Living in the 21st century, we are surrounded by ever changing technology. Technological advancement is our generation’s constant. We have built rockets and self-driven cars, we have built monstrous weapons and computers only imaginable in science-fiction films, at least till before someone came along and plucked it out of reel life. But of course, we are never satisfied. Give me a hover-board, and I’ll wonder when the hover-bike will be developed. The answer? 2017.
As soon as someone sets out to ask if it is possible, someone else has already begun building it. We are so obsessed with whether we could, no one even stops to ask whether we should. Building on this idea, Dutch animator and film director, Floris Kaayk set out to create a project that might just coerce some questions out of those always looking for just the answer.
The Oscar Project is a fictional account of a genius biologist, Cornelis Vlasman who, dissatisfied by the workings of the human body set out to create a better one. Told in the form of realistic looking short documentaries, the online art project details the conception, development and creation of OSCAR, a modular human-like organism that was created entirely from human cells.
According to the fictional team, the human body is a vastly outdated system. It is comprised of parts closely interlinked which make it incredibly difficult to repair faulty organs. To transplant just an organ, surgeons must keep track of all of the inter-related parts. A surgery on your knee can theoretically stop your heart. But what if we, could improve upon the human form? What then?
“In a closed system the parts are designed in such a way that they can only function in one specific configuration, which makes repairs and adaptations very complex. An example of such a closed system is the first Apple Macintosh from 1988.”
Dr. Vlasman’s idea was to design a body such that it could be linked together via modules. Modules are completely separated parts that when linked to other modules can build up a working unit. Think of a desktop computer. If your hard disc crashes, you can just replace the disc and get a new one. Or if you want to upgrade the monitor, you can do that, no problem. Just plug in a new monitor. Oscar works in a similar concept.
Are you intrigued? Or scared? Perhaps you are already grasping at the ramifications of such a technology, if it were to actually exist. Now the benefits are obvious. We live in an age of medical marvel. We have already created artificial livers, hearts, lungs, pancreas for transplant. A recent study published in Nature Biology documented a breakthrough when scientists were able to use a 3D printer to replicate living body parts. If we can actually create these organs so that they would essentially “plug and play”, we could save millions of lives and countless amounts of money in surgical procedures.
Think about it. A bomb blew off half your hand and there is no medical center in sight? No problem. We have a spare one handy. A tree fell on your leg and you can’t move? Just unplug it and hop home. Retrieve it later. Imagine playing with a lego set, you build character, attach limbs, replace them when they don’t suit. We could essentially treat our own bodies as such. All good stuff right? So then why am I actually concerned?
Because that is not the only possible use, is it? Unless you have been living under a rock for the past decade, you know about the greatest technological race of our time – the race to build an AI. Artificial Intelligence is the future, a computer that can think for itself, better itself, that is exactly what we humans need. Yes, Hollywood has time and again thrown the “Evil computer takes over the world” trope at us, but that seems to have only increased the public fervour.
Applications like Cleverbot and Cortana have been around for years, and they weren’t even the first ones. A short lived AI twitterbot named Tay was shut down after its software encountered some obstacles, i.e., it learnt to spout racist and genocidal tweets. But these are all more or less harmless applications. The question of harm comes when we do actually develop a fully working consciousness that is capable of thought-processes far superior to our own. What then? Why should it be content to be submissive?
Stephen Hawking famously echoed this view. In a May column in response to Johhny Depp’s Transcendence, he said “[The AI Machine] would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.” Remember Ex Machina? You should.
To make matters even more disconcerting, Hawking’s quote is limited to a scenario where the AI is confined to machine (or at most to holographic projections). But if Oscar were a reality, then we would have essentially created an organic body to house this mind, a body that is easy to manage and can be repaired with ease, unlike ours. Not only does it have a superior intellect, it has physicality to match. And, moreover, by our own laws, it is sentient, organic, capable of reason, logic, emotions and hence a human. A hundred years from now when we have birthed a species better than our own, do any of us see the current social order surviving?
At the end of day, this scenario is nowhere close to reality. A functional AI is still years, if not decades off. The Oscar ‘technology’ is fictional, and it is doubtful if it would even see the light of the day. It was only meant to be a question, a question meant to ask more questions. But humanity, is a little like the hamster in a wheel. It cannot stop.
A bell once rung cannot be un-rung. Now the concept is here, I fear it is only a matter of time till someone asks, “Can we do it?” And to that person I say, the question is “Not can we, but should we do it?”