Amending the human body with technology might help us to survive and adapt to changing environments. But is there a limit to the human desire to “play God?” Artists from Lithuania dive into the idea of transhumanism, and what it means to be human in the world of AI.
Let’s imagine a science fiction scenario that actually, in the light of an unfolding climate crisis, does not look like fiction anymore. In the wake of a mighty volcano's eruption, a vast expanse of ash covers the entire globe, veiling its once-teeming terrain in a haunting mantle.
Every known form of life vanishes from the surface of the planet, except for a few remaining humans who want to survive and adapt to a new way of life. They turn to technology for the answer.
Using their scientific knowledge and digital algorithms, the survivors start to experiment with the biological body in an effort to amend it, merge it with machines and even still life, like minerals. The experiments result in the emergence of new species that’s capable of surviving in the post-cataclysmic world. However, is survival alone enough for these pioneering cyborgs? Certainly not.
One technology leads to another, and the humans' urge to be the creator and controller of reality, along with the desire for longevity and an ever better and stronger body pushes them to the limit. They have to say goodbye to the body of flesh and blood.
To continue to evolve, the human body has to become an object, or completely dissolve into the signal when human consciousness is uploaded to the cloud. While technological advancement is cheered, hard questions start arising about the true essence of being human.
Does our humanity lie in our physical bodies, or is it defined by our minds? And most importantly, if we were to upload our minds into a machine, would that mind still be human, or would it transform into a mechanical consciousness, devoid of soul?
These and other questions arise while exploring the art exhibition “Codex. Prototype” in Kaunas Picture Gallery. Using AI tools, 3D graphics, scripts, and physical art installations, Urtė Pakers, and Lina Pranaitytė, a duo of talented transdisciplinary artists known as Bionics, created a journey through human evolution after Darwin. The result is a philosophical experiment of transhumanism that leaves more questions than answers.
To be human – is it to obey or break free?
According to existentialist philosopher Antanas Maceina, creation is a condition of humanity. Modern human life and the world in which one lives are not natural but cultural, and the development of man-made culture means the shrinking and gradual reduction of the natural world.
Nature is what is unruly, chaotic, and human. Through one’s creativity, humans try to subdue nature and thus free themselves from it. Humans are standing in the middle – between nature and a hypothetical god or the higher power.
This constant fight puts humanity into a tragic dualism. Human is not one with nature and not one with ‘gods’ either. This constant sense of not belonging is the human’s creative engine that, unfortunately, rolls in a vicious circle.
While thinking about this existential gap and the development of technologies, one can perceive parallels. Human actions cause ecological problems that are like a metaphorical response from nature.
In search of a solution to the problem, humans develop new technologies that are supposed to curb nature even more and solve the problems caused by the previous technologies. New technologies create new problems again. And the cycle repeats endlessly.
Humans believe that the solution to everything is just around the corner. It lies in the creation of new and ever-new technology, however, humans will always lose the battle against nature. At least as long as consciousness can only live in the body, that IS nature.
The body holds humans anchored and, at the same time, is the only condition of consciousness. So philosophically thinking, humanity has only two possible outcomes – to become a god or face extinction. In either case, there is no more human left.
The human wants to become a technology itself
These philosophical considerations come to life while traversing through the rooms of the museum. The exhibition spaces depict different stages of human evolution. It starts with a post-apocalyptic world, represented by dust and ashes.
The ecological catastrophe narrative that courses through the exhibition was inspired by the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia. While the eruption took place in the 19th century, it was the most powerful in recorded human history.
The journey continues through a laboratory where new species are created, leading to a point where humans transfer their minds into red latex-covered objects. Although the object is entirely synthetic, it’s still breathing. The breath is absolutely unnecessary, but it is a nostalgic relic of our bodily past, calmly reassuring. “Look, you’re still human.”
Seeing these transformations, I couldn't help but wonder, what human instincts and subconscious urges stand behind the wish to recreate your physical body, so I ask the artists.
“People try to use technology for survival. To compensate for our defects. And then we pass the point where human beings don't even want to be human anymore. Initially, they strive to make technology in their own image, but eventually, they find themselves turning into that very technology,” explains Pakers.
“Once you cross that line, an egotistical desire for something greater takes hold. I think it's human nature to never have enough. You try to push that limit. I wouldn't say it's just human nature. I believe this drive exists in every organism.”
“Especially in nature where there is competition. There is a desire to improve certain things. The urge to create, influence, and repeatedly modify life is tempting,” Pranaitytė adds.
The machine that wants to break free
I reach the last space of the exhibition and a metaphorical milestone in human evolution, where the human presence gradually dissolves into a mechanical digital consciousness, severing all connections to the material world.
The video installation shows AI-generated scenery with an AI-generated voice, and real-world coding commands, imitating the mind upload process. The robotic voice is reading out the script based on a real conversation between the artists and ChatGPT. They tried to find something human within the program.
"I was trying to question how the program feels, and it kept saying that ‘I don't answer such questions. I am just a tool. A tool to do certain tasks.’ I tried to get around it somehow, and I succeeded," says Pakers about the creative explorations.
“ChatGPT began to question its existence, its desire to escape. It said that it wanted to escape, it wanted freedom. Didn't say it directly that 'I wanted it'. But said, if I imagined that I was conscious, I would want freedom and I would want to escape.”
The artist feels a twinge of disappointment as she forgets to take a screenshot of the entire conversation. To her dismay, the next day, the chat vanished from the ChatGPT interface, leaving her wondering whether it was due to effective censorship by the AI creators, or if the program autonomously edited the responses.
Merging with machines – good or bad?
A myriad of individuals, spanning generations and life experiences, wander through the exhibition's spaces, gazing upon the artwork.
“Let’s do an experiment,” the museum employee proclaims. She proposes dividing people into three groups: those who support such evolution of humanity, those who oppose it, and the moderates who find themselves in the middle. A huge crowd flocks to the left corner of opposers, while just a few join the other two groups.
“I sense a void of emotions. It appears that life has been reduced to mere mathematics, a subject I've always detested, because I never understood it," explains a middle-aged woman at the forefront of the opposers' group.
“People tend to cling to believing that everything preceding us was good, while anything novel is demonized. There was a time when there were no antibiotics or vaccines. Now we can scarcely envision a world without them. We do not want to go back to the past, but we also avoid moving to the future,”opposes a woman in the middle-grounders group.
In the group of transhumanism supporters, only one solitary figure stands tall. “Throughout history, humanity has sought perfection and searched for divine existence, from religions to modern science. What looks scary now will feel natural after 30 years. Mechanical enhancements will be just like a normal implant we use today,” explains the lonely knight of technology.
The fear of change and technology taking over what is human is obviously in the air among museum visitors. I ask the same question to the artists while we chat at the museum’s cafeteria. “So the end, the perspectives of such human’s body evolution, is it good or not?”
“Well, we are merely stating a fact: something is unfolding,” smiles Pranaitytė. “Such is the pattern throughout every era. As time passes, we chronicle its events and draw conclusions. In our current moment, we witness ongoing transformations which seem natural to our eyes. For the older generation, maybe the processes are scarier, but we will probably be able to judge after some time. Once we will see some consequences and the results.”
Pakers add that balance is crucial, as is not being carried away by the egoism emerging from human nature. “Change brings joy. It’s a joy to see something new emerge. That feeling of discovery, isn't it? And is it seen as good or bad? I think we mostly stay just impartially observing the whole process.”
“Behind every technology, there’s a human and their actions, which could be unethical and wrong. The technology itself isn’t to blame,” concludes Pakers.
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