The other night, I was watching Ghost in the Shell again with my dog Sonic (wifey was there too, but she had her nose buried in her Kindle). If you haven’t seen Ghost in the Shell, you should – it is not just an amazing animated film, it’s an amazing film. Here’s the best trailer I could find on YouTube (created by a fan, no less).
The basic plot of Ghost in the Shell revolves around an elite cyborg unit’s attempt to apprehend a master hacker known as the Puppet Master – who can not only hack into computers, but into your brain too. During the case, the cyborg agents starts to question their own humanity, and the possibility of not only artificial intelligence, but the possibility of a life form created in cyberspace.
Themes like this have been a long favorite of science fiction films for like, forever. Movies like Blade Runner, Bicentennial Man, AI, and even I, Robot pose the question that if we develop intelligent robots that think and look like humans, how then can people distinguish themselves from these synthetics? What does it mean to be human?
It’s one of those philosophical questions that’s fun to discuss and debate with geeky friends, and it’s one of those debates that I can easily leave unanswered because I don’t really need to figure it out since I’m not a computer scientist or anything.
But when the movie ended, Sonic looked at me and asked: “Pops, I know I’m a dog because I have two ears and a nose,” (my dog thinks the defining features of a dog is to have two ears and a nose, because all dogs have two ears and a nose), “but what if I had my brain put into a human’s body? Would I be a human then? What do you have that makes you a human?”
Now that question just floored me, because I was unprepared for a question like that from Sonic. I didn’t even think he was paying attention during the movie, because he looked like he was sleeping most of the time.
Sonic then went on and cited Squarepusher’s Come on my Selector music video as a case when a dog and human switched brains. Using one of my favorite music videos to stump me… What a smart-ass!
I avoided the question by reminding him that he’d still need to reach level 80 first (we convinced him once that his uncle Dave used to be a sheepdog before he reached level 80 and became human), but in my head I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
If you switched a dog and a human’s brains, who would then be the dog and who would be the human? Is their physical body the defining factor, or is it their intelligence? And if it’s their intelligence, then can you really distinguish between a dog and a human’s thought process?
Yes, dogs and humans think differently. But I daresay that most humans think pretty differently from each other too. I’m sure my thought processes are in no way similar to Einstein’s or Will Wright’s (creator of SimCity and The Sims). So why should it make a difference then if a dog and a human think differently?
Some might argue that humans have bigger brains and are therefore more intelligent than dogs – thus you can’t just put a dog’s brain into a human body and define him as being human. However, I know for a fact that my dog (who isn’t even the smartest dog in the world) is more intelligent than some humans I know. He’s probably even got a more comprehensive set of morals and acts more humane than a lot of humans.
But even so, the argument for a being’s brain and intelligence as the defining factor of their identity kinda gets hazy when it’s flipped around. If you put a human brain in a dog’s body, is this person now a dog or a human? I mean, if such a switch was made, I really doubt any current government would grant this dog-with-a-human-brain the same rights as it would other humans.
So what makes a human human? What makes a dog a dog? If you have some answers, please do share them so that I’ll have something to say to Sonic if he brings up the subject again.
By the way, I was listening to a recording of the Ghost in the Shell soundtrack being performed live while writing this post. Check it out; it’s insanely profound.