Is The Matrix merely a science fiction scenario, or is it, rather, a philosophical exercise? Alternatively, is it a realistic possible future world? The number of respected scientists predicting the advent of intelligent machines is growing exponentially. Steven Hawking, perhaps the most highly regarded theoretical scientist in the world and the holder of the Cambridge University chair that once belonged to Isaac Newton, said recently, “In contrast with our intellect, computers double their performance every 18 months. So the danger is real that they could develop intelligence and take over the world.” He added, “We must develop as quickly as possible technologies that make possible a direct connection between brain and computer, so that artificial brains contribute to human intelligence rather than opposing it.”Hawking, S., “Hawking’s plan to offest computer threat to humans”, Ananova, www.ananova/news, 1 September 2001 The important message to take from this is that the danger—that we will see machines with an intellect that outperforms that of humans—is real.
I. The Facts
But is it just a danger—a potential threat—or, if things continue to progress as they are doing, is it an inevitability? Is the Matrix going to happen whether we like it or not? One flaw in the present-day thinking of some philosophers lies in their assumption that the ultimate goal of research into Artificial Intelligence is to create a robot machine with intellectual capabilities approaching those of a human. This may be the aim in a limited number of cases, but the goal for most AI developers is to make use of the ways in which robots can outperform humans—rather than those in which they can only potentally become our match.
Robots can sense the world in ways that humans cannot—ultraviolet, X-ray, infrared, and ultrasonic perception are some obvious examples—and they can intellectually outperform humans in many aspects of memory and logical mathematical processing. And robots have no trouble thinking of the world around them in multiple dimensions, whereas human brains are still restricted to conceiving the same entity in an extremely limited three dimensional way. But perhaps the biggest advantage robots have over us is their means of communication—generally an electronic form, as opposed to the human’s embarrassingly slow mechanical technique called speech, with its highly restricted coding schemes called languages.
It appears to be inevitable that at some stage a sentient robot will appear, its production having been initiated by humans, and begin to produce other, even more capable and powerful robots. One thing overlooked by many is that humans do not reproduce, other than in cloning; rather, humans produce other humans. Robots are far superior at producing other robots and can spawn robots that are far more intelligent than themselves.
Once a race of intellectually superior robots has been set into action, major problems will appear for humans. The morals, ethics, and values of these robots will almost surely be drastically different from those of humans. How would humans be able to reason or bargain with such robots? Why indeed should such robots want to take any notice at all of the silly little noises humans would be making? It would be rather like humans today obeying the instructions of cows.
So a war of some kind would be inevitable, in the form of a last gasp from humans. Even having created intelligent, sentient robots in the first place, robots that can out-think them, the humans’ last hope would be to find a weak spot in the robot armoury, a chink in their life-support mechanism. Naturally, their food source would be an ideal target. For the machines, obtaining energy from the sun—a constant source—would let them bypass humans, excluding them from the loop. But as we know, humans have already had much success in polluting the atmosphere and wrecking the ozone layer, so blocking out the sun’s rays – scorching the sky, in effect – would seem to be a perfectly natural line of attack in an attempt to deprive machines of energy.
In my own book, In the Mind of the MachineIn the Mind of the Machine, Arrow, 1998. Available on www.amazon.co.uk , I had put forth the idea that the machines would, perhaps in retaliation, use humans as slave labourers, to supply robots with their necessary energy. Indeed, we must consider this as one possible scenario. However, actually using humans as a source of energy—batteries, if you like—is a much sweeter solution, and more complete. Humans could be made to lie in individual pod-like wombs, acting rather like a collection of battery cells, to feed the machine-led world with power.
Probably in this world of machine dominance there would be a few renegade humans causing trouble, snapping at the heels of the machine authorities in an attempt to wrestle back power for humans, an attempt to go back to the good old times. So it is with the Matrix. It is a strange dichotomy of human existence that as a species we are driven by progress—it is central to our being—yet at the same time, for many there is a fruitless desire to step back into a world gone by, a dream world.
Yet it is in human dreams that the Matrix machines have brought about a happy balance. Simply treating humans as slaves would always bring about problems of resistance. But by providing a port directly into each human brain, each individual can be fed a reality with which he or she is happy, creating for each one a contented existence in a sort of dream world. Even now we know that scientifically it would be quite possible to measure, in a variety of ways, the level of contentment experienced by each person. The only technical problem is how one would go about feeding a storyline directly into a brain.
So what about the practical realities of the brain port? I myself have, as reported in ‘I, Cyborg,’I, Cyborg, Century, 2002. Available on www.amazon.co.uk had a 100-pin port that allowed for both signal input and output connected into my central nervous system. In one experiment conducted while I was in New York City, signals from my brain, transmitted via the Internet, operated a robot hand in the UK. Meanwhile, signals transmitted onto my nervous system were clearly recognisable in my brain. A brain port, along the lines of that in the Matrix, is not only a scientific best guess for the future; I am working on such a port now, and it will be with us within a decade at most.
II. Human or Machine
With the port connected into my nervous system, my brain was directly connected to a computer and thence on to the network. I considered myself to be a Cyborg: part human, part machine. In The Matrix, the story revolves around the battle between humans and intelligent robots. Yet Neo, and most of the other humans, each have their own brain port. When out of the Matrix, they are undoubtedly human; but while they are in the Matrix, there can be no question that they are no longer human, but rather are Cyborgs. The real battle then becomes not one of humans versus intelligent robots but of Cyborgs versus intelligent robots.
The status of an individual whilst within the Matrix raises several key issues. For example, when they are connected are Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity individuals within the Matrix? Or do they have brains which are part human, part machine? Are they themselves effectively a node on the Matrix, sharing common brain elements with others? It must be remembered that ordinarily human brains operate in a stand-alone mode, whereas computer-brained robots are invariably networked. When connected into a network, as in the Matrix, and as in my own case as a Cyborg, individuality takes on a different form. There is a unique, usually human element, and then a common, networked machine element.
Using the common element, ‘reality’ can be downloaded into each brain. Morpheus describes this (as do others throughout the film) as ‘having a dream.’ He raises questions as to what is real. He asks how it is possible to know the difference between the dream world and the real world. This line of questioning follows on from many philosophical discussions, perhaps the most prominent being that of Descartes, who appeared to want to make distinctions between dream states and ‘reality’, immediately leading to problems in defining what was real and what was not. As a result he faced further problems in defining absolute truths.
Perhaps a more pertinent approach can be drawn from Berkeley, who denied the existence of a physical world, and Nietzsche, who scorned the idea of objective truth. By making the basic assumption that there is no God, my own conclusion is that there can be no absolute reality, there can be no absolute truth — whether we be human, Cyborg, or robot. Each individual brain draws its conclusions and makes assumptions as to the reality it faces at an instant, dependant on the input it receives. If only limited sensory input is forthcoming, then brain memory banks (or injected feelings) need to be tapped for a brain to conceive of a storyline. At any instant, a brain links its state with its common-sense memory banks, often coming to unlikely conclusions.
As a brain ages, or as a result of an accident, the brain’s workings can change; this often appears to the individual to be a change in what is perceived rather than a change in that which is perceiving. In other words, the individual thinks it must be the world that has changed, not his or her brain. Where a brain is part of a network, however, there is a possibility for alternative viewpoints to be proposed by different nodes on the network. This is not something that individual humans are used to. An individual brain tends to draw only one conclusion at a time. In some types of schizophrenia this conclusion can be confused and can change over time; it is more usually the case, though, that such an individual will draw a conclusion about what is perceived that is very much at variance with the conclusion of other individuals. For the most part, what is deemed by society to be ‘reality’ at any point, far from being an absolute, is merely a commonly agreed set of values based on the perceptions of a group of individuals.
The temptation to see a religious undertone in The Matrix is interesting — with Morpheus cast as the prophet John the Baptist, Trinity perhaps as God or the holy spirit, Neo clearly as the messiah, and Cypher as Judas Iscariot, the traitor. But, far from a Gandhi-like, turn the other cheek, approach, Neo’s is closer to one that perhaps was actually expected by many of the messiah himself, taking on his role as victor over the evil Matrix: a holy war against a seemingly invincible, all-powerful machine network.
But what of the machine network, the Matrix, itself? With an intellect well above that of collective humanity, surely its creativity, its artistic sense, its value for aesthetics would be a treat to behold. But the film keeps this aspect from us – perhaps to be revealed in a sequel. Humans released from the Matrix grip, merely regard it as an evil, perhaps Cypher excluded here. Meanwhile the Agents are seen almost as faceless automatons, ruthless killers, strictly obeying the will of their Matrix overlord. Possibly humans would see both the Matrix and Agents as the enemy, just as the Matrix and Agents would so regard humans – but once inside the Matrix the picture is not so clear. As a Cyborg, who are your friends and who are your enemies? It is no longer black and white when you are part machine, part human.
III. In and Out of Control
Morpheus tells Neo that the Matrix is control. This in itself is an important revelation. As humans, we are used to one powerful individual being the main instigator, the brains behind everything. It is almost as though we cannot even conceive of a group or collection running amuck, but believe, rather, that there is an individual behind it all. In the second world war, it was not the Germans or Germany who the allies were fighting but Adolf Hitler; meanwhile in Afghanistan, it is Bin-Laden who is behind it all. Yet in the Matrix we are faced with a much more realistic scenario, in that it is not some crazed individual up to no good, but the Matrix – a network.
When I find myself in a discussion of the possibility of intelligent machines taking over things, nine times out of ten I am told—following a little chuckle to signify that I have overlooked a blindingly obvious point—that “If a machine causes a problem you can always switch it off.” What a fool I was not to have thought of it!! How could I have missed that little snippet?
Of course it is not only the Matrix but even today’s common Internet that gives us the answer, and cuts the chuckle short. Even now, how is it practically possible to switch off the Internet? We’re not talking theory here, we’re talking practice. Okay, it is of course possible to unplug one computer, or even a small subsection intranet, but to bring down the whole Internet? Of course we can’t. Too many entities, both humans and machines, rely on its operation for their everyday existence. It is not a Matrix of the future that we will not be able to switch off, it is a Matrix of today that we cannot switch off, over which we cannot have ultimate control.
Neo learns that the Matrix is a computer-generated dream world aimed at keeping humans under control. Humans are happy to act as an energy source for the Matrix as long as they themselves believe that the reality of their existence is to their liking; indeed, how are the human nodes in a position to know what is computer-generated reality and what is reality generated in some other way?
A stand-alone human brain operates electrochemically, powered partly by electrical signals and partly by chemicals. In the western world we are more used to chemicals being used to change our brain and body state, either for medicinal purposes or through narcotics, including chemically instigated hallucinations. But now we are entering the world of e-medicine. Utilising the electronic element of the electrochemical signals on which the human brain and nervous system operate, counterbalancing signals can be sent to key nerve fibre groups to overcome a medical problem. Conversely, electronics signals can be injected to stimulate movement or pleasure. Ultimately, electronic signals will be able to replace the chemicals that release memories and “download” memories not previously held. Why live in a world that is not to your liking if a Matrix state is able to keep your bodily functions operating whilst you live out a life in a world in which you are happy with yourself? The world of the Matrix would appear to be one that lies in the direction humanity is now heading—a direction in which it would seem, as we defer more and more to machines to make up our minds for us, that we wish to head.
IV. Ignorance and Bliss
In a sense, The Matrix is nothing more than a modern day “Big Brother,” taking on a machine form rather than the Orwellian vision of a powerful individual using machines to assist and bring about an all-powerful status. But 1984, the novel in which the story of Big Brother was presented, was published in 1948. The Matrix comes fifty years later. In the meantime, we have witnessed the likes of radar, television for all, space travel, computers, mobile phones, and the Internet. What would Orwell’s Big Brother have been like if he had had those technologies at his disposal – would Big Brother have been far from the Matrix?
With the first implant I received, in 1998, for which I had no medical reason (merely scientific curiosity), a computer network was able to monitor my movements. It knew what time I entered a room and when I left. In return it opened doors for me, switched on lights, and even gave me a welcoming “Hello” as I arrived. I experienced no negatives at all. In fact, I felt very positive about the whole thing. I gained something as a result of being monitored and tracked. I was happy with having Big Brother watching me because, although I gave up some of my individual humanity, I benefited from the system doing things for me. Would the same not be true of the Matrix? Why would anyone want to experience the relatively tough and dangerous life of being an individual human when he or she could be part of the Matrix?
So here we come on to the case of Cypher. As he eats his steak he says, “I know that this steak doesn’t exist. I know when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious!” He goes on to conclude that “Ignorance is bliss.” But is it ignorance? His brain is telling him, by whatever means, that he is eating a nice juicy steak. How many times do we nowadays enter a fast-food burger bar in order to partake of a burger that, through advertising, our brains have been conditioned into believing is the tastiest burger imaginable. When we enter we know, because we’ve seen the scientific papers, that the burger contains a high percentage of water, is mainly fat, and is devoid of vitamins. Yet we still buy such burgers by the billion. When we eat one, our conditioned brain is somehow telling us that it is juicy and delicious, yet we know it doesn’t quite exist in the form our brain is imagining.
We can thus understand Cypher’s choice. Why be out of the Matrix, living the dangerous, poor, tired, starving life of a disenfranchised human, when you can exist in a blissfully happy life, with all the nourishment you need? Due to the deal he made with Agent Smith, once Cypher is back inside he will have no knowledge of having made any deal in the first place. He appears to have nothing at all to lose. The only negative aspect is that before he is reinserted he may experience some inner moral human pangs of good or bad. Remember that being reinserted is actually good for the Matrix, although it is not so good for the renegade humans who are fighting the system.
Robert Nozick’s thought experiment puts us all to the test, and serves as an immediate exhibition of Cypher’s dilemma. Nozick asks, if our brains can be connected, by electrodes, to a machine which gives us any experiences we desire, would we plug into it for life? The question is, what else could matter other than how we feel our lives are going, from the inside? Nozick himself argued that other things do matter to us, for example that we value being a certain type of person, we want to be decent, we actually wish to do certain things rather than just have the experience of doing them. I disagree completely with Nozick.
Research involving a variety of creatures, principally chimpanzees and rats, has allowed them to directly stimulate pleasure zones in their own brain, simply by pressing a button. When given the choice of pushing a button for pleasure or a button for food, it is the pleasure button that has been pressed over and over again, even leading to starvation (although individuals were quite happy even about that). Importantly, the individual creatures still had a role to play, albeit merely that of pressing a button. This ties in directly with the Matrix, which also allows for each individual mentally experiencing a world in which he or she is active and has a role to play.
It is, however, an important question whether or not an individual, as part of the Matrix, experiences free will or not. It could be said that Cypher, in deciding to re-enter the Matrix, is exercising his free will. But once inside, will he still be able to exhibit free will then? Isn’t it essentially a similar situation to that proposed by Nozick? Certainly, within the mental reality projected on an individual by the Matrix, it is assumed that a certain amount of mental free will is allowed for; but it must be remembered, at the same time, that each individual is lying in a pod with all his or her life-sustaining mechanisms taken care of and an interactive storyline being played down into his or her brain. Is that free will? What is free will anyway, when the state of a human brain is merely partly due to a genetic program and partly due to life’s experience? Indeed, exactly the same thing is true for a robot.
In the Matrix, no human fuel cells are killed, not even the unborn—there is no abortion. Yet, naturally dying humans are allowed to die naturally and are used as food for the living. Importantly, they are not kept alive by chemicals merely for the sake of keeping them alive. The Matrix would appear to be more morally responsible to its human subjects than are human subjects to themselves. Who therefore wouldn’t want to support and belong to the Matrix, especially when it is making life easier for its subjects?
Neo is kidnapped by Luddites, dinosaurs from the past when humans ruled the earth. It’s not the future. We are in reality heading towards a world run by machines with an intelligence far superior to that of an individual human. But by linking into the network and becoming a Cyborg, life can appear to be even better than it is now. We really need to clamp down on the party-pooper Neos of this world and get into the future as soon as we can—a future in which we can be part of a Matrix system, which is morally far superior to our Neolithic morals of today.