The Melding of Bodies and Machines
Science fiction has long imagined a future fusion of humanity with technology. Today, many of us—especially people with health issues such as autoimmune diseases—have functionally become hybrids connected to other machines and to other bodies. The combination of artificial intelligence with implants, transplants, prostheses, and genetic reprogramming is transforming medical research and treatment, and it is now also transforming what we thought was human nature.
In his new book, Professor Mark C. Taylor, who teaches in the Department of Religion, identifies this process as Intervolution, and explores how it is weaving together smart things and smart bodies to create new forms of life. He elaborates on this process with Columbia News, along with his recommendations for coping with a pandemic winter, what he’s reading next, and who his dinner party guests would be.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for this book?
A. I have had Type 1 diabetes for more than 30 years, and have been using an insulin pump for 23 years. Three years ago, my pump broke, and the new pump used completely new technology that depends on artificial intelligence to monitor glucose levels and to calculate and administer the precise dose of insulin. When I had problems with the device, I decided to figure out how it worked. This led to an investigation of the remarkable ways researchers are adapting technologies often used for pernicious political and commercial purposes to create revolutionary medical treatments.
Q. What do you mean by “intervolution,” and how does it contrast with evolution?
A. In contrast to evolve, which means to unfold, and coevolve, which means to develop in parallel, intervolve means to intertwine. Intervolution is a developmental process in which seemingly distinct entities are braided together in such a way that each becomes itself in and through the other, and neither can be itself apart from the other. Milton invented the term, and Hawthorne used it in The Scarlet Letter.
Q. Can you give some examples of hybrids, wired bodies, cyborgs that you include in the book?
A. In recent years, mobile devices and objects with miniature sensors have been connected to create an Internet of Things. The purpose of the IoT is to collect and analyze data that can be used to control things and regulate human behavior. This technology is now being deployed to create an Internet of Bodies. Wearable computers like my continuous glucose monitor and insulin pump, as well as implantable devices like pacemakers and brain chips, are connected to each other in the cloud.
When smart things and smart bodies come together, it is possible to algorithmically monitor, regulate, and predict bodily functions and activities in real time. This network of networks creates a worldwide web of extended minds and bodies, which will intervolve to generate new forms of life. Through the interaction of machines and minds, a super-intelligence that surpasses the cognitive abilities of human beings is emerging. Super-organisms, meanwhile, formed by prostheses and implants that communicate across bodies in the cloud, will lengthen the current lifespan by enacting and exploiting to the full the profound truth that all life is shared.
Q. How does this process, the melding of smart bodies and smart things, affect your scholarship and teaching as a religion professor, and your own religious beliefs?
A. These cascading technological developments raise profound existential and ethical questions. We have created machines that are recreating what once was known as a human being. Where and when does my body begin? Where and when does it end? Where and when does my mind begin, and where and when does it end? Where do human agency and responsibility begin and end? What is living and nonliving? What is natural, and what is artificial? What is inside my body and outside of it? What is original and supplemental? Who owns and controls the algorithm running “my” pancreas? Who has access to the data I upload to the cloud? Can my pancreas be hacked? While there are no clear answers to these questions, the study of religion and philosophy can provide the framework for responsibly addressing the urgent dilemmas we are facing.
Q. As a pandemic winter looms, what books, movies, and other forms of entertainment do you recommend?
A. A book: Richard Powers’ The Overstory; two films: Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and The Social Dilemma; an album and a third film: Bruce Springsteen’s A Letter to You.
Q. What’s on your nightstand now to read next?
A. Peter Godfrey-Smith, Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind; Richard Prum, The Evolution of Beauty; Rem Koolhaas, Countryside: A Report.
Q. What is your favorite place to relax with a book?
A. I live in the Berkshires, and my study is in a converted barn that overlooks the Taconic Range. Around the barn I have created what I describe as a philosophical sculpture garden. This is where I read, and it is the only place I can write.
Q. Do you read actual books or do you use an e-reader?
A. I never read books on an e-reader, which creates a problem because I have approximately 14,000 books and no more room.
Q. What are you teaching in the spring, and how are you helping your students cope with remote learning?
A. This spring I am teaching an undergraduate course on the philosophy of religion and an undergraduate/graduate seminar, “After the Human,” which will deal with the issues discussed in my new book. I believe that the best way to help students cope with this distressing time is to create a space for them to express concerns and discuss what is most deeply troubling them.
Q. You’re hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite and why?
A. This is an interesting question because I have long fantasized about writing a play focused on a dinner party with G.W.F. Hegel, Soren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche.