To what extent to our bodies and senses determine how we think, or are our bodies merely vehicles for our brains? Do cybernetics de-humanise us?
These were just some of the questions that guests were encouraged to think about at the Being Posthuman? event on 21 November hosted by FACT and part of the nationwide Being Human Festival 2015. The event was organised by Dr Will Slocombe from the University of Liverpool's Department of English.
The day-long event centred around a free screening of Alex Garland's science fiction thriller Ex Machina, which set up a fascinating discussion on what it means to be human, using the representation of artificial intelligence as a starting point for conversation.
Prompted by brief presentations from academics from the University of Liverpool's School of the Arts (Dr Will Slocombe, Professor Michael Fisher and Professor Barry Dainton respectively) we were encouraged to explore issues that Ex Machina raised - who, for example, would you say is the most 'human' character in the film, and why? How do we define 'human'? It could easily be argued that Caleb is the most human as he displays the highest levels of empathy; however, Nathan is arguably the most arrogant, a trait which many would consider to be intrinsically human.
The discussion evolved into a more general conversation on the impact that technology has on us as human beings; how will this develop in the future? Is using technology to enhance us a good idea, or will it de-humanise us? Could any of us survive being uploaded to a virtual reality once our physical body has died, and could this ever be the same as real life? Is the virtual world intrinsically less valuable? Can a computer possess consciousness?
These questions led to, among other things, the realisation that this is already happening on some level - for example, the obsession with which some people play virtual reality games, to the extent that players neglect their real-life responsibilities. Or people existing on social media after dying, leaving behind a ghostly reminder of their living selves; something that is now being capitalised on by the company LivesOn, who tweet on your behalf after you have died and whose slogan is - somewhat disturbingly - 'When your heart stops beating, you'll keep tweeting'. (If you're interested in exploring further how our social media presences are manipulated and commodified, click here to find out about our next exhibition Follow)
It was clear, however, that there were no conclusive answers to any of the questions posed across the day; instead the event provided a valuable space for discussion of a fascinating topic, and an exchange of ideas between strangers that would otherwise have not taken place. Roger McKinley, FACT's Research and Innovation Manager, summarised the purpose of the day, saying that "As we move away from a tangible, social and physical experience of the world and closer to a virtual, digital and augmented experience, it is important to address these changes and how it effects how we think about and see the world. [This] event created a public forum to enable this to happen."
The event also provided a bridge between academic research and the public. University of Liverpool academics agreed that it was rewarding to see the public engaging with their topics of research. As for the near future, Dr Will Slocombe hopes to organise more events of the same nature, to make use of the University of Liverpool's scifi archive and professional expertise. Nothing has been confirmed yet, but keep eyes peeled.
Find out more about FACT's Research programme here.