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OU on the BBC: Digital Planet: Learning Zone - Cybersouls

Updated Tuesday 8th May 2007

If robots are becoming more and more like humans, where does that leave humanity?


At a small studio theatre in Florence a performance artist called STELARC is about to climb on stage. He's about to give over control of his body to the internet. He will wire himself up to the ebb and flow of data across the world, converted into bolts of electricity that will make him move involuntarily.

STELARC is art - but he's also predicting the future. He's one of a growing number of artists, engineers, and scientists who are rethinking what it is to be human. A revolution in communication technology is leading them to question where the boundaries of the body lie. When we can talk across continents and live in virtual realities we might be entering a new age where we will become one with technology - cybersouls emerging from human bodies that have become obsolete.

Technology used to be about automation - making our lives simpler. We were promised a future of leisure. Now technology is about information and we're ever hungry to stay connected - to stay in control. Even without putting a finger to a computer we exist in digital space as names on databases, as numbers on files of information across the world. Unless we stay as connected as corporations or governments we could be missing out.

Kevin Warwick, professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading has implanted computer technology into his body to test the relationship between himself and his computer. He finds it like a twin or an old friend. Steve Mann, professor at the University of Toronto, is a self-styled cyborg, perceiving his whole world view through a computer screen and television camera, miniaturised into his glasses.

But as more and more technology will come to link us ever closer to machines we might ask a question: when does a wired human become a flashed machine? And in an age where our identities are split between our bodies and cyberspace, where do our souls reside? Suddenly doors are opening onto a field of ethics which is at the same time very new, but philosophically very old.

For experimenters like the implanted Kevin Warwick, however, there's a practical pressing need. Unless we link with our technology as it becomes more powerful our technology could decide to take over itself and humans will become second class citizens of the world. It sounds like science fiction, but it seems to be frighteningly close to becoming reality.

To find out more about the Cybersouls programme, you can read the script and the contributor biographies.


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