What Technology Wants in Battlestar Galactica

[Enjoy this new Battlestar Galactica post by returning guest author Nathan Hanks. Warning: SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS for the series finale. - Ed.]

When Battlestar Galactica opens, the technological race of Cylons are already created, and by the Series Finale, we find Technological Life springing up again independently on Earth – 150,000 years after the last Cylons have died. There are actually four independent instances of techno-beings emerging within the BSG-universe, an odd trend of convergence in the evolution of technology. It’s as if something like Cylons always happen once technology gets going.

In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly discusses how physics and chemistry guide technological evolution – an extension of the process begun in organisms – along particular, recurring developmental pathways. Each advancement sets a logical stage for the next: from atoms to molecules, cells to organisms, brains to ideas, and tools to Cylons.

But before talking about Technology’s trajectory, we need a clear definition of what Kelly means by ‘Technology’ in order to understand the continuum of which Cylons are a part. Technology isn’t unique to humans. All sorts of non-human animals use the environment to create an advantage, whether it’s making shelters (birds building nests) or using tools (chimpanzees using rocks to break nut-shells). Technology isn’t just hard-stuff either, like clotheslines, since you need ideas in the first place, like hanging clothes to dry. And Technology isn’t the individual things, but one process continually expressing in many forms, like DNA.

So (1) Technology extends beyond Humans, (2) Technology stores ideas for regeneration, and (3) Technology is itself an evolving entity.

Like biological evolution, the evolution of “technology requires a sequence of developments to reach a particular stage [and] the reciprocal influence of one technology upon another” drives further complexity. An early deep-water fish may grow a few skin cells super sensitive to light. Feeling changes on the patch let’s the fish navigate up to and around the sea’s sunny surface. In the brighter and shallower depths, there’s less water pressure too and the fish may grow larger or stronger taking on different bodily structures. As the newly beneficial skin cells develop over generations, the fish (as a species, of course) develops a crude eye capable of detecting prey and predators expanding its diet and defenses. At each level the photo-sensitive skin cells do roughly the same job, yet its advantages continually accumulate, branch and drive expansions into more directions and greater complexities.

With Technology too, we find that knives not only make hunting easier but by sharpening stones you create sparks. Sparks allow control of fire which opens up the pre-digestion of food (cooking) which expands our access to nutritional material. Finding new foods gives way to recipes, and all these advances flow from the end of a knife.

Cylons stand at the frontier of this Technological evolution, or rather an enormous pyramid of pre-requisite technology. Silicon production, networked computers, University courses in Artificial Intelligence, large scale agriculture, National economies, electric grids, wage systems, medical care, water treatment plants and language education all form Kobol’s ‘pre-requisite web’ of supporting technologies which can create Cylons. Evolved interconnections and mutually supporting relationships give the technological state stability and, as with genes, deleting even one innocuous bit – say, Supermarket CheckOut Lines – could cause a disruptive cascade throughout the system’s subsequent organizational structures.

The current technological stage also gives emerging technology a trajectory, or a foundation to spring from. The Cylon Brain with its silicon pathways didn’t emerge from scratch, but was modeled on the Human Brain and the tried-and-true neural pathways ‘found out’ first by biological evolution. Likewise, it would probably be impossible for Humans to create flesh and blood Cylons before their metallic ancestors, if only because the established advances in robotics sets the stage for further learning and advances in synthetic chemistry. Rewind Earth’s tape again and again and you won’t see steam-engines before water-pumps, murder-mysteries before creation myths, or Cylons before CDs, because technological advancements must scaffold off others to go anywhere.

I guess the prerequisite web of blues chord progressions and hillbilly riffs haven't been established yet. But your kids are gonna love it.

Given that Technology evolves, what are the chances that human-looking Cylons would get made over and over as they do in BSG?

Other directions of life might be possible. We could imagine another species too, one Human-like with jellyish bones, but it would be contradictory to our universe – if you want to move on land, you need hard-bones to tough out the constant pull of gravity. “Our alternative imaginary universes are full of creatures far more diverse, creative, and ‘out there’ than the life here,” Kelly says, “but most of our imaginary creatures would never work… the world of the actual-possible is much smaller than it first appears.”

As Life emerges, the constraints of physics and chemistry bring ‘naturally’ convergent forms that recur independently in many species, for example; Eyes, Echolocation and Wings. So when Colonel Adama asks on new Earth, “How is that possible? Human beings naturally evolved on a planet 1 million light years away?” we can answer, ‘given an environment like Earth’s, pretty possible’.

The human form on a planet like Earth is more inevitable than improbable.

We also find convergent forms as a rule in culture. Kelly points to the invention of photography and steamboats, telephones and thermometers, the discovery of adrenaline and logarithms, working transistors and computers, even genius theories like Natural Selection. All were discovered independently by multiple people converging on the same idea. All you need is the “necessary web of supporting ideas then the next adjacent technological step seems to emerge”.

When at the Series’ close we see advancements in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence flashing across the screens of Times Square – another advent of Cylons – Colonel Adama could ask, “How is that possible? Cylons naturally evolving on a planet 1 million light years away?” But we already have the evolutionary answer, ‘given an environment like the Mind, pretty possible’.

But, what does it really mean that both biology and technology evolve? Well, one thing true of evolution is that it brings more possibility, whether more complex forms or more possible knowledge and experience. DNA isn’t possible without molecules, people aren’t possible without DNA, and Cylons aren’t possible without people. Evolution never brings us more of the same, but always more of the different in an extending realm of possibility.

Unlike Humans, Cylons have the chance for Functional Immortality with ‘Resurrection Technology’. Rather than saving their experience through personal diaries, interviews, bodies of work, or memories made with others; Cylons directly transfer their selves into another body once reaching physical death in a persistent, unbroken chain of being. That’s new! The Cylons are also capable of directly communicating their internal, subjective experience to others via ‘Projection Technology’. Forget about music, visual arts, books and movies for conveying ideas- Projecting allows beings to share experience more directly and intimately than anything else, ever.

Which brings us to the Universal implications of Evolution, all that expanding complexity must persist in the face of Entropy. Arranged energy gives us all our forms – be it stars, oranges, babies or the Wii – but Entropy always breaks down energetic structures over time and disorder always increases, like a universal decay. The only way to keep a special state going is to bring in more energy – add wood to the fire, plug in a freezer, eat food, etc. – and, here, Evolution is masterful. Though there is a constant decrease of order universally, there is a constant increase of order locally, on Earth, with more meaningful DNA bits adding into the ‘gene pool’, more songs being recorded now than ever, more cereals varieties being produced, more lines of code needed for more complex programs and all the while energy use is going up.

There is a more precise way to say this: of all the sustainable things in the universe, from a planet to a star, from a daisy to an automobile, from a brain to an eye, the thing that is able to conduct the highest density of power- the most energy flowing through a gram of matter each second- lies at the core of your laptop. A nuclear bomb will release 1017 ergs, which is a lot of power but the explosion is only a hyperblink of 10-6 seconds. If you [stretch] the nuclear blast so that it spent its energy over a full second instead of microseconds, its power density would be reduced to only 1011 ergs per second per gram, which is about the intensity of a laptop computer chip. Energywise, a Pentium chip may be better thought of as a very slow nuclear explosion.

- Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants

So, in a very real way, the modern experiences of playing games, reading books, watching movies, and reading published reviews come at a huge energetic expense because of their Technological dependence. Cylons are capable of driving this experience through technology and energetic expense further than ever, making even ‘Projection’ seem simple. Here’s the Cylon Leader, Cavil, on his dreams for the Technological race.

The experiences of “feeling solar winds” and “smelling dark matter” would require a vast constellation of technology requiring an enormous amount of energy for its production the same way that our seeing x-rays requires much technology and energy.

But maybe we can’t get that far. While Humanity creates Cylons time and time again, so too do they go to war: on Kobol, Caprica and the original Earth. Maybe the war is inevitable and Cylons are the technological-ceiling. The Series’ Finale clearly puts the probleming question to us (the audience) as the Messengers walk about our New York City-

Messenger 1: All of this has happened before.
Messenger 2: But the question remains, ‘does all of this have to happen again?’

Maybe ‘No’. Here are 3 ‘Non-War’ scenarios:

1) Humanity could advance to the technological threshold of Cylons and not cross-over, preventing another competitive species and stemming the chances for war. Perhaps we can curb the desires for luxury, convenience and experience that would culturally breed for artificial intelligence/life. However, Techno-Bans don’t last globally- and always at the expense of the non-adoptive culture- and they’re historically being overturned faster and faster.

2) Humanity could begin their relationship with Cylons empathetically and actively work toward co-existence. Both modes of being could somehow nourish the other and societal conflict could be avoided by the regulation of rights and privileges to another experiencing entity. Though it’s hard to imagine any distinct separations maintaining over time just as when isolated societies open and their cultural edges blur.

3) Humanity may be but a phase of existence passing over into Cylons. Just as Humans came to surpass its non-lingual ancestors, so too could Cylon technology surpass the limitations inherent in Human physiology, perception and experience. Cylons – with their immortality and heightened perceptions – may just be a better way of Life.

So, if the Messengers are wondering about what we will do when we converge on synthetic life, then we at least have a helpful culture of caution against Techno-slavery and Artificial Intelligent Uprisings through our books, comics and movies. Blade Runner, The Matrix and I, Robot name only a few of the popular thought experiments meant to give the question of synthetic life and its consequences with Humanity a serious consideration. In each of the movies mentioned, and in Battlestar Galactica, there’s no hint of similar considerations in their culture before their technological uprise – never is Colonel Adama reading about electric sheep.

If Kevin Kelly explains anything it’s that the “ecology of ideas” matters. What we make, what we think, what we do is all influenced by the previous stage-setting developments in organisms, tools, and idea culture. In other words, we may be more prepared for Artificial Life than the Colonials in Battlestar Galactica because we’ve been overthinking Battlestar Galactica.

Nathan Hanks has written lots of Battlestar Galactica posts for us in the past. Check them out!

[Do humaniform robots arise out of necessity based on the laws of the universe we inhabit? Are we trapped in a cycle of boots, reboots and preboots until the heat death of the universe? Sound off in the comments! - Ed.]

10 Comments on “What Technology Wants in Battlestar Galactica”

  1. Brian #

    Rather than humaniform robots becoming about “just cause it’s natural” I feel it’s really more as Shelly Turkle suggests on why we would want such robots in the first place, that we’re disappointed in humanity. I don’t come to this conclusion flippantly. I’ve loved robots since I was a kid, and was into the whole Kurzweil version of Singularity for a bit, and only put up with the depressing negativity of Blade Runner, A.I., 2001 because it was the only place to see cool sci-fi. But now I get why that depressing streak is there.

    I’ll poorly steal my whole argument for why humaniform robots could be potentially dangerous from Shelly Turkle who spent 15 years researching that exact problem with the MIT robotics department. http://youtu.be/lwyEITkd6mE She says once a robot asks us for nurturance “we’re toast” which is funny considering cylons are called “toasters.”

    She describes “the robotic moment” we’re in as the time we ratchet up our expectations for robots to take the place of humans. She considers this dangerous because something like a nanny-bot for the elderly, the elderly person shares her life story about losing a child with the robot, the robot pretends to understand but it really doesn’t, it can’t, it has no way to know what it feels like to have a child and lose it, Turkle calls this a tragic scene. She mentions the rational for having a nanny-bot is there’s no one for the job, which isn’t true, we just don’t honor the job enough to care to pay a livable wage and offer benefits for doing it. And there’s the problem, we’re using robotics to distance ourselves from emotional vulnerability.

    She calls this the slide from “better than nothing, to better than everything.” A kid gets a robot dog because dad is allergic- better than no dog. Then it becomes, well this robot could always be a puppy. Then a few steps later it’s, this puppy will never die- better than everything. You can see this in Kelly’s talk, technology means not dieing.

    Now comes the point of why we position it this way. I agree with Turkle that it’s from a disappointment with each other and a fear of vulnerability. We’ve used technology to overcome the environmental elements, now we’re using it to overcome the last place we’re vulnerable, the emotional elements. I don’t think admitting this means an anti-technology statement. Turkle says robots will do amazing things, but you can’t pretend they’re people.

     
    • aravind #

      I think there’s a real question that raises – what does it mean to be human? Or perhaps, more specifically – how integral to humanity is the inevitability of death?

      To spoil the last two season of BSG, they come down pretty hard on it being an important part to being at least a mature human. If you’re mature, but have no anticipation of your own death (like the cylons until that one group splintered) then there’s much lesser consequences for failures, for obstacles, for difficulties. Even if you’re a reasonable being, “mature” in the broadest sense of the word, those issues don’t mean as much, because you’re burning time out of an infinite supply, rather than losing precious minutes. It’s certainly not human, as a result.

      Likewise, the main point of Baltar’s arch is that he’s in denial about his own fragility, limitations, and even mortality. The series opens with him getting a glimpse, a really brief one, that he can make devastating mistakes and that he can nearly die. Over the course of the whole series, he slowly manages to come to terms with that, reaching its conclusion in the series finale when he offers to sacrifice himself in the name of a greater good. Whereas before he merely ignored his inevitable chance of dying (aided by the fact that he had managed to make a rather comfortable life for himself on Caprica and even in the fleet of refugees), he at least gives up trying to outrun it, and embraces his own mortality. He was human the entire time, but he certainly wasn’t mature.

      In light of this, I think the question BSG is begging is what life gives up by transferring from being primarily biological to primarily technological? Of course, at the same time, it repeatedly points out that there are clear advantages to technological upgrades. It seems to be constantly asking where the gains start reducing, and where we start actually losing something though.

       
      • Brian #

        I haven’t watch BSG, just Caprica. The wiki on Baltar says he converted to the Cylon’s monotheistic religion, is that the “greater good” he sacrifices himself for?

        What I liked about Caprica was it’s take on monotheism and the Apotheosis, it reminded me of fundamentalists but also of the Singularity as described by Kurzweil and interpreted by many people, and it’s hidden religious underpinnings. -That sounds tin foil hat, I mean it’s structure is adopted/influenced from Christianity without it really thinking it does. Despite Kurzweil being knocked by a lot of people, his notions never got the pop culture take down it needed, of course it still hasn’t because it happened in Caprica which no one watched.

        But the difference between monothesim and polythesism is brought up a lot when talking about humaniform robots because countries like Japan who are animistic don’t have the same fear of them as the West does. Japan sees everything as having some animate essence, so a talking gesturing toaster to an adult isn’t some uncanny affront to sanctity of man in the order of the universe that’s going to take us over the second we show any weakness.

        I don’t know if BSG says animism is somehow the answer to our fears or not, it’s much too simplistic if it does. But Caprica certainly doesn’t present it as a solution, at least not that I noticed, the show ended with a lot of loose threads.

         
        • aravind #

          Baltar’s conversion is really complicated, but I’d say it was a weird circumstance. He wasn’t sacrificing himself for a greater good entirely altruistically (he would never do that, it’s pretty much established that he’s a selfish prick forever), but in return for a potential reward from the Cylons’ One True God. So, it was sort of like that. Sort of. (Can you tell I haven’t watched the finale since it came out… yeah, it was difficult for me).

          The portrait of the colonies’ polytheism, at least in BSG (I didn’t managed to get far into Caprica), was very Greco-Roman (which was handwaved as being cultural translations for us, the audience, from a system that would eventually produce the Greco-Roman myths and most/all other folklore). There was essentially no animism, which ostensibly contributed to a rather uncharitable view of the cylons (as products, rather than beings). I don’t know that that was really the intended message though, since a bigger part of what legitimized the cylons for the humans was how they slowly learned that the cylons had some historical precedence and importance. Basically, cylons were understood within a human-inclusive system of colonization, growth, decadence, mutual annihilation, recolonization (as this article pointed out).

          I’m going to have another go at Caprica if they tried tackling interesting stuff like apotheosis. Definitely interesting, that.

           
        • Brian #

          “the question BSG is begging is what life gives up by transferring from being primarily biological to primarily technological?”

          I just rushed through “Straw Dogs” by John Gray in order to comment further on this article and it addresses this point straight on. Gray says that people who object to strong AI consciousness do so because it affronts their human superiority to control it. So, a point against Turkle. Also that AI will develop beyond human capabilities and also a soul or spirit of it’s own, but also develop it’s own illusions and errors that are an inevitable part of self-awareness.

          He pretty much says that animism is the cure for this fear- not to stop AI but to accept it, and to drop a lot of other techno-progressive illusions of immortality. He says there’s always going to be war of scarce resources and whatnot. But these utopian ideals based on the faith that technological progress will change human nature for the better are dangerous too, they’re not a cure for human nature, there isn’t one. He mentions that “all science can do is give a new twist to the normal madness.”

          He also says that some of science’s gifts are not mixed blessings, like clean water and medicine, so he’s not a Hippie nut job. Just that we can’t keep expecting science to control “fate and chance” or nature. The book was written in 2002 and it seems to line up really well with BSG and Caprica thematically, it wouldn’t surprise me if it served as some inspiration, though it’s not the only way to come about the same ideas.

          But with Gray in mind I feel Kelly’s view of “what technology wants” is on shaky ground. Kelly puts the point forward that technology is not a strictly human venture, he gives credit to the animals, and almost puts us equal level with them but then he mentions that technology is part of the animal kingdom and it’s defining attribute is immortality. *record scratch* And to top it off all the technology he mentions is human- making the draw and hope of technology that it will make us immortal, that’s why we’re suppose to embrace it. He displaced the human superiority over animals onto technology, now all we have to become immortal is merge more with technology. He took two steps forward and one back. He concedes there’s no answers for bad technology or bad use but still thinks the saving grace of technology will rise us above it all, animals, nature, human frivolity, death.

          Back to Gray, he mentions a reconnection with nature and animals as alleviation to our hope for techno-utopia, and to an acceptance of humanities place in nature that isn’t based on superiority. Which in context of BSG is interesting because there’s like no animals or nature-that isn’t radioactive- it’s pretty much ALL human technology within human technology being chased by human technology within virtual reality. So I think the absence of any nature or animals or animal technology says something about BSG as well.

           
          • aravind #

            I don’t know… I think to the extent that BSG/Caprica were technoprogressive and transhumanist and such things, they were focused on those issues within the context of humans. So “animal” (in the sense of non-human animals) technology was minimal/nonexistent. Also, the human-cylon conflicts pretty clearly played a role there (since almost all of the action is far, far away from the recently irradiated natural environments in the colonies).

            Which brings me to another point: BSG definitely posits technology as morally neutral. It gets humans off their dying planets, but only after having destroyed their long term fertility with nukes. It’s in a constant flux between savior and torturer.

            That’s part of what’s keeping at least some people in the cycle, actually. We can’t get beyond killing each other (or at least, threatening), so we build our Caprica cities, then raze them, so to speak. We’re caught in a (potentially) infinite loop of having technology as a most useful edge against others but the contributing factor to what’s effectively an endless arms race. Eventually we realize its fruitless, lay down our arms, and go back to hunter gathering, BSG says. But then the cycle eventually returns, because technology is just so seductively useful.

            Actually, I think the show does suggest that there’s some sort of immortality outside of that cycle, with the repeated cylon separatists (not the skinjob-types), who don’t chose mortality, in one sense or another, but for mysterious reasons deem themselves (or are deemed) incompatible with the rest of us.

            They get to ride off into the sunset, seeing supernova in a way humans never could, but having given something up in return that’s difficult for us humans to quite grasp. It’s almost as if knowing that there’s some value to not knowing everything – but that’s, in the logic of the show, something our ancestors chose, so we live with it.

            We’re the descendants of those who decided that a mortal, finite life with minimal tech had some advantage and went that way, instead of out further into the stars with the rest of the cylons.

            I think you have a point that seeing technology as an obsessive movement towards attaining immortality is… problematic, but I’m not sure if it’s entirely wrong for BSG to look at that issue. In the past few thousand years, we’ve gain the power to more and more effectively record our thoughts and beliefs, attaining a flimsy sort of “immortality”. As the tools for retaining that data seem to be getting increasingly effective over time, I don’t know how foolish it is to say that we’re moving towards a preservation of the self indefinitely à la cylon resurrection and that that’s what technology “wants” in some sense (since there’s always a little bit more that it still wants too).

             
        • Timothy J Swann #

          Well, I always thought there were similarities between Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point and the technological Singularity. It’s definitely worth comparing with the emergences of the Human god and the Machine god (both trinities) in the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons.