MATRIX PHILOSOPHY: THE MATRIX: OUR FUTURE? by Kevin Warwick
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."1
The important message to take from this is that the dangerthat
we will see machines with an intellect that outperforms that of humansis
I. The Facts
But is it just a dangera
potential threator, 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 humansrather than those
in which they can only potentally become our match.
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Robots can sense the world in ways that humans cannotultraviolet,
X-ray, infrared, and ultrasonic perception are some obvious examplesand
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 communicationgenerally an electronic
form, as opposed to the humans embarrassingly slow mechanical
technique called speech, with its highly restricted coding schemes
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 suna
constant sourcewould 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 suns 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 Machine2,
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 energybatteries, if you
likeis 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 progressit
is central to our beingyet 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,3
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.
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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 brains 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, Neos 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,
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.
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When I find myself in a discussion of the possibility of intelligent
machines taking over things, nine times out of ten I am toldfollowing
a little chuckle to signify that I have overlooked a blindingly obvious
pointthat "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 todays common Internet
that gives us the answer, and cuts the chuckle short. Even now, how
is it practically possible to switch off the Internet? Were
not talking theory here, were 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 cant.
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 headinga 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 Orwells 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
So here we come on to the case of Cypher. As he eats his steak he
says, "I know that this steak doesnt 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
weve 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 doesnt quite exist in the form our brain is imagining.
We can thus understand Cyphers 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 Nozicks thought experiment puts us all to the test, and
serves as an immediate exhibition of Cyphers 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? Isnt 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 lifes experience? Indeed, exactly
the same thing is true for a robot.
In the Matrix, no human fuel cells are killed, not even the unbornthere
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 wouldnt
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. Its 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 cana future in which we
can be part of a Matrix system, which is morally far superior to our
Neolithic morals of today.
S., "Hawking's plan to offest computer threat to humans",
Ananova, www.ananova/news, 1 September 2001
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2. In the Mind
of the Machine, Arrow, 1998. Available on www.amazon.co.uk
3. I, Cyborg, Century,
2002. Available on www.amazon.co.uk