Since its release in 1995, Ghost In The Shell has stood the test of time as an animated essential, appealing not only to the philosophical fringes of anime culture, but also inspiring modern sci-fi staples like The Matrix. However, it serves as much more than fictional inspiration – its manga (comic book) source material anticipated a world in which humans are interconnected by a sprawling virtual network in 1989, a year before the introduction of the World Wide Web, and its depictions of cybernetic enhancements and cyber-terrorism are taking shape in our world today. With the release of its highly anticipated live-action adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson, we find ourselves approaching a reality that closely mimics the original film’s futuristic themes, in a potential case of life imitating art. Now more than ever, it’s appropriate to ask how long we have until the world painted by Ghost In The Shell comes to fruition. If the story’s predictions are anything to go by, we’ve got about 12 years.
Set in the not-too-distant future of 2029, the existential crime thriller is a simultaneously electrifying and serene work of fiction, seamlessly weaving life’s larger questions into a classic detective narrative. Following the character of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a synthetic, cybernetic human charged with leading field operations for a law enforcement and intelligence department, her hunt for the elusive Puppet Master – a hacker capable of seizing control of cybernetic bodies like Kusanagi’s – leads deeper down the rabbit hole to reveal a web of government conspiracy and inconvenient truths about her own existence, questioning her place in a world in which humans have become as much machine as they are man – “ghosts” inhabiting synthetic shells.
At the height of hacking’s pervasiveness in pop culture – capitalised and bastardised by Hollywood in the same year of Ghost In The Shell’s release, with films like The Net and the painfully obvious Hackers – the film not only sparked interest in the idea of weaponising information during the early days of the Internet, but also anticipated how world powers could inadvertently create enemies that broke the boundaries of their control, with parallels between post-9/11 terrorism and The Puppet Master’s indoctrination of cyberised human beings. While its relevance to 21st century cyber-warfare is perhaps more pronounced than ever, in light of allegations that Russian hackers compromised the sanctity of the United States’ democratic process, its themes of humankind’s convergence with technology has taken shape as a haunting prophecy, as our lives migrate further into the digital space.
Within the last decade alone, we’ve bore witness to a technological revolution that has redefined what constitutes a living being: 3D-printed prostheses, bionic organs, gene editing… the list goes on. But now, with our minds also moving towards the virtual space through our work and recreational activities (how many jobs can you think of that don’t require an Internet connection?) and our growing fascination with virtual and augmented realities, how long will it be before technological advancements like robotic prostheses go from medical necessity to recreational desire?
“In a society in which our behaviour and thoughts become increasingly molded by the devices through which we perceive the world, the gap between organic and artificial intelligence gets ever smaller.”
Tech giant Google has long envisioned a future in which humans can connect to search engines and networks through cybernetic implants. With our increasing dependence on readily accessible information (seriously, imagine surviving in 2017 without being able to Google things), the question is no longer a matter of if, but when. But if our minds were to subconsciously and constantly access information from a virtual network, much like that portrayed in Ghost In The Shell, would we ever arrive at a point from which we could no longer tell what represents our true consciousness? Would those synthetic enhancements to our organic biology present vulnerabilities to hackers? And would our intelligence be any different, or more superior, to artificial intelligence?
In the same digital vein, Google and its Silicon Valley counterparts have made aggressive strides in the field of artificial intelligence, building increasingly impressive simulations of human behaviour and neural networks that evolve as they gather more and more information. Ghost In The Shell also masterfully interrogated the nature of artificial intelligence over two decades ago, and paved the way for directors like The Wachowskis to expand on the ideas of software developing a human-like desire to survive in The Matrix trilogy (well, the first two, anyway). We’re reminded of Dorothy’s question to The Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz: “Well, what would you do with a brain if you had one?” Ghost In The Shell hypothesised that it would do anything to survive – sounds awfully human, doesn’t it? A program engineered for survival is much like our own genetic programming to endure, and in a society in which our behaviour and thoughts become increasingly molded by the devices through which we perceive the world, the gap between organic and artificial intelligence gets ever smaller.
While the debate rages over whether our AI inventions are nearing consciousness, or simply simulating it, one must question what would happen if we ever succeeded in playing god. Perhaps more importantly, if we were to grant a machine the gift (or curse?) of consciousness, what its creators would do next is as pertinent as what the machine would do with such sentience. Would we sit back and allow it to flourish and cohabitate with humankind? Or would we immediately try to control it, creating rules, limitations and parameters to confine its thoughts and abilities?
The likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have already rallied their support behind Future of Life Institute’s ‘Asilomar AI Principles’ to ensure that developers don’t create machines that go against humanity’s interests; that even sentient AI must be in furtherance of ‘life’; that we remain masters of our puppets. But to quote The Puppet Master, “Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerisation.”
Ghost In The Shell hits cinemas on March 30, 2017. Go deeper into the film in a behind-the-scenes and interview trailer HERE.