The pivotal scene in the 2019 science-fiction film, Alita: Battle Angel, occurs when the heroine emerges from the lake, cradling a headless metallic body. This is the shell of a Berserker cyborg warrior. It will give Alita the strength to go into battle against her foes. You see, Alita is herself a cyborg — the only part of her body that’s human is her brain.
The movie presents a future in which people swap out flesh and blood for technology. For the current generation, this is fantasy, but for the next generation (or their children), maybe not. So let’s ask the question — what’s the downside to this trade?
That Alita, as a warrior, should arm herself with the best available technology is not a new idea — think of the Greek warrior Achilles, who fought the Trojans with shield and armor crafted by the god Hephaestos, or King Arthur and his magic sword Excalibur. Special weapons for our favorite fighters is a mainstay of modern cinema, too. Consider Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, brandishing M-60 machine-gun, or Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry” and his .44 magnum. More recently, we have Robert Downey, jr. as “Ironman,” who flicks a button and an armored suit surrounds and shields his body, and then he’s flying through the air and firing rockets. But Alita takes this progression to the logical extreme — her body is all high-tech, there’s nothing human except her brain.
One wonders what this would be like. The 19th century poet Walt Whitman celebrated the sensuality of the body. His poem “I Sing the Body Electric” concludes with a paean to a long list of body parts: “Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears….Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest.” Whitman concludes: “O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,/O I say now these are the soul!”
That body and soul are connected was also the message of President John F. Kennedy. Writing in the December 1960 edition of Sports Illustrated, he argued that physical health was the precondition for moral courage:
For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. Much is not yet understood. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies
— John F. Kennedy, “The Soft American,” Sports Illustrated, December 26, 1960
The 19th century English art critic John Ruskin wrote that “endurance is more noble than strength, and patience than beauty.” He was counseling artists to seek the sublime in the faces of the poor, the sick, and the aged. Sympathy was in Ruskin’s view the essence of high art.
But without human bodies, there might no longer be physical suffering, at least not as we currently understand it. What would this imply for souls, minds, sympathy, and art?
Alita: Battle Angel was produced by James Cameron, based on the Japanese manga by Yukito Kitiro. The story opens with a shadowy figure prowling through a scrapyard filled with debris that’s rained down from a city floating in the sky. The figure stoops to inspect an object — he’s found what appears to be a woman’s head and upper torso. And to his surprise, inside there lives a human brain.
The figure is Dr. Dyson Ido (played by Christoph Waltz), a cyborg scientist and surgeon who lives in Iron City. Once back in the lab, he attaches the head to a cyborg body which he’d built for his daughter, a teenage paraplegic. In this way, Alita (played by Rosa Salazar) comes back to life in the body of a teenager. But when she opens her eyes, she has no memories of who she used to be.
Newly-awakened but amnesic, Alita rediscovers some of life’s simple joys: she traces her metal fingers across a mirror’s polished surface, revels in the taste of chocolate, joins the local teenagers in rough and tumble games, kisses a new boyfriend. For a character with a mechanical body, she appears to experience sensations and emotions with the same intensity we might feel.
Alita is not the only character in the movie with high-tech body parts. Dr. Ido serves the working population of Iron City, fitting injured patients with prosthetic limbs. Their refurbished bodies lack grace, however, because Dr. Ido’s supply of parts is limited, forcing him to scavenge from the local scrapyard.
More powerful cyber-enhancements are reserved for Iron City’s professional athletes, who participate in a violent sport called “Motorball,” a combination of racing and fighting with little in the way of rules. Also cybernetically enhanced are the bounty hunters who prowl the streets at night, in search of cyborg criminals. One night Alita encounters a monster called Grewishka. Alita has a strong sense of right and wrong and is disinclined to back down from a fight. But while she manages to dodge Grewishka’s blows, the body Dr. Ido provided her is not strong or fast enough to defeat him.
As time goes by, certain fragments of Alita’s forgotten past begin to surface. She experiences a flashback to a firefight on the surface of the moon. Evidently she was some kind of commando, highly trained, and possessing a cyborg body designed for war.
The cyborg shell which Alita carried from the lake (she’d found it in an alien ship which had crashed there) is a “Berserker,” a humanoid weapon system crafted by an alien technology, the most advanced cyborg weapon ever developed. With some reluctance, Dr. Ido switches Alita’s head to the Berserker body, and our heroine is reborn a second time. Now she is a tall, lithe, woman in a silver body and ferociously fast and strong. She enters the Motorball tournament and destroys the competition. She tears Grewishka apart. In the movie’s closing scene, she’s rallying the workers of Iron City against their oppressors and threatening to take their fight to the sky city hovering high above.
Alita represents the ultimate fusion of human spirit with technology. It’s a tempting story. Even for people who aren’t warriors, we use so much technology in our lives, why not take this final step?
At first blush, it would seem so exhilarating to wear a cyborg body. Imagine running, jumping, and fighting like Alita — or picture yourself racing up a mountain without fatigue, or sweat, or running short of breath! There’d be no need to watch your step, for surely a body of this type would come with autonomous functionality — instead, you could relax and watch the scenery.
Let’s continue with the thought experiment. The cyborg body, no matter how strong its skull, still contains a delicate human brain. Why not park the body in a safe location, and instead pilot a cyborg drone (or some other kind of robot). You would still see the forest streaming past and hear the birds calling, only now the sensations would be transmitted through audio and video feeds, which you could enjoy from the comfort of your living room.
There’s still the risk of flying the drone into a tree. It might be easier to let other people (or their robots) explore the mountains and gather imagery, allowing us to interact with nature through computer simulations. This would be much like playing video games, or like buying things online instead of journeying to the shopping mall, or like distance learning, all of which we do today.
Or you could admire images of the mountains posted in social media, which requires no effort at all, or even any sense of purpose — it’s the ultimate in entertainment for the easily distracted.
Our thought experiment leaves us in a place reminiscent of another sci-fi thriller, The Matrix, in which people’s bodies are stored in pods, connected to a simulation through cables in their heads. So convincing is the artificial world, they can no longer tell what’s real. Both The Matrix and Alita, celebrate the moral fighter, but Alita does not address questions of reality.
So, back to our question — what’s the downside? I have a long and growing list of friends with artificial hips and knees, and they all seem happier (just like Dr. Ido’s patients) to have the functionality they would otherwise have lost. If we keep taking steps in this direction, surely we’ll end up with longer and more productive lives. That’s the upside — but the question remains, what will we lose? Will we lose sympathy and art? Will we lose strength of mind? Will we become disconnected from reality? Will we lose our souls?
You could argue that spirit and soul define the human experience, regardless of how much technology we layer on. In this case, pain, surprise, fear, and suffering will remain part of the human condition, and hopefully sensuality and art, as well — although all of this may be experienced in new and different ways. In which case, tough minds and hardy spirits will remain as important as before.
You could argue that words like “spirit” and “soul” are too vague, that our duty is simple — it’s productivity. And that our destiny as an intelligent species is to complete ever greater computations. In this case high-tech bodies are as unqualified a positive as a new laptop with greater functionality than last year’s model. But somewhere in this formulation, strong spirits and dynamic minds must be an underpinning — even if you consider them part and parcel of the human algorithm. Otherwise, machines will eventually replace us.
These questions can’t be answered in the present, but here’s what we can do today — let’s remind young people, after they’ve watched Alita, that no matter how much technology you may possess, you’re going to have to manage yourself. Point out to them that Alita is tough, determined, fearless, sympathetic to the downtrodden, relentless in her fight against oppression. Tell them we still need heroes and heroines. We still need moral warriors.
Then help them unplug from the simulation and send them to the track or gym — or even better have them go for a run in the mountains.