Is The Matrix merely a
science fiction scenario, or is it, rather, a philosophical
Alternatively, is it a realistic
possible future world?
The number of respected scientists
predicting the advent of intelligent machines is growing
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,
"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."
"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 danger - that we will see machines with an intellect
that outperforms that of humans - is real.
I. The Facts
But is it just a danger - a
potential threat - or, 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 humans - rather than those in
which they can only potentially become our match.
Robots can sense the world in ways that humans cannot - ultraviolet,
X-ray, infrared, and ultrasonic perception are some obvious examples
- and 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 communication - generally an
electronic form, as opposed to the human’s embarrassingly slow
mechanical technique called speech, with its highly restricted
coding schemes called languages.
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
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.
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 armory, a chink in
their life-support mechanism. Naturally, their food source would be
an ideal target.
For the machines, obtaining energy from
the sun - a constant source - would 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 sun’s 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 Machine
2, I had put forth the idea that
the machines would, perhaps in retaliation, use humans as slave
laborers, to supply robots with their necessary energy. Indeed, we
must consider this as one possible scenario. However, actually using
humans as a source of energy - batteries, if you like - is 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 progress - it is central to our being - yet
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 recognizable 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
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. The status of an individual whilst within The Matrix
raises several key issues.
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
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 brain’s 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, Neo’s 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, part human.
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.
When I find myself in a discussion of the possibility of intelligent
machines taking over things, nine times out of ten I am told -
following a little chuckle to signify that I have overlooked a
blindingly obvious point - that,
"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 today’s common Internet
that gives us the answer, and cuts the chuckle short. Even now, how
is it practically possible to switch off the Internet? We’re not
talking theory here, we’re 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 can’t.
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.
Utilizing 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 heading - a
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.
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
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 Orwell’s 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.
So here we come on to the case of Cypher.
As he eats his steak he says,
"I know that this steak doesn’t
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
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 we’ve 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
doesn’t quite exist in the form our brain is imagining.
We can thus understand Cypher’s 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
Robert Nozick’s thought
experiment puts us all to the test, and serves as an immediate
exhibition of Cypher’s 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,
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.
Indeed, exactly the same thing is true
for a robot.
In The Matrix, no human fuel cells are killed, not even the unborn -
there 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 wouldn’t 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. It’s 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 can - a future in which we can be part of a Matrix system, which
is morally far superior to our Neolithic morals of today.
1. Hawking, S., "Hawking's plan to
offest computer threat to humans", Ananova, www.ananova/news, 1
2. In the Mind of the Machine, Arrow, 1998. Available on
3. I, Cyborg, Century, 2002. Available on www.amazon.co.uk