without Organs

Posted in Posthuman Perversion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Exiting the Orgasmatron from the 1973 movie Sleeper

Exiting the Orgasmatron (from Sleeper)

Today we are more and more familiar with the idea that someday we will have fully efficient and working orgasm pills and buttons. The common idea is that by knowing how long the pill’s effect would take to kick in, we can predict our actions before hand, make it synchronous with our activities, we will not have to fake it, etc. And of course there is the idea of the orgasmatron with which we can reach orgasm any time we want — by electronically stimulating parts of the lower spinal column, etc. — the idea being that we can easily get out from our daily boredom and use it in the office while nobody’s looking, and so on. Pleasure has never been entirely mechanized.

Is it just another mode of masturbation, simply another step after we have all those increasingly intelligent fucking machines and interactive teledildonics? There is a crucial difference we must not miss: in masturbation, fucking machines, and teledildonics, our focus is still very much the traditional notion of sex as the “carnal” pleasure. We need sensual touches. One may even say that the entire point of this kind of “roboeroticism” is not orgasm in itself, but the entire fantastic experience with all the thrills of fucking with machine others.

In the instant orgasm technologies, the perception is rather different. Sex is no longer taken as the carnal-sensual pleasure, but reduced to merely this “objective” electro-chemical neurophysiological process. Is it not the same drive that brought us the human genome project? The pervasive idea is that we can always map everything into informational patterns. Is not the fully mapped human genome of myself, one that successfully maps my every little trait, my “objective” Self without Body nor Organs? It is not the Freudian organs, for, strictly speaking, it is not our body but its data. And, obviously, it in itself lacks the Deleuzian Body, for those data in the computer are real, objective, self-contained. But objectively, it is nonetheless my self, in so far as I am conceived to be an informational biological data pattern for the android Other — the self as data-organs.

This (mis)conception of the self as fully integratable in the Symbolic with current posthuman technologies has given rise to a new discourse of sexuality — a fetishistic sexual kernel based on objective, exact scientific mappings and definitions of pleasure itself.

The Lacanian definition of sex is obviously its exact opposite — it is not a discursive construct (as Foucault would put it), but it is the domain where discursive constructs fail, and as such, gives rise to the metonymic chain of desire. Is data-organs a better discourse for sexuality? The posthuman construct of orgasm without organs, orgasm as a series of mappable electro-chemical informational patterns, orgasm in the domain of data-organs, may be merely a new fetishistic obsession of our posthuman sexuality. But with all its new mode of signification and experience, let us not underestimate its potentials to proliferate new desires of the cyborg subject.

And let us not forget its obscene unfortunate superegotistical consequences — it is now effortless, so there is no longer any reason for you not to enjoy it!