As Elon Musk revealed Gertrude, the pig, fitted with his start-up Neuralink's implant this weekend, one can’t help but think that our brain might soon be next.
The call of the World Economic Forum earlier last month about the benefits and the risks of the Internet of Bodies is still resonating within, and one question arises: how far we are ready to go to connect to other realms? "It's kind of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires," Musk emphasized on his Neuralink webcast.
But is it really? Or are we slowly drifting into pure science fiction? The fact is that Elon Musk is designing what pop culture has imagined for decades, ever since the creation of the cybernetic theory by Norbert Wiener in 1949: a world where our body ceases to only exist physically and enters new digital dimensions. What does it say about our identity? The UNIL Professor and Director of the science fiction museum Maison d’Ailleurs, Marc Atallah, helps us walk the fine line between imagination and reality.
An old story. According to Marc Atallah, science fiction has questioned the relationship between the body and the machine ever since the appearance of the first representations of connected bodies in the 1940s on the covers of American Pulp magazines, or later on in works by Isaac Asimov.
When the “cybernetic organism”, the cyborg, emerged in 1960, it didn’t take long for pop culture to embrace the concept. “The six million dollar man” television series is just one expression of the so-called bionic man.
Although the trend was already popular, the real turning point arrived in 1984, when William Gibson published “The Neuromancer”.
The American-Canadian author described how humans can connect to a computer network through an interface, called the matrix. The novel is a highlight of the cyberpunk genre, and an inspiration still today. The 1999 science fiction film “The Matrix” is probably one of the most popular examples of Gibson’s heritage.
Is Elon Musk’s Neuralink really different from the physical log in to virtual cyberspace imagined in 1984? What does it say of science fiction? And what purpose does it serve?
What connected bodies reveal in science fiction. The theory of social anxiety and the implication of new technologies on our identities could of course explain how science fiction has become a way to exorcise our fears, Marc Atallah continues. But a more plausible theory would be to consider that science fiction represents what is already there, but in an exaggerated way.
“When Wiener founded Cybernetics in 1949, he was traumatized by the Second World War. He imagined a utopia of communication in which the body would not interfere, as human passions are responsible for violence. So if he could remove the body, a true society of communication could be restored. ”
But mostly, his intention was to prove that humans are machines like any other, only with a different degree of complexity. The body is hardware that processes information efficiently.
When William Gibson helps his antihero’s brain to go through the matrix, he uses the image not to describe a near future, but an actual reality.
“Gibson writes this novel after having observed two children playing on the Atari 2600. He realizes that the children are not in the real world anymore, without being completely gone into the world of the machine either. The game is an interface between two worlds.”
As if, there is something in this world that is not exactly what we need or what we like.
The body ceases to exist. Gibson reveals a very strong opposition between, on the one hand, this stinking, sweaty, carnal and violent real world, and, on the other, a bright, smooth, disembodied and completely hygienic dimension, generating a new form of dependence in escaping a life we cannot fully identify with. The novel might be fiction but in reality, things are quite the same, more than 40 years later.
“When we are in a place where we feel uncomfortable, our way to deal with this massive corporality is the smartphone. It's not that we are “in” the matrix, but our body is reduced to two thumbs, as everything else disappears.”
What does that say about us? Maybe that we are indeed living in this impulsive dirty world, where the body is overvalued and pressure to maintain a certain image of it is enormous, so that we need to escape and find our identity elsewhere. Or maybe we are already part of something else. That concept seems difficult to grasp, as it is not part of a conscious act.
But what would happen if we actually and consciously experienced the disappearance of the body?
Becoming Arielle F. This is precisely what the Geneva-based contemporary artist, Simon Senn, decided to test in his latest performance, Be Arielle F.
It all started by accident really. As an artist, he finds inspiration in what surrounds him and plays with different artefacts depending on the project.Virtual reality was just another experiment and he did not imagine how it would affect him.
He met Arielle online. Not the real person, her digital scanned replica.
For 12$, he bought this female body on a specialized website and decided to try her on with an immersive motion capture device he developed using a set of virtual reality equipment, designed for video games. With the headset on, he became another, a woman.
“It was something very pleasant and very intense. I felt lighter, like being a child again. I felt very strong emotions, just looking at this new virtual body and discovering myself as a woman, I was overwhelmed. Something like love at first sight. I almost feel even better in my body today, knowing that there are different possibilities.”
This transcendental experience inspired him to tell the story on stage.
An artificial partnership. Be Arielle F. is more than the story of Simon Senn’s virtual experience. It shows how virtual reality is not so much a separate space, which can be controlled like any other human production, but more of a presence. A presence that allows us to reevaluate and redefine our reality, bringing us closer to something universal, where sensitivity and technology unite.
“I experienced something very concrete from something virtual. So they are not two opposing universes, on the contrary, they intermingle and feed each other.”
And isn’t it what Elon Musk aims at with Neuralink and many of his other projects? To achieve a form of symbiosis with artificial intelligence?
There might not be a set answer, and many more questions do arise. But if science fiction and artistic creations are indeed a symbolic reading of our reality, integrating this digital connection in a constructive way might just bring us one step closer to our own narrative.