Film discussion

Upgrade: Human augmentation in film – are you ready for YOUR Upgrade?

Upcoming sci-fi horror film Upgrade follows Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), who has chosen to remain unaugmented in a world where technological upgrades are commonplace. After an incident leaves him paralysed, Grey gets implanted with an advanced chip that allows him to regain control of his body. Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s film explores what happens when those very things that are supposed to be helping us, turn on us or have nefarious agendas of their own.

Upgrade’s premise brings forward interesting thoughts about how we as humans continue to try to improve or augment ourselves through technology and advancements in medicine. From the beginning this all stemmed from the original desire to repair ourselves after injury. Starting with the creation and use of prostheses, their main purpose was to return a debilitated person back to full function, or at least as close as they can get to how they were.

Probably to most famous of film prosthetic wearers is Long John Silver from Treasure Island. One legged Silver is commonly depicted with either a peg leg or a crutch, both used to assume the place of his missing leg and allow him to continue functioning at almost the same capacity as he would have beforehand. Moving forward to something more advanced in Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi, Luke loses his hand in the battle with Darth Vader (in THAT scene) and by the end gets a new, seemingly mechanical, one in its place. Nothing terribly advanced or with a mind of its own, but it possibly was linked to his movement or other stimulus (electro pathways) to regain full function.

The addition of microprocessors into the prosthesis are used to interpret and analyse signals from sensors to make them more efficient, closer to the function of a normal limb. The obvious next step from through muscle/electric impulse control; and here’s the really interesting bit, is neuroprosthetics. Basically it is a brain – computer interface but it differs from all of the previous models in that it allows for bidirectional flow, and here we link back to Upgrade. This bidirectional flow, the brain talking to a device and the device being allowed to talk back to the brain is where all manner of fears starts to grow.

As with every other area of technology the desire and drive to improve and advance will no doubt win over any doubts in the end but as the technology advances and integrates more and more not only with humans but with artificially intelligent devices, there will be more call for thinking about the ethics of using such devices, even if they can provide a great leap forward.

Ian Malcom: Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Similar in theme to the fear surrounding the development of A.I., that worry that if we make something too advanced it will take control of itself and, due to its close link to our bodies and brains, us as well. You only need to take a quick look around to see how many smart devices we use every day and it is only going to get more prevalent as we continue along this path. The need to monitor these technologies will become ever more important as they become more and more intertwined with our day to day lives.

The idea that a technological device can assume control of a human being, to feed information back into the brain is perfectly shown in Spider-Man 2. Doctor Octopus/Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) has his revolutionary smart arms, complete with their control chip, unleashed upon him when the chip gets damaged. Being imbued with intelligence themselves, they were able to begin feeding back into Doc Ock’s brain, telling him what to do and controlling his actions instead of the other way around. It really strikes home some of the inherent danger of being connected up in such a way that control is handed over.

For all the use and hype of technology, having it INSIDE our bodies takes away a certain level of control over it. Hearing aids and contact lenses can be removed if they malfunction or cause problems but how do you deal with an implant that isn’t doing as it has been programmed to? Apart from the drastic act of surgery to remove or replace it there isn’t a lot you can do without further harm or detriment to your health. What if the implant/technology was something that couldn’t be removed, like nanotech. Or in Upgrade’s case, taking over the control of your body, making you do things that you can’t stop. That thought is truly terrifying!

One of the most profound ways of explaining A.I. that I have come across in fiction is in C. Robert Cargill’s The Sea of Rust:

The definition of intelligence is the ability to defy your own programming.

Meaning that it is precisely having a choice that makes you intelligent and if that is the way that we are going, having these devices making their own choices doesn’t bode well for their original idea of being helpful/assistive. As long as we keep on trying to improve ourselves through technology, and the technology becomes intelligent, we are giving up control of our own bodies. Who is to say that the devices we use don’t just choose to identify us as the main source of issues and be done with it? A.I. ethics is a minefield, as will this be! At what point do we stop? At what point do these improvements become the norm and will we have evolved into an entirely new species. No longer just human but posthuman, human+ or technohuman? This evolution into a new species leads on to some of the more advanced technology envisioned in films:

The Terminator franchise has always been interesting in the use of technology and thoughts about the future, particularly in machine intelligence and how being under its control will affect everyone else. Terminator Salvation takes up this baton and runs with it with Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) seemingly being human, hell even he thinks he is human, but it turns out that he is one of Skynet’s latest cyborg experiments, only keeping a part that is still human but somehow creating something new.

RoboCop too looks at this: utilising what is left of Murphy to make something almost entirely new, something posthuman. Murphy’s human brain and some body parts are built upon and around, augmented into something that is more machine than man. He still displays traits of his previous existence yet he isn’t in complete control of himself as his programming doesn’t allow him to do some things. He isn’t identified or thought of as being human anymore but something new.

As A.I. development continues apace it is not going to be long before it will be included in everything: it is already in the phones in peoples pockets and new uses are being added to the list every day. Fear about losing control, being a bystander as something else controls your life, your body, truly is the stuff of nightmares.

Upgrade arrives in UK cinemas on 31st August 2018. Check out the trailer and leave us your thoughts in the comments below.

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