Ghost in the shell: not sci-fi but reality

Surprisingly for an action movie set in a world of cyborgs, this is a film about motherhood.

Major (Scarlett Johanssen) is a young woman who has been reconstructed as a robot with a human brain. She/it works as an enforcer to ensure that her constructor maintains its market-leading position in a future dystopian Tokyo  – and controls the government, too. Indestructible and yet touchingly vulnerable, Major fails to satisfy the boss (Peter Ferdinando) and faces an uncertain future.


So Dr Oulet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist who built and maintains “the shell” allows her/it to break free, and slips her/it a file with the data she craves: memories of her true past life. That’s what mothers do. They hold the memories, the folklore that is passed down through the generations and the sense of unspoken meanings that we call “feminine intuition”. Without this even a superintelligence – even a neural network woven from real human brains – cannot replicate humanity. This is the moral of the tale Ghost in the Shell. It at least is true to the original anime (1995) whose fans howled in rage when Scarlett Johanssen was cast in the title role, because she is “not Asian”. Still, she is Hollywood’s favourite sci-fi heroine, playing the Artificial Intelligence voice in Her, the title role in Lucy, the maneating female robot in Under the Skin.

Real-life cyborgs

What film-goers may fail to comprehend is just how close the fictions in Ghost in the Shell are to today’s reality. The Major and colleagues, cyborg and human, communicate by thinking. They use mobile devices lodged in their skulls to transmit their thoughts. Yet even in Hollywood fantasy-land, the devices do not work unless they can get a signal, so inside the villain’s underground lair the “head-phones” to fall silent! And this is not a far-fetched fiction: mobile phone microphones embedded in the throat (under a tattoo, for example) are the subject of a patent already filed by Motorola. And Sony has patented a smart wig that replaces hair to hook up to a phone. Robotic skin? HP has been working on it since 2012.

Phone in your eye

Google meanwhile has patented an eye implant, a tiny mobile phone that sits on the eyeball like a contact lens. This is the logical follow-up to Google Glass which flopped, perhaps because wearable tech needs to work intuitively without requiring the wearer to walk with her head tilted at a strange angle, talking aloud to her spectacles in order to load a page.

Talking aloud to devices is more popular now that Artificial Intelligence has endowed them with cheeky female-sounding voices – Siri, Alexa and friends – that can talk back. But it is already a thing of the past since 2013 when Google’s patent for facial recognition was filed, foreseeing a device that recognises its owner and responds to a gesture or wink.

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Prosthetic limbs controlled by thoughts have been developed by the US DARPA military research laboratory, which launched its first successful prototype in 2015 at Johns Hopkins University

Program manager Justin Sanchez described how the paralysed man reacted to “feeling” through his mechanical fingers “In the very first set of tests, in which researchers gently touched each of the prosthetic hand’s fingers while the volunteer was blindfolded, he was able to report with nearly 100 percent accuracy which mechanical finger was being touched. The feeling, he reported, was as if his own hand were being touched.

Artificial limb can feel

“At one point, instead of pressing one finger, the team decided to press two without telling him,” said Sanchez, who oversees the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. “He responded in jest asking whether somebody was trying to play a trick on him. That is when we knew that the feelings he was perceiving through the robotic hand were near-natural.”

There is a similar moment in the Ghost in the shell movie when Major encounters a real-life prostitute up close, and both come to realise that they are touching something ‘other’. Yet she/it clings fiercely to her humanity. She/it risks her life to rebel against the machine-driven system that commodifies people. She/it states her name and gives her permission before any adjustments are made to her shell – until the moment when she/it realises that it is not her real name and that she/it WILL be modified whether or not she/it gives permission. It is almost as though the screenwriter had read the Future Intelligence report “Can we make the digital world ethical?” (2014)  which insists on human primacy as a fundamental human right in our present and future relationships with smart machines. Major may be a comicbook character, a personification of hopes and fears that began with Pygmalion in the Greek myth and evolved through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster. But this is no fairytale. We have the technology. Do we have the political will to control it?

Review by Jane Whyatt. The opinions are the author’s own and not FI policy.