Ships, Brooms and the End of Humanity

By Andreas Haggman

frankenstein-bladerunner1At a recent conference held at Royal Holloway I was treated to a lecture by Professor Colin Williams titled ‘Fear, Flesh, Machines and Monsters: The Frankenstein Complex and the Human Response to Technology’. Notwithstanding Prof Williams’ rambunctious presentation style, the content of the talk provided numerous thought-provoking highlights. One in particular came towards the end of the lecture, with Prof. Williams musing as to whether increased adoption of bionic body parts and cyborg implants would eventually prompt us to redefine what it means to be human.

Here it felt appropriate to invoke the ancient philosophical thought experiment of Theseus’ ship, and indeed I did posit this argument to Prof. Williams, who, perhaps quite understandably, failed to provide a satisfactory answer to this most ancient of existential dilemmas.

According to the thought experiment, Theseus has a ship and as the wood of the ship rots away the planks are replaced by new ones until none of the original parts remain. The question over which the ancient philosophers were twain, was whether this was, in fact, still Theseus’ ship, or whether it was a new ship altogether. Over time, variations of the thought experiment have emerged, such as John Locke’s sock or Trigger’s broom from Only Fools and Horses [thanks to Pip Thornton for this reference]. Whatever the object concerned, the central question remains the same: does an object which has had all its constituent parts replaced remain the same object?

Extending this to the issue of bionic humans, it must be questioned whether a human whose body parts have been completely replaced by bionic substitutes, is still human. Complicating the matter further, a more interesting question is to ask when in the process the person stopped being human and became something else. How many body parts have to be replaced before we stop calling a person human? All? Half? One? That there are no clear-cut answers to such existential questions is evidenced by the fact we are still grappling with the same issues as the Greek philosophers of 4000 years ago.

To be clear, applying this question to humans is not new. Cells in the human body are continually replaced and at the end of one’s life none of the cells with which we were born remain. It can therefore be questioned whether the body is the same. However, where this process differs from bionic body parts is in conscious decision and action. The process of cell replacement is an involuntary natural phenomenon over which humans have no control and no conscious decisions are involved. This is unlike bionic body parts, which are voluntary and unnatural, requiring conscious decision and effort to achieve.

asimov-robotGiven that bionic body parts and cyborg implants are a reality, have we therefore already witnessed the end of humanity? The answer of course depends on how you define humanity, but any definition which limits humans to merely their corporeal parts seems to be overly restrictive. Bodies are merely the physical manifestation through which the actual essence of personhood is presented. Whether you call this a mind, or a soul, or something else is largely irrelevant, as is the location of this within the body. What is important is that this indispensible part of humanity has yet to be convincingly substituted by a mechanical replacement.

As such, at present humanity remains intact. However, with advances in artificial intelligence and neural network mapping, Prof. Williams’ assertions are perhaps more prescient than they are farfetched. The potential implications for cyber security, policy, and ethics deserve to be pondered now, before the problems become real and humanity stares at its own downfall.

Andreas Haggman is a PhD student in the Cybersecurity CDT at Royal Holloway. He completed his undergraduate and masters degrees in the War Studies department at King’s College London before joining the CDT in the autumn of 2014. Prior to and inbetween his degrees he spent time working in the video games industry, retail management and the defence sector. Andreas’s research interests lie in non-technical cyber security topics pertaining to military and government applications of cyber technologies, and organisational and policy responses to cyber security issues. He is also a new member of the editorial team at the RHUL Geopolitics & Security blog.


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