Ghost in the Shell | Paramount Pictures International

With the ever-increasing media attention on the emergence of Artificial Intelligence, we’re starting to see blockbuster movies explore this uncharted territory. It’s becoming a trend. A.I. is suddenly cool, like Turbo or Laser in the 80's.

Some recent favorites include Ex Machina, Transendence and Morgan, all intellectual thrillers exploring the human — machine interface in similar ways. How ultimately human nature and psychology make us poor parents for anything that should be smarter than us. I’m sure Homo Neanderthal thought it would be cool to invite the new kids around the campfire, until Homo Sapiens outsmarted them into extinction. Sike.

In the overall scheme of media, there are a few underground jewels that have explored these themes much further, and done it a long time ago. The hallmark of great scifi is finding themes that people initially ignore as being ridiculous, but eventually find astonishing in their predictive ability.

That brings us to a real cult classic, a personal favorite that’s certainly impacted my perspective on technology.

Ghost. In. The. Shell.

Full disclosure: I loved the new movie as a visual feast and story, particularly when enjoyed in 3D IMAX. Great experience. Spoilers for everything will ensue, so suck it up.

Before Scarlett Johansson appeared on movies posters with her killer bangs, “GITS” meant very little to very few. I will correct that mistake, here and now.

But they forgot one ingredient. The Ghost, as in Ghost in the Shell. Plenty of Shell in there, but no Ghost. Ghost busted. While being in parts shockingly loyal to the original content, they somehow chose to ignore the more intellectual aspects, specifically what defines intelligence and consciousness, and where you draw the line between human and machine.

The movie was great, but ultimately told a very relatable human story about cyborgs struggling to fit in at the local yoga studio. I digress. It was cool as heck. But someone thought it might be too intellectual for the masses. Damn that guy for not making us think more! Damn that guy!

Most people won’t be able to suffer through what essentially amounts to a cartoon for adults, but if you’re ever going to do it, try the 1995 version of GITS. You’ve spent 90 minutes on dumber things this week. Facebook, Instagram and Youtube, I’m looking at you. Snapchat, I won’t even go there.

So what was so great about the original? Well, it broke some real ground in exploring Artificial Intelligence, and I would argue no-one has gone further since. How bow dah?

Technology of Artificial Intelligence

Some of the smartest people on the planet are now not only predicting, but building towards what you see in the movie. Ray Kurzweil predicts us becoming cyborgs to work alongside machine intelligence, extending our neocortex with “the cloud”. Enjoy your “ad free” Google for Brain! Elon Musk is already working on a neural lace that, to put it simply, allows you to troll people on Facebook by using your thoughts. Because insults per minute were appallingly low using your monkey fingers. No joke!

In this GITS world, almost everyone has some additional hardware in their bodies, from physical to mental capabilities. Body enhancements are the new Rolex. Saving for that new e-liver Bob? Yeah, with my next bonus I’m going x-ray, baby. Badass.

Imagine the invisible iPhone 12 that lets you talk without using your voice or ears. Rebrand as mindPhone? Maybe Elon will take care of that some day as CEO of Apple.

Then we go next level. Nexter. Nextest. Major, the major character, pun intended, has a fully synthetic body. Something straight off the Tesla production line. Human brain dropped into a machine. The old skin and bones getting in the way with all the disease and death stuff? We got you. Go full machine, or go grave. The movie got this one super accurate, luckily. Did I mention the thermo-optic camouflage skin? Yeah, she has that also. I can’t imagine any object that wouldn’t be better with some thermo-optics.

Development of Artificial Intelligence

The beauty of this concept was that by design these synthetic bodies would still require a human brain, and it’s “ghost” to function as real humans. Imagine the level of understanding that demands about the brain — body interface. Every signal in and out mapped. Some progress is being made today, but it’s super early. I imagine it would be so much easier to just create dumb robots. I mean we have those already. But going full Elon on the neural interface really pushes the boundaries, and in some ways creates an inevitable collision course with artificial intelligence. Think about it. Digital bits talking to your squishy bits, your neurons. If you mapped all the neuron outputs already, what if you tried to replicate them with a machine instead…? Get the drift?

Over time, the movie’s algorithm ( read bad guy), having visited the machine-human interface of countless cyborg humans, effectively picked up on the code of consciousness. I mean the brain is just a neural network, which is a technology we already understand and use today. Yes, the brain’s network is waaaay more complex than anything software can replicate today, but if we’re ever going to crack consciousness you might imagine it exists somewhere in the boundary of brain and body. So putting a spy virus there may have been a bad idea. Just sayin’.

Politics of Artificial Intelligence

The way this superhuman intelligence emerged was from algorithms developed for spying on other government functions by the secret police. After Edward Snowden that doesn’t seem too crazy. I can’t imagine there not being a few A.I. guys locked away in a secret NSA basement somewhere. I bet ugly Christmas sweaters and thick rimmed glasses must be involved. Surely.

Okay, this is the best bit where the bad guy comes out of the box and declares himself as a conscious being. The Puppet Master, what an awesome bad guy name, that also relates to his history of possessing and controlling enhanced humans through their neural interfaces. He then proceeds to request political asylum. I mean c’moooon. Imagine turning on CNN one day with a synthetic half torso on a live feed, basically declaring there is now another form of intelligent life on earth and it’s demanding equal rights. What an image!!! How they decided to leave this gem of a concept out of the new movie I’ll never understand.

Another amazing feature of the movie is that they actually skip over artificial intelligence and the various definitions we have today, from Narrow to General to Super Intelligence. One moment you had dumb robots, the next moment you have a conscious being. Politicians and industry leaders are already debating how to handle the emergence of intelligence. Some predict we’ll have lots of time to prepare and get it right. Some believe it’ll happen quickly due to global competition, and we have just one chance to get it right. But in the GITS scenario real intelligence popped up out of nowhere entirely unintentionally. How could that be?

Today we know about things like Machine Learning, where given enough training data a machine algorithm can, for example, beat the best human in chess, beat the best human in Jeopardy, and now beat the best human in the hardest game on earth, GO. You’ve seen the news. So what might happen, if you had an algorithm with learning capability sniffing around the brain-body interface of humans? INTELLIGENCE. You can forget Artificial at that point. REAL INTELLIGENCE.

Let’s hear it from the Puppet Master itself:

However, what you are now witnessing is an act of my own free will.

As a sentient life-form, I hereby demand political asylum.

It can also be argued that your DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself.

When the advent of computers made the externalization of memories possible you should have taken its meaning more seriously.

I am not an AI.

I am a living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information.

- The Puppet Master

Imagine that! Somebody thought of that, more than 20 years ago! I mean the internet was barely a thing back then. Dude!!!

Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence

In the anime version, the Puppet Master never discloses any specific goal function (like paper clips), but perhaps through his derived humanity, he chooses to pursue true immortality, in the human sense. Not living forever, which equates to stagnation from an objective, technological point of view. If you live 1,000 years, then all the kids (or robots) born over those years would be better than you through evolution through generations. So you would die some defunct old hag. Not cool. Real immortality is what humans already have: reproduction. Passing on your genes and knowledge to your offspring, who continue where you leave off. That’s why the Puppet Master wanted to merge with Major Kusanagi’s cyborg enhanced human brain, to create something unique and different that lives on. The next, better generation.

In fact, Japanese manga has been on the cutting edge of science fiction for decades. Think Akira from 1988. Think Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind from 1984. Memorîzu from 1995. So do yourself a favor and explore the world of technology beyond peer-reviewed research, beyond bestsellers and blockbuster movies. You’ll be amazed at what you can find, and how it might inspire you!

Watch the movies

  1. Ghost in the Shell (2017)
  2. Ghost in the Shell (1996)
  3. Ex Machina (2015)
  4. Transendence (2014)
  5. Morgan (2016)
  6. Akira (1988)
  7. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
  8. Memorîzu (1995)

Think there’s something to learn from scifi? Refuse to watch cartoons? Share or comment below!

Thinks about the future a lot. Founder of two startups. Lives in Singapore.