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Reflections from a Machine architect on the film “Ghost in the Shell”


gits.jpgCan you spot The Element?

The Red Eye

Up at 4:00 AM to get to Palo Alto. Customer Briefings, press interviews, photo shoots, all the stuff they never told you about in your engineering classes. All in all, a pretty typical Tuesday. 

But typical stopped at 12:30 AM Wednesday morning at SFO when I got on a red-eye headed for Newark Liberty.  I'm no stranger to flying through the night, landing on my feet and getting right to work, but something I'd never been to was a movie premiere and that was where I was headed, to attend the US opening night screening of “Ghost in The Shell,” the new film by Rupert Sanders adapted from the seminal manga by Masamune Shirow and starring Scarlett Johansson as The Major, one of the most famous characters in all of manga and anime.  

I've been a science fiction fan all my life; I prided myself on being able to determine original “Star Trek” episode name and number in the first ten seconds of the opening shot, so it shouldn't be a surprise that I didn't need any caffeine to keep me going. This was a once in a lifetime event for so many reasons.

Otaku first, hard sci-fi next

Growing up in the south San Francisco Bay Area just as it was picking up the name Silicon Valley and as the child of an aerospace engineer, science and technology was always there, but so was science fiction. 

My brother and I shared a bedroom and we always managed to get the old televisions whenever my parents got a new set, and it was usually tuned to KVTU, an independent channel that re-ran “Star Trek” and classic Warner Brothers cartoons, but especially because of Bob Wilkins.  Every Saturday night he hosted “Creature Feature,” where in addition to the science fiction and horror classics he’d somehow convince big name horror and SF personalities to come down to Oakland for interviews. Every afternoon he hosted “Captain Cosmic,” a threadbare show that showed Japanese live action kaiju series like “Ultraman,” “Johnny Sokko and this Flying Robot,” and “The Space Giants,” or anime like “Star Blazers.”

I watched them all. In fact, when I was recently out at a dinner in Tokyo with colleagues from HPE Japan and Hitachi, it turned out many of us watched the same shows growing up and when I sang the opening theme to “Star Blazers” (Space Battleship Yamato), they said “Kirk-san is an otaku!” or an anime geek.  

As I grew up, I started reading more sophisticated science fiction and when I was in eighth grade, my dad gave me a copy of Harlan Ellison’s seminal anthology “Dangerous Visions,” which I re-read countless times.  In that amazing collection, I found one author who really intrigued me, Larry Niven, because while he imagined alien races and bold adventurers, he kept the physics as real as possible. He was part of the “hard science” sub-genre of science fiction. His characters cared about Newton’s law, delta-vee, the hard vacuum and radiation of space, the claustrophobia of living in a cramped space ship and the agoraphobia of facing the void of open space.  Soon, I had read every one of the short stories and novels in his Known Space universe. 

Ghost in the Shell

I saw my first “Ghost in the Shell” anime episode when it was airing late night on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim and it immediately clicked with me. This was hard sci-fi at its best.  It depicted a world where there weren’t any easy answers. 

There were no ray guns, warp drives, fusion power plants, or aliens to teach us how to save ourselves.  This was not a post-scarcity world, there was still economic disparity and crime, and there were still the weak and the powerful.

If we find ourselves fundamentally limited to this world, how long can we resist turning our technologies inward to explore extending ourselves?

The big questions

Since that first ancestor picked up two stones and struck them together and created that first cutting edge, we have been extending ourselves, enhancing ourselves and by our ingenuity, our language, and our story-telling, we have been able to perpetuate these advances beyond the life span of the individual and in spite of the inability of our biology to pass on experience in the way it passes on genetic advantage.  

One question at the heart of “Ghost in The Shell” is how long that process can continue until we lose our humanity.  As an engineer and inventor, this is a personal question for me.  I’ll admit that there is a rush when something occurs to you and you realize that you’re it, you’re the only one who has put this together, ever.  But along with that rush comes doubt.  What’s going to happen next? Will I ever get this idea out of my head and into something, and even if I do, what are the ramifications of adding this to the body of human knowledge? 

The second big question that “Ghost in the Shell” brings up is as old as our systematic pursuit of philosophy: What is the relationship between mind and body?  Are they divisible? Can the mind trust the body?  These are the questions which led to Descartes' formula “cogito ergo sum.” I think therefore I am. Even in the face of radical doubt, the act of the mind contemplating doubt was at least proof of its own existence.  

In contemplating the sources of radical doubt, Descartes also imagined the Deus Deceptor, a being as powerful as it is malevolent, capable of creating a complete illusion of being and presenting it to the mind of his subject. These ideas and their subsequent arguments continue to this day. But we can no longer draw comfort from the notion that they are purely theoretical.  

What is fascinating to contemplate in the “Ghost in the Shell” world is that those who can afford to have their bodies augmented voluntarily forfeit all self-discernment.

When the Hewlett Packard Labs team first met director Rupert Sanders to discuss the film and the technology of its world, our discussion of a sensory life permanently mediated by technology reminded me of L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz.” Upon entering the Emerald City, Dorothy was required to wear emerald-tinted lenses that were locked on because, as she was told, “If you did not wear spectacles, the brightness and glory of the Emerald City would blind you. Even those who live in the City must wear spectacles night and day. They are all locked on, for Oz so ordered it when the City was first built.” 

Dorothy and her friends are dazzled by the city and terrified by the Wizard, but upon their return they unmask the Wizard as a humbug. The spectacles only created the illusion of living in a city of emeralds.

How are we able to trust our technologies, both as intended and more importantly as manufactured?  Will reliance on augmented reality enable our political and economic leaders, or their enemies, to do more than just shape or influence opinion, but to fabricate experience wholesale? 

Possible Answers

Back in the early days of our The Machine Advanced Development program, when talking to our security architects, my constant refrain to them was “demonstrably correct access to information in perpetuity is the heart of The Machine.” While perhaps worded clumsily, it did capture the long term desire: The ability to afford to provide information to subsequent generations that they know has not deteriorated nor been adulterated nor destroyed.  

While we usually think of cryptography as hiding information, it can also be used to confirm its authenticity. That is where a cryptographically-provable chain of trust that goes back to a publically verifiable root of trust is interesting and where public distributed ledgers, like blockchain, could be employed.  If I can verify that the image I am viewing was accurately transmitted to me by a camera which was accurately recording it via software and hardware that accurately reflect the design intent of the engineering teams, we could have the attestation which we seek.

The Power of Myth

What is so powerful to me about “Ghost in the Shell” is what is best in the best of science fiction – the ability to provide us a framework to examine the interplay of so many aspects of our common humanity. As a technologist, it gives me insight into the wider, potentially unintended implications of my inventions.  For the non-technologist, it exposes them to the art of the possible.  That it can speak to all of us is its power.

Kirk Bresniker
Chief Architect, Hewlett Packard Labs

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About the Author


Kirk Bresniker is Chief Architect of Hewlett Packard Labs and an Hewlett Packard Enterprise Fellow. Prior to joining Labs, Kirk was Vice President and Chief Technologist in the HP Servers Global Business Unit representing 25 years of innovation leadership.