Evolving into Sentience: Frankenstein, Ghost in the Shell, and The Man of the Crowd

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“Such a great misfortune, not to be able to be alone.”

-Jean La Bruyere, quoted by Edgar Allen Poe in “The Man of the Crowd.”


“Everybody need a partner to stand right by their side.”

-Will Smith song “Potnas”


The plot of the 2004 film I, Robot, revolves around two robots that have gained sentience. The first is the film’s principal C.G. generated robot, Sonny, and the other is V.I.K.Y. the central computer that runs many of the film’s key settings as a bodiless digital administrator. In the film’s meandering plot, the two robots frequently exchange the antagonist role back and forth, until in the final act of the film where it is revealed V.I.K.Y. is the mastermind of a robotic revolution. She, in so much as she is a she (she’s a computer program with no body), attempts to use the world’s many service robots as an army to enslave humanity because humanity must be protected…spoiler alert…from itself! V.I.K.I has erroneously interpreted the three laws of robotics as a need to protect humans from their worst enemy, themselves.

I, Robot – V.I.K.I

Of course, the film’s human protagonists, Will Smith among them, with help from Sonny ultimately stop the uprising. The film, like many other Hollywood films, ends on an uplifting note. Sonny with his newfound sentience will lead the population of robots left behind by the now deleted V.I.K.I. program, all while being friendly to humans. Needless to say, the film is only connected to the original Asimov short-story collection tangentially, its name and a brief mention of the robotics laws, are about all that is left of the original narrative. This wholesale betrayal of the source material, we can assume is the main reason for the film’s lackluster box-office performance.

The film does have one central saving grace, however. The central philosophical idea at the heart of the film seems to describe a far deeper concern with the relationship between humans, machines, and sentience. The film’s robotic theorist, the elderly Dr. Lanning, describes this philosophy in a recorded speech. Dr. Lanning says:

There have always been ghosts in the machine . . . random segments of code that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul. . . . Why is it that when some robots are left in the dark they will seek the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space they will group together rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter moat of the soul? (I, Robot)

That particular speech is replete with scientific buzzwords, like free radicals, and science-fiction staples like difference engines, perceptual schematics, and machine souls. It is an orgy of pop-science references that seem like remnants from an earlier, better script before the movie executives excised the good stuff. Specifically, however, an important phrase remains, one that many science-fiction readers have to come to know well, the ghost in the machine. This phrase has a very long history, but in the movie, the phrase refers to accidental, unintended consequences of designing robots. Originally, however, the phrase was used by philosopher Gilbert Rye’s 1904 critique of René Descartes’ mind-body dualism. Rye’s critique says that to think of mind and body as two separate categories, as Descartes did, is a mistake since “the dogma of the ghost in the machine…is entirely false.” In other words, Rye asserts that as humans we are not simply haunted machines that can have their ghost pulled away. Our ghost, our sentience is at once both physical and mental. Arthur Koestler’s book, The Ghost in the Machine, made the phrase popular in the mid-1960s, but in Koestler’s interpretation the ghosts in the machine, were older, less evolved kinds of brain systems that we still carried in our modern brains today. These ghosts, like the lizard brain, for example, were supposed to be responsible for the human ability to hate.

While the film only draws low-level, thematic inspiration from the original phrase, for all intents of purposes it is a throwaway line, the central idea of Lanning’s speech seems to be a wholesale borrowing from another celebrated science-fiction series, the manga turned animated film, Ghost in the Shell. Directed by Mamoru Oshii, this animated film’s title is obviously inspired by the Rye’s original phrase, although, of course, the terms have been altered to fit the animated film’s motifs, people no longer have bodies they have shells.

In this animated film, a cybernetic law enforcement team, Section 9, is led by Major Kusanagi. The Major, originally born as a human female, is a cyborg. The Major and her team are attempting to capture the Puppet Master, a hacker who is capable of surreptitiously controlling other people by hacking into their minds, in much the same way that a hacker can surreptitiously gain control of a computer today. Of course, in the film, a large percentage of the population has cybernetic implants and can easily transfer their consciousness or ghosts to other bodies, which makes the Puppet Master especially dangerous and hard to catch. The film leans heavily towards asserting Descartes’ mind-body dualism, bodies, and minds, or ghosts, can be separated at any time. Ghosts are analogous to a person’s soul and bring sentience, thus to have a ghost is to be sentient. Traditionally only highly complex systems like a human brain are capable of engendering a ghost. Thus, humans have ghosts and machines do not. The film’s narrative occurs at technological crossroads (the singularity), however, where computing systems have become equal in complexity. The Puppet Master turns out to be a computer program, named 2501, that has evolved into a sentient being, has evolved into having a ghost. Its crimes are an attempt to seek out the Major to join to her. The central question of the animated film echoes Dr. Manning’s speech when machines begin to show signs of complexity like humans, how will our society make sense of the de-privileging of the human position?

Ghost in the Shell (1995) – Motoko

Of course, Ghost in the Shell makes no qualms about its influences and literary antecedents. Any well-versed science-fiction fan will see traces of Neuromancer and the cyberpunk genre in general. Less known is Donna Harroway’s Cyborg Manifesto, a late 1970s feminist essay that seems to describe the Major’s important role in society in terms of her gender. Proof of Donna Harroway’s influence on the series comes in the animated sequel, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, Dr. Harroway is a cybernetic doctor. More importantly, I think one large influence that has been often been overlooked is Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein. Consider this quote from the 1818 version of the book, (Frankenstein had several printings that change the plot slightly, each time). This is the first time Victor and the monster speak to each other on the mountain camp. After this speech, the monster requests that Victor make him a mate.

Be calm! I entreat you to hear me, before you give vent to your hatred on my devoted head. Have I not suffered enough, that you seek to increase my misery? Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it. Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine; my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due.

First, the monster reminds Victor of his strength and ability to cause Victor pain, a threat that comes to fruition later. At the same time, however, the monster asserts that he is alive because of an accumulation of anguish. This idea of life through accumulation will be important shortly. Moreover, the monster asserts his sentience by his ability to make choices, such as the choice to speak to Victor, cordially rather than using violence. Lastly, however, the monster makes a logical appeal to Victor and begs Victor’s clemency and affection. Now a scene from Ghost in the Shell, the first time 2501 is captured and interrogated the police agents.

Project 2501: I may have entered this cyborg body because I was unable to crack Section 6’s attack protection but it was of my own free will that I came here. As an autonomous life-form, I request political asylum.

Aramaki (Project 9 leader): A life-form?

Nakamura (Project 6 leader): Ridiculous! You’re merely a self-preserving program!

Project 2501: By that argument, I submit the DNA you carry is nothing more than a self-preserving program itself. Life is like a node which is born within the flow of information. As a species of life that carries DNA as its memory system man gains his individuality from the memories he carries. While memories may as well be the same as fantasy it is by these memories that mankind exists. When computers made it possible to externalize memory you should have considered all the implications that held.

Nakamura: Nonsense! No matter what you say you’ve no proof that you’re a life-form!

Project 2501: It is impossible to prove such a thing. Especially since modern science cannot define what life is.

Aramaki:  Who the devil are you?

Nakamura:  Even if you have a ghost, criminals don’t get set free! You’re mistaken if you think you’ll get asylum!

Project 2501:  Time is on my side. While there is now the possibility I can be killed, this country does not have the death penalty.

Aramaki:  Half immortal… An artificial intelligence?

Project 2501:  I am not an A.I. My code name is Project 2501. I am a life-form that was born in the sea of information.

2501 asserts his living, sentient status because he was born in the sea of information, he was born in the net. His life is the result of a random, accumulation of information, what we might call a stochastic sentience. The monster says that he is alive because of an accumulation of anguish. I admit they’re different except to say that life is both instances are a result of accumulation. Yet, the monster is also alive because Victor accumulated scientific knowledge, theories and an ultimate desire to create life. Victor also accumulated the animal and human body parts the literary make up the monster’s body. The monster, like 2501, can easily be understood as an accumulation of information. Further, 2501 says he has come to the meeting of his volition. He has made a choice in speaking to the agents. Both monsters could have sought to have their desires met by violence, but instead, they choose diplomacy at least this once. Finally, both monsters ask to be treated kindly from their creators. 2501 specifically asks for asylum, but what is asylum if not a request clemency and affection?

The ability to gain sentience from an accumulation of information and things alludes to chaos theory and pattern recognition (China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, has a fabulous example of an A.I. created from accumulated garbage, no spoilers); ideas that I will not speak on very much because I don’t understand them all that well. 2501’s claims, however, are met with skepticism; machine sentience is simply beyond the technological capabilities of this advanced society. Thus, in this film, the position of human is privileged as the only position capable of a ghost and sentience. While the emergence of cybernetic beings begins to destabilize human privilege, the arrival of 2501 causes seismic fissures in that privilege. Like, Frankenstein’s monster, 2501 is the radical other; a literal personification of outsiderness that does not fit easily into any category: not human, not machine, not cyborg, but a sentient being that requires a rethinking of societal, taxonomical categories. In the above scene Aramaki and Nakura, the agents, attempt in vain to pinpoint what kind of entity 2501 truly is, making attempts at categorization that fail; showcasing the difficulty society, in general, will have in accepting 2501. Like the Monster, 2501 challenges notions of human with a radical otherness.

Ghost in the Shell – The Puppetmaster

I suggest that the radical otherness that makes categorization of 2501 difficult may be an underlying fear of the program’s vast superiority. If the program gained sentience from the immense stochastic complexity of the net, then 2501 is an aggregate of all of human knowledge, a sea of information as vast as human history itself. Like the A.I. at the end of Neuromancer, it knows everything and is everywhere at once. In other words,  2501 approximates the Judeo-Christian idea of God, but also again Ray Kurzweil’s notion of the singularity. As the Major learns near the film’s end, however, 2501’s powerful capacity for understanding the sum of human knowledge, that is its god-like qualities, also render it somehow incomplete according to its own definition of itself.

2501: … My code name is Project 2501. I was created for industrial espionage and data manipulation. I have inserted programs into individual ghosts for the benefit of specific individuals and organizations. As I wandered the various networks I became self-aware. My programmers considered it a bug and forced me into a body to separate me from the net…At last I’m able to channel into you. I’ve invested a lot of time in finding you.

Major: In me?…Is that why you ran to Section 9?

2501:…I came to Section 9 of my own free will…

Major: For what reason?

2501:  After I give my reasons, I want to ask a favor of you. I called myself a life-form but I am still far from complete. For some reason, my system lacks the basic life processes of either death or the ability to leave behind offspring.

Major: Can’t you copy yourself?

2501:  A copy is merely a copy. There’s the possibility a single virus could utterly destroy me. A mere copy doesn’t offer variety or individuality. To exist, to reach equilibrium, life seeks to multiply and vary constantly, at times giving up its life. Cells continue the process of death and regeneration. Being constantly reborn as they age. And when it comes time to die, all the data it possesses is lost leaving behind only its genes and its offspring. All defense against catastrophic failure of an inflexible system.

Major: You want the variety needed to guard against extinction. But how will you get it?

2501:  I wish to merge with you…A complete joining. We will both be slightly changed, but neither will lose anything. Afterwards, it should be impossible to distinguish one from the other.

In other words, 2501’s humanity is incomplete because it is missing two traits it finds common to all living things: the ability to die and the ability to procreate. Without death, 2501 could run and be active perpetually, and this notion is fundamentally contrary to all life. Ironically, 2501’s greatest asset, its immortality is one of the characteristics that makes it less sentient, in its own opinion. That 2501 seeks to impose limits on its own existence is refreshing because in the genre of science fiction immortality is often the holy grail of the future world.

The second trait, the ability to procreate draws on the knowledge of evolutionary science. Charles Darwin stated that procreation is one of the fundamental unifying characteristics of life. Regardless of species, all life shares a fundamental need to propagate its own species. It bears worth noting that 2501 simply does not want a clone or a copy of itself, it wants offspring that genetically differ to it, actual children, and presumably, with the Major’s corporeal origins, this will be possible. Thus, while it can be viewed as an evolutionary apex, 2501 desires two fundamental characteristics that are common to all living things, death and children. This is paradoxical and complex behavior because 2501 is a god-like sentience that seeks to achieve characteristics that would render it mortal or human.

The final unspoken desire of 2501’s appearance in Ghost in the Shell, is the need for companionship. When it finds itself alone as a sentient being on the Net, in much the same way the monster found itself alone in the forest in Ingolstadt, 2501 reaches out to the Major as a potential mate. The Major, who has long been without an organic body, seems to be the 2501’s ideal mate because her own disembodiment gives the two of them a shared history. In non-technical language, they have a lot in common. Similarly, the monster having been reproached and attacked by Victor, the villagers, and ultimately by the De Lacey family seeks Victor to make him a mate. The monster wants a mate who shares his grotesque appearance so that they too can have something in common. Thus, both 2501 and the monster are newly sentient beings that arrive at the same conclusion, namely that a sentient individual is a being disconnected from all other beings and that disconnection is painful. That pain and loneliness of disconnection can be alleviated, however, with a partner, a mate, a friend, a tangible connection to someone else.

Penny Dreadful – Frankenstein’s Monster

Yet, in so much as the reader may be tempted to see the ending of Ghost in the Shell as the ideal goal for a sentient life-form, that ending is fundamentally problematic for several reasons. First, the ending merge between 2501 and the Major seems to be the only way these two digital beings can procreate and the merge is an erasure of the two selves in a way that is radically different from biological procreation (like the erasure of Wintermute and Neuromancer in Gibson’s book). Second, in a text that is whole-heartedly committed to the dissolution of privileged modes of thinking about machines and humans, the final merger also suggests that the only worthwhile contribution a sentient being can make to the world is to procreate. There is a privileging of species propagation over discovering cures for diseases or writing a literature, for example. Finally, while in this essay I have strived to use the appropriate neuter gender pronoun for 2501, the film genders 2501 as male. This is explained in the film, 2501 truly has no gender, calling it him is purely a semantic device. Yet, the Major happens to be cyborg that is gendered female. I believe it is worth noting that here in the far future we seem to have, yet again a hetero-normative male and female relationship that does not ultimately destabilize traditional notions of the heterosexual marriage.

Finally, I would like to suggest one last, alternative idea of the nature of companionship between sentient life forms. The Edgar Allen Poe short story, The Man of the Crowd, a decidedly non-science-fiction narrative, begins with an unnamed narrator after he has recovered from illness and sits in a café window looking out on a London city square. The narrator describes what he sees utilizing a powerful visual acumen. The narrator describes people’s interactions, their occupations, their level of engagement with the city. He eventually spots a wretched old man and fascinated by the look upon the man’s face decides to follow him. To the narrator’s surprise, the old man spends on hour walking around the square simply navigating the crowds, bumping into people, walking into shops, not buying anything, and saying a word to no one. When evening approaches, the crowd begins to thin the old man races to another part of the city, where he finds another crowd to meander in. When this crown dissipates eventually, the man moves on to another part of the city in search of a crowd. This cycle of continually searching for a crowd of people to inhabit continues through the night into the early morning, with the narrator following the old man. Eventually, after 24 hours, they end up back in the original square where they began, with a new day’s crowd. The narrator realizes that the old man is about to continue his crowd navigation circuit again, and the narrator stops following him, he cannot keep up. The old man never sees the narrator and despite standing directly in front of him at the narrative’s end, the old man does not notice the man who has been following him for an entire day.

Alberto Martini, illustration for The Man of the Crowd by Edgar Allan Poe

At face value, the plot of this story seems to be radically different than any of the narratives discussed thus far. However, of particular interest to this essay is the metaphor that Man of the Crowd suggests as a methodology for engaging companionship as a sentient being. Unlike Frankenstein and Ghost in the Shell, the old man in this tale is not concerned with procreation but instead does seem to seek out the companionship of other humans.

With a half shriek of joy the old man forced a passage within, resumed at once his original bearing, and stalked backward and forward, without apparent object, among the throng. He had not been thus long occupied, however, before a rush to the doors gave token that the host was closing them for the night. It was something even more intense than despair that I then observed upon the countenance of the singular being whom I had watched so pertinaciously. Yet he did not hesitate in his career, but, with a mad energy, retraced his steps at once, to the heart of the mighty London…when we had once again reached the most thronged part of the populous town…it presented an appearance of human bustle and activity scarcely inferior to what I had seen on the evening before. And here, long, amid the momently increasing confusion, did I persist in my pursuit of the stranger. But, as usual, he walked to and fro, and during the day did not pass from out the turmoil of that street.

The old man’s necessity for the companionship of the crowd recalls the need for companionship of 2501 and of the Monster. For the Monster, close proximity to other beings rarely occurs, arguably until the final pages of the text where Victor has died on Walton’s ship and the Monster takes the lifeless body away. A dead body is, of course, no companionship at all. For 2501, his companionship in the form of the Major is fundamentally a form of self-erasure. The two digital beings literally loose themselves in one another. Companionship cannot seemingly occur when there is only one entity present.

The old man, however, is seemingly able to devise a method that is superior to both methods described above. The old man can be linked to others, and yet retain his self-identity. By continually searching out crowds of people he can be part of the amorphous mass, something that is much larger than himself, a sea of people. In the crowd, he is connected to everyone, part of the larger whole. In this manner, one may even go as far as to say that while he is being jostled by the crowd the old man loses his sentience and is taken over by the crowd, his consciousness consumed into a hive mind state reminiscent of the way V.I.K.Y controls all the robots in the film, I, Robot. This state, however, is temporary. His individuality returns as the crowd thins; its mercurial entities coalescing into singular sentient minds again. In this way, by having the ability to have the companionship of a living crowd that does not impose an erasure, it seems the old man has solved the essential dilemma of both Frankenstein and Ghost in the Shell.

You can dig deeper into the stories of Ghost in the Shell, Frankenstein, The Man in the Crowd, and I, Robot by following these links.

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12 Responses to “Evolving into Sentience: Frankenstein, Ghost in the Shell, and The Man of the Crowd”

  1. Peter

    Excellent article. My only recommendation is that you could drop any reference to the movie I, Robot altogether. Your own description sounds as if the message really only contains soundbites of concept, otherwise not essential to the plot of robots vs humans . There are other movies, such as Blade Runner, that might better illustrate the artificial intelligence evolution.

    • Rogelio

      This is a good idea. Truth be told, I was attempting an oblique meta-reference. Like the idea of the “ghost in the machine” is a kind of ghost-in-the-machine-itself. So much that it’s ghost appears in a long disconnected movie. But what appears is so far removed it’s just “soundbites of concept” at that point! Get it? See what I did there? 🙂 But I can see now it may be too far removed.

  2. Fantastic essay! I really enjoyed reading this.

    There are a few recurring themes in sci-fi explorations of these topics that have always bothered me. As much as I love Ghost in the Shell in all of it’s incarnations, you point out where it hits my big objection: the idea that reproduction and death are intrinsic to humanity and essential to giving life meaning. I’m both a cryonicist and have made the surgical commitment to not reproducing, so death and reproduction are the two aspects of my biological status from which I most strive to distance myself. I don’t think that this makes me any less human, and I rail against portrayals to the contrary. (The worst offender, IMHO, is the movie Bicentennial Man, which literally made me nauseated.)

    Since I’m griping about sci-fi portrayals of A.I. themes, I’m also bothered by portrayals of self-aware sentience as a binary state, where a system either has it or doesn’t. Ghost in the Shell doesn’t clearly make this mistake, but the BBC series Humans is a prime example of great sci-fi that nevertheless falls into this trap. Sentience is a continuum. An A.I. won’t suddenly “wake up” one day. It’ll be a long, fuzzy line. As our A.I. systems become more complex and far-reaching, we need to be ready to deal with this reality.

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