Lady Mechanika

Transrobotism – Transhumanism’s Twin

In a final scene of Ex Machina, in which an eccentric company founder has a programmer from his company perform the ultimate Turing test on Ava, his human-like artificial intelligence, the escaped Ava is seen walking one last time through the house that had been her prison, which she now leaves behind with the two dying humans. As she does so, she turns around and a slight hint of a smile flits across her lips. She sets out to finally live among the people and to study them. Unrecognized, because she herself looks like a young, human woman.

Alex Garland, the film’s director and screenwriter, described this smile to AI podcast host Lex Fridman as one of the most important moments in the film. Namely, we only ever discussed when machines would be more intelligent than humans, using the limited Turing test, which is not only physically detached, but actually only favors a cheating AI. Such an AI must be able to fool human experts that it is a human.

Ex Machina (2014): Ava turns one last time in the house that had been her prison.

But with Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, you put a deceptively human-like AI in physical form in front of humans, and the question quickly turns to whether Ava has consciousness. And recognizing this internal state, much like the Heisenberg principle, we can’t really observe it without changing it. Garland describes it in the following way:

The best indication that you can have of the interior state of someone is if they are not being observed, and they smile about something. They are smiling for themselves. And that was evidence of Ava’s true sentience, whatever Ava’s sentience was.

Alex Garland

This moment of “becoming alive”, from a simple robot to a sentient being, represents the reverse twin of transhumanism. In transhumanism, humans overcome their natural physical and mental limitations through technology. In principle, we have been transhumanists for millennia. Every tool, every weapon, every piece of clothing, and more recently every vaccination, smartphone, airplane, car, or pair of glasses helps us overcome human limitations, thereby trumping every other life on Earth.

We don’t have to wait for technologies to fuse with our bodies. Implants, eyeglasses, vaccines, medicines and even our food, which has been highly cultivated over thousands of years, are technologies artificially created by us. The fact that we will create artificial organs and implant nanotechnology or electronics into our bodies is only a logical continuation of this development. Criticism of such technologies is not new. Even technological enhancements that we take for granted today, such as an umbrella or a mirror, were seen as a means to the downfall of civilization when they were first introduced. With the wisdom of hindsight, we now only smile at our clueless ancestors to warn of the dangers of selfies or autonomous cars in the same breath.


While the transition from human to transhuman has been underway for millennia and cannot be stopped, nor should it be – after all, humans are natural creators of technology, and banning technology creation would thus be an absolutely inhumane ban – the opposite phenomenon of transrobotism has received little attention.

The term first appeared in 2007 at an MIT event where sociologist and technology researcher Sherry Turkle talked about it in the use of animal-like robots in caregiving. One example is Paro, a seal that can move its head, roll its eyes and purr when touched. It is used for therapy with people suffering from dementia in nursing homes, where real animals cannot be used. The special feature of these robotic animals is their resemblance to real animals, deceptively similar to real living creatures in both behavior and physical features, without the potential drawbacks of being dangerous to a sick person, or vice versa.

While these robots are still imitating fur, eyes and other physical and psychological characteristics through artificial materials and behavior, the trend is now already moving on to the next level. And for this I have to make a small excursion into the food industry.

In view of the increasingly obvious manifestation of climate change, which has been expressed in weather extremes for several years, and an increased rethinking of the treatment of farm animals, more and more researchers and companies are rushing to develop alternatives to animal products. Just Mayonnaise, Beyond Meat, Impossible, or most recently Orbillion are just a few of the startups dedicated to this task. The approaches vary. From finding plant-based substitutes for animal products like eggs to growing animal cells in a reactor under ideal conditions that allow for more hygienic meat than raising animals en masse under undignified conditions, everything is being tried.

And this is where transrobotism comes in: if I can already grow animal cells in the reactor, then I can also grow human cells. If the most obvious application is the cultivation of tissues or organs, which would make human recipients no longer dependent on tissue, blood or organ donors, then the cultivation of tissues and flesh and perhaps also organs or even a biological brain for equipping robots is also moving into a conceivable proximity. And so robots are approaching us transhuman humans from the other side.

Life versus Lïfe

Life, originating from biological origins and extended with technology, is then contrasted with Lïfe as subcategories of Lyfe, originating from technological origins and extended with organic material.

Why, though, does an AI robot – and I assume, as I describe in my (German) book When Monkeys Teach Monkeys, that an AI that is any good always needs to have a physical form in order to evolve – need organic building blocks as well as metal and plastic?

When monkeys learn from monkeys

This has to do with some properties of organic materials that cannot be accomplished with other types of materials today or in the near future. These include, for example, the self-healing power of tissues that can close again after a cut. Or bones that can grow together or perhaps even regrow after fractures. Or new types of sensors that can sense smells, a sense in which we are currently remarkably poor at our technologies. Or artificial skin and flesh that can feel through its finely distributed sensors, and thus experience pain and suffering. These experiences are necessary insofar as they seem essential for consciousness. They help to categorize and permanently store the vast amount of data coming through the sensors.

When I stand in the savannah and let the environment affect me, I feel the sun and the wind on my face, sense the smells, hear the rustling of grasses and leaves, see the blinding sunlight and the colors of the surroundings, and hear the roar of a tiger. For a robot standing in the savannah for the first time, none of the impressions carries more weight than the others. But we humans know that the roar of the tiger has absolute priority for our attention at a stroke. We know this because of millennia of evolution stored in ours. We will try everything to remain physically intact, that is: not to be bitten or even eaten by the tiger. Even small, unnoticed things, like a sting a rose or a bee sting we notice immediately, because our body reacts even to such small injuries, lets us focus our attention on it, and thus ensures our survival. And we will remember for a lifetime that a bee sting is not something pleasant.

And we can’t do that with today’s technologies for robots, or only slowly with the greatest effort, if we don’t want to add organic material as a building block for future robots. And at the same time, humans could create something in just a few years for which nature took millions of years: namely, to create life. With transrobotism we get into the situation – as we have been doing with intelligence for centuries – of having to redefine the term “life” again and again.

The Turing test for artificial intelligence, which has long since been proven to be inadequate, must then become a test for life. And this will have to test consciousness, suffering, pain and feelings, but also Ava’s smile.

The cover image is taken from the French comic book series Lady Mechanika, penned by Joe Benitez and Peter Steigerwald. The heroine of the multi-part series is Lady Mechanika, who was transformed into a transhumanist without her will and has many adventures in this steampunk world in search of her creator and the reasons for the transformation.

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