Caprica: Battlestar Galactica Makers Hit It Again — A Transhumanist View


Caprica is a new series from the producers of Battlestar Galactica.


[Warning: contains spoilers for the upcoming series pilot of Caprica. Some of you may want to come back and read it on Wednesday.]

Caprica is a new series from the producers of Battlestar Galactica. On April 21, the pilot will be made available on DVD and digital download in advance of the television series, which is slated to appear on the SciFi channel in early 2010. Set 58 years before the events of BSG, the show doesn’t take place in space and it doesn’t have the kinds of action sequences familiar to viewers of BSG. But Caprica does succeed in maintaining the same high-quality writing and overall excellence of BSG, while being a very different show. The dialogue is remarkably intelligent and well-acted.  What will interest many h+ readers, is how the show touches on issues related to transhumanism.

Caprica follows the lives of Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) and Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz), as they both deal with the loss of daughters who were killed in a terrorist attack. Graystone. a computer genius who has amassed great wealth, is the inventor of the Holoband, a virtual reality platform that can be worn as a headset. Graystone’s daughter Zoe, who was also brilliant with computers, had created an almost perfect copy of her mind and personality and put it into an avatar in the Holoband. Brought together by their common grief, Graystone turns to Adama for his help in securing a body that Zoe’s avatar can inhabit in the real world.

Taking advantage of its freedom from network restrictions, the Caprica pilot presents a realistic virtual world  that has everything from group sex to a killing zone; a place where individuals can grab a gun and shoot other participants, celebrities, or themselves. Transhumanist idealists might hope that if such realistic simulations of the horrors of death were available, people would lose their taste for killing in the real world and might be less eager to adopt generally pro-death views about the human lifespan. However, if the simulations became realistic enough, the possibility of causing just as much harm to virtual beings as to biological ones would raised ethical issues.

When Graystone first meets his daughter’s avatar, he is reluctant to accept her as anything but an elaborate copy. But, he tells his friend Adama that he does accept her as his daughter in the one place that counts — his heart. Adama, on the other hand, experiences distress when his  daughter returns to disembodied life in a state of confusion, terrified that she has no heartbeat. Adama also speaks in opposition to giving virtual Zoe a body, insisting that it would be a cold and dead machine. Graystone agrees, but argues essentially that appearances are surface details, and that it is what’s inside that counts.

An admirable character, in many respects, Graystone engages in several fascinating dialogues with both Adama and the avatar of his deceased daughter, Zoe, about the issues raised by her existence in this new form. While Adama is disturbed by the prospect of their daughters returning as avatars, calling it unnatural and an abomination, Graystone counters that the glasses he wears, as well as artificial limbs and organs that help millions, are hardly natural enhancements, but they are not abominations. Graystone refuses to be ruled over by death — he wants to take command over death for himself.  Adama seems to want to leave death in the hands of gods, even though he doesn’t believe in them.  This seems to be a likely source for conflict to come in the series.

Although the technology for emulating the human brain is thrillingly explained in this episode, Joseph Adama is convinced that a copy of someone cannot be the same as the real thing. Graystone eloquently points out, however, that Adama’s claim is unfalsifiable. When an artificial and real person look, think, feel, and act alike, the line between human and machine is blurred, and as Graystone says “a difference that makes no difference is no difference.”

Zoe plays powerfully on emotions, convincing us that she isn’t a “thing” and doesn’t feel like a copy. It’s easy to argue that the avatar is just as “real” as her biological counterpart. But this possibility raises another interesting issue: Would people feel better about the prospect of their own death if they knew that there was a perfect backup copy? My immediate reaction is that I would still find the prospect of death unnerving and would probably make every effort to avoid it… at least, that is, without convincing results from philosophy of mind, and perhaps even more importantly, empirical results from the cognitive sciences, describing the nature of identity.

While the great transhumanist issues like life extension, developing Friendly AI, gaining the power to re-engineer our minds, and mitigating existential risks remain complex, it;s exciting to think about technologies we might develop similar to the Holoband that give access to immersive virtual realities, and how that leads into ethical questions, including questions around life extension.

While Caprica stands strongly on its own merit, it will also air as a full season in 2010. I’m exciting to think that there will be a show on the air that so intelligently presents transhumanist issues to a wide audience.

See Also
h+ Magazine Issue 2
Buy a Raptor Fighter Ship used in Battlestar Galactica!
Pathology Precedes Potential: House, Dexter & Battlestar Galactica

Download Caprica on April 21 on Amazon or iTunes.  Check capricadvd for more info.


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