Ghost in the Shell was a perfect movie for my film series because it deals very directly with the question I’m interested in. Its characters have bodies that range from almost entirely biological to almost entirely mechanical, and Motoko, one of these mostly-mechanical people, repeatedly questions her own humanity. Additionally, it has another character, the Puppet Master, who initially has no body and a completely digital mind. Ghost in the Shell provides a nice array of biological, mechanical, and digital aspects of both the body and mind to examine what each particular combination might mean for the status of that being as human or thing.
Togusa, one of the members of Motoko’s team, is almost entirely human. We’re told that his intelligence-enhancing technology is the only non-biological component of his body. He’s certainly regarded as human in the film, and is mostly interesting as a contrast to two examples of extreme technological integration.
Motoko, as I briefly mentioned, is almost entirely mechanical. She has her original biological brain, but her body is robotic. In many ways it’s more than human. It’s super strong, has cloaking technology, and lets her seamlessly access the digital world. Her mind may be housed in her biological brain according to the film, but she can leave it for other spaces, like traffic databases and other bodies. Despite all her modifications, she’s never treated as inhuman. Several times Motoko herself wonders if she might have been programmed, but everyone around her treats and considers her as human.
I think despite her concerns over her origins, Motoko considers herself human, too. She explains to Togusa that she wanted him on the team because his very lack of technology have him a different perspective. Together, they showcase one aspect of human diversity in this world. Though the emphasis is on Togusa in this conversation, it shows Motoko’s implicit understanding of herself as falling on that spectrum, too. This aligns with some other glimpses we get of what it means to be human in this world. People’s “ghosts,” their personal essence, can be hacked, giving them false memories and desires. These people have changed, they may no longer be who they specifically used to be, but they’re still considered human. When interviewing one of these hacked people, Motoko’s partner explicitly calls him human.
The Puppet Master even further pushes the boundaries of the human, within the world of the film and for viewers. The Puppet Master is entirely digital, not coming from a biological brain but a computer program. For a long time, the Puppet Master doesn’t even have a body. By default, the characters we follow assume the Puppet Master is a biological human being, since having a brain is one of their fundamental requirements for being a person. They take into account what they’re actually learning of the Puppet Master, though, and mostly realize that requirement is irrelevant; the Puppet Master’s actions are those of a human, no matter what material supports them.
All of these expansions of what is human do raise the question of what exactly unites them. What qualities do ghost-hacked people, Motoko, and the Puppet Master all have in common? It’s not biology or a body, and it’s not a continuous identity or personality. Rather, it seems to be the existence, at some point, of a self-motivated mind, combined with sentience.
Ghost in the Shell is also interesting to consider in the context of my project because it deals with one of the less-addressed issues surrounding the humanity (or really the very status of living or nonliving) of those with non-biological bodies: reproduction and death. Many definitions of the “human” that include biology in some way include a requirement for generating offspring and, at some point, dying.
Humans, as biological beings, are living things and as such follow the standard components of life: they have a complex and organized structure, they have a metabolism, they grow, they respond to their environment, and they reproduce. Living things propagate themselves in some way; they continue the line of descendants. In evolutionary terms, this means the species rather than individuals, and that’s true of less-biological definitions of the human that include reproduction, too. Not every single person can or does directly reproduce. There are certainly social and cultural pressures that can create hierarchies or feelings of inferiority within humanity by placing relatively less value on those individuals who can’t have their own children, but in the larger scheme of things they’re not considered inhuman.
The Puppet Master, as both an individual and the entirety of the group of artificial life forms, is an interesting case. There aren’t any other non-biological, sentient, living things in the world of Ghost in the Shell. The Puppet Master doesn’t accept continuous, non-changing existence as true life and seeks out Motoko to reproduce with. Their child, seen in the end of the film, is a new being. The Puppet Master did find a way to reproduce, adding this qualification to the list of human traits shown.
I do think it’s interesting to ask whether an eternal non-biological being could be considered alive in the biological sense. The provision for reproduction is both to continue a chain of lives and to introduce variety. Clearly, a being that doesn’t die also doesn’t need to have children in order to continue its line of life. It can do that itself.
As for the second consideration, the Puppet Master is capable of creating clones but doesn’t consider that true reproduction. This is, of course, a narrative choice to some degree, but I think that limit which the Puppet Master sees isn’t quite so insurmountable. Plenty of bacteria and fungi reproduce through this kind of splitting off of two essentially identical parts. Each one is still considered alive. They have different experiences after their split, and while that’s generally not very exciting in bacteria lives, it can create differences between them.
The Puppet Master is more complex, at least in sentience, than E. coli, but I think the principal is the same as long as the Puppet Master exists within some kind of setting. The larger environment is key. If the Puppet Master always exists over the entire course of the digital world, then it seems that two child artificial beings, who must continue to exist in the same space together, wouldn’t actually develop differences. However, the Puppet Master does seem to have a larger digital environment; the Puppet Master reminisces about traveling, and during the course of the film entirely moves into a mechanical body, both of which imply a larger world. Additionally, the fact that the Puppet Master can enter a body means two child artificial lives could enter two different bodies, and we as biological humans know, two people (even twins) have different experiences and are different people.
Two Puppet Masters going about split lives will eventually accumulate differences. That is particularly true if the Puppet Master can engineer a splitting process that introduces small amounts of fundamental difference, like biological life does. The Puppet Master seems to have enough conscious control over the Puppet Master’s self – the material basis of the sentient entity that is the Puppet Master, the set of code – as shown by deliberately moving from digital to embodied existence, to figure out such a thing.
Moreover, if you take an evolutionary view, all biological life originally came from a very small number of living things. If the Puppet Master could introduce some degree of variation in reproduction, the ensuing generations could eventually accumulate a vast array of difference.
There isn’t actually a requirement for death in most biological definitions of life, that’s just something held in common. Regardless, death is a universal human experience and is often included in lists of human qualities. After the screening of Ghost in the Shell for my project, one of the things we discussed is whether death is fundamental to the human identity. Is having a finite lifespan, and knowing that reality, an irremovable piece of being human? Some of the definitions of the human I’ve read say so, and one person at the discussion raised the concern that without an eventual death a person’s (whether artificial life or biological mind in replaceable mechanical bodies) priorities and actions would be quite different, possibly so different as to no longer be human. I’m not so sure, but I know it’s something so far outside the framework we, as biological humans, can think in that it might simply be something we can’t understand until it exists.
As always, let me know what you think! Leave a comment or email me.