ATHENS – The recently-released book Cyborg Sapiens, written by Dimitris Orfanidis and published by Elkistis, covers very serious topics – Artificial Intelligence, the ‘Upgrading’ (αναβάθμιση) even the transformation, of the human species via technological implants and genetic alteration, etc. Precisely because they address realities that may be ‘coming’ but cannot yet be grasped, attention has been drawn to this publication precisely because it is a book of poetry, not non-fiction – poets and artists being historically the presenters of states of being that are not visible – or here yet.
The book presentation September 20 at the War Museum in Athens featured a learned panel moderated by journalist Fanis Papathanasiou. The participants were Orfanidis, Theofanis Tasis, professor of Contemporary Practical Philosophy at the Alpen – Adria Universität, who also teaches at College Year in Athens, Sonia Tourkolia, president of Educational and Cultural Society of Kyparissias, Sophia Lignou, President of Greece’s Court of Appeals, and actor Vassilis Paleologos.
The event was organized by the society ‘Literary Circle of Greek Judges’ (Κύκλος Ελλήνων Λογοτεχνών Δικαστών) and indeed the Amphitheater was filled with judges, lawyers, and artists. Lignou is the Society’s current president, Orfanidis, a judge of the Court of Appeals, is its Past President and current General Secretary.
A lively Q & A followed and Xenia Dimitriou, past Prosecutor with the Supreme Court of Greece, noted Orfanidis succeeded with his small volume of poems in eloquently encapsulating writing on the topic to date.
The value of the event, however, was the dramatization of such matters – material that seems far off and abstract to us when encountered in books and articles – through readings by Paleologos and others of the poems, many of which are in the voices of individuals of the future who are already living the realities being addressed. The poetry shows that while we cannot predict facts, one can explore the implications, legal, ethical, spiritual, of current developments.
Orfanidis’ fourth published poetry collection was inspired by a life experience. He was shaken by the power of technology to seize our souls. While he was enjoying a beautiful vista on the seashore, he noticed someone nearby captivated by a similar view… on his cell phone. That prompted him to devour existing writing on these topics, books like Homo Deus and works by Professor Tasis.
Tasis and Orfanidis and later the Q&A participants touched on notions practical and philosophical: How and where are lines to be drawn? Who draws the lines and makes the decisions? Who gets the new goodies and how? What are the points of no return we must look out for – and will we be able to see and act upon them in time?
The ideas that emerged during the event and the reception that followed in the Museum’s Foyer were pessimistic – but fear is a good engine for driving people to learn and prepare to act, and that motivates the efforts of both Orfanidis and Tasis.
The discussions showed there are many slippery slopes here, as well as lines that are seemingly strongly drawn but in reality are too easily smeared.
Much has already happened, as some participants noted. We interact with AI’s on the phone without realizing it. Will they gain consciousness and become our rivals – or will they develop into less threatening things, not artificial persons but just cognitive functions that will add their (considerable) power to the invisible hand of the free market that already makes so many of our individual and collective decisions?
Almost everyone agrees implants would be a blessing for healing people with hearing, seeing, or even cognitive disabilities – but once the hardware and software in mastered, the leap from maintaining health to granting super powers is small.
And to what degree can individuals or societies ‘just say no’ to things like brain enhancements, for adults and for their children, when companies and schools might merely just ‘suggest’ it – but those who don’t go along…are cast aside or left behind?
The poems also ask at what point do humans with implants and other enhancements become Cyborgs? Would they constitute a new species? Are we – here we enter the realm or science fiction (or are we already there) – who ‘remain human’ going to be subjugated or eliminated by the ‘transhuman’? Again, how do you apply the brakes? Who applies the breaks?
The discussion also addressed the rise of political or religious movements that might try to advance the process – perhaps erasing or replacing God – or thwarting it.
With titles like ‘Artificial Salvation’, ‘Not a (Big) New Deal’, ‘Artificial Intelligence Service’, ‘Fake Babies’, ‘Dolce Vita’, and of course, ‘A Brave New World’, Cyborg Sapiens is a lesson on the power of poems – and a sermon on taking greater responsibility for the future.