By Kaycia Ainsworth
The fate of a fashion journalist is often a lifetime of evenings descending into discussions of textile and tailoring with like minded visionaries, both eagerly edging the other towards extravagance for the sake of extravagance, inspiring each others vision to build something bigger, gorging on glamour, a ceremony of sequin, a festival of frivolity. Making my way into a warehouse in East London to interview CSM graduate Abi Sheng, I was confronted by how contrasting and rare this moment was to the conventional writers work-wheel of whispering the word “guestlist” to an events steward and being hungover in a coffee shop trying to recount it for an editor the next day. The contrast of mise-en-scene suddenly permeated my mind as to how significant this moment could come to be. Here, in a warehouse in Lower Clapton, lay an interactive robotic humanoid, that may come to replace humans in the distant future, and here I was handed the unique responsibility of discussing the details of its development with its creator. Is that still technically a guestlist?
Abi Sheng is a 3D artist and self-described identity engineer, she is also the founder of Sapiens Collective, a speculative robotics lab of five designers, engineers and bioscientists dedicated to work on the concept of transhumanism, in the hopes of offering humans another plane in which to upload their consciousness. “From the whole design of it we try to find a balance between traditional engineering, soft robotics and bioengineering.”
Transhumanism is a concept and philosophical movement which seeks to fund and produce technologies which enhance human life, and help humans to use technology in a way which promotes expression and aids in accurately denoting the human experience. The basic principles rely on the notion that the human experience could be more accurately expressed if it weren't marred by corporal affairs such as mortality and the inability to forcibly edit one's physical body and health.
Transhumanism seeks to remove these matters to allow a more free flowing idea of expressing what it means to be human, and providing a sort of limitlessness in ability to convey yourself whilst increasing cognitive capacity and removing the possibility for the essence of a person or their thoughts to “die” in our most traditional understanding of the word. These ideas aren't new, they are even present in some religions, to a certain degree, for example the concept of each person having an individual “soul” and that “soul” both carrying the essence of yourself but also being separate from ones body and able to travel elsewhere be it heaven or another realm is describing the same theories which uphold these ideologies, that one's self can be separated from their physical being.
Typical portrayals of transhumanist concepts can be found even in children's cartoons, depicting the classic trope of a sentient brain floating in a jar, able to speak, think and operate without the confines of a physical body. It is the idea of blending human life with technology to achieve this freedom, which makes transhumanism such a controversial and heavily debated subject. Sheng believes that working on these concepts will aid human development in further understanding consciousness and provide a sense of healing for humans within ideas of immortality and identity.
She explains the theory behind her work, “The concept is transhumanism not only from physical enhancement, but also about expanding the consciousness to analyse the levels of consciousness, and create this digital healing experience, to help people to go through mental stress” The collective's ultimate goal is to make transhumanism a viable option to humans in everyday life and use their humanoid robots to upload their consciousness, and live forever, in their words, “To achieve some sort of consciousness transferral we can achieve some sort of immortality, in the distant future”
“The concept is transhumanism not only from physical enhancement, but also about expanding the consciousness to analyse the levels of consciousness, and create this digital healing experience, to help people to go through mental stress”
Sheng explains how the concept is already adopted into everyday life, “We are already transhuman from 200 years ago, for example, I am wearing contact lenses right now. I think it's a way that we are using technology and science to help us in health care systems. My concept is not only about the physical, but to expand the idea of what defines us as human, I think there are so many ways that we can engineer the body, and we can engineer our identity.”
Without a scientifically proven method of transferring a human consciousness to another active emulation of that consciousness, also known as mind uploading or whole brain emulation (WBE), Sapiens Collective have already begun developing and engineering robots to emulate and replace humans. I had the pleasure during this interview, of meeting EKA, the collective's first humanoid robot.
The name EKA means “number one” in sanskrit. Upon first appearances EKA has some quality about her which seems unearthly and beastial, she looks as if the terminator produced a SAW film on account of the pieces of her body hanging from the rafts of the warehouse space, her ever moving spine hanging behind her, eyes glowing red, her hand presented outstretched, beckoning for interaction. You are invited to shake her hand. “With the gloves on the palm, it's a heat reactive material so when you put your hand there, the heat changes, the colour will change. It's a visual presentation of that sense of touch.”
The pads of EKA’s hands are made of Chromatact, an enhanced prosthetic skin made of silicone and thermochromic liquid crystal ink, the ink can sense temperature changes, and shows vibrant colours depending on the heat of the object interacting with it. It is a synthetic emulation of thermoreceptors in human skin, when interacting with it, a visible imprint appears on the skin, unique to every person who touches it. “I contacted the engineer, Will Cogley, and he makes a lot of biomimicry of body parts so we were very excited to see everyone coming together.” EKA also has an interactional skin, developed by a biomaterial scientist, derived from flaxseed gel. It has been developed to produce goosebumps, in a similar fashion to human skin when the hand is squeezed. Sheng explains, ”Its magnet actuated so when you interact with a magnet it reacts in the same way that skin moves.” The skin is coloured with mineral pigments to pay tribute to the range of skin tones available in humans. Sheng enunciates the aim of her creation, “EKA is not made to serve humans, it's made to be the humans in the future, that's why we are trying to focus on developing the emotional intelligence for EKA.”
Attempting to synthesise the emotional intelligence of humans into robotics entertains a discourse of transhumanism surrounding identity, and whether transhumanism being incorporated into civilisation would not only help humans better understand each other and themselves, but it could potentially be a means of allowing a person to alter their physicality to better represent their inner identity. A simple way to relate the philosophy of transhumanism to that of identity would be to give an example of how, in personalisable video games, it is generally found that people create avatars which is an idealised version of themselves, one 2017 study even suggests that anecdotally, some transgender people may use gaming to experience their gender identity in a non-stigmatising environment.
Sheng sees a way of incorporating this idea of a fluid identity system as something that she wants to create in real life. “From this identity engineer perspective I see identity as a fluid kind of system, that's what I want to create and engineer.” To do so, she has already created a Gender Transformative Suit, designed to change the structure of the outer body, personalisable to the user's desire. “I have been working with Daniel (Sapiens Collective member) and we were having a conversation about identity, that's why I had this idea to make the body, which could potentially free Daniel. I quoted him “I'm not a boy but im not a girl either” with that in mind, I wanted to design this suit, so when the suit expands and contracts, he is free to transcend societally imposed binaries. He has this ability to do body modification as he wishes with his suit.” The Gender Transformative Suit looks like an exoskeleton that sits on the outside of the body, expanding and contracting to form breasts and a variation of muscle as the user pleases. The hope is that this works towards a form of “utopia for equality” where identity is then customisable.
Sapiens Collective outline their plans for the near and distant future in their three developmental stages. The first stage is to offer design solutions and combine emerging technologies with existing social humanoids. The second stage is to offer bionics, smart wearables and artificial body parts which they claim will be used as organ transplants, to merge humans with machines and create what they describe as a “posthuman.” The third and final stage is for their humanoids to present the same properties as the human body, with synthetic senses.Sheng outlines their plan, “It will be a vessel for the spirit and soul, by then we will be able to achieve consciousness transferral and immortality to some extent.”
Theorising on such an idealised concept can make it seem almost mythical and impractical in a real life context, especially since so much of the theoretical framework relies on neuroscience that is, so far, unverifiable. The development of such ideas, however, is most of the significance of the work, whether it is currently viable or not. Half of the concept is built upon humans using this conceptual thought to better understand themselves as humans, and separately as sentient beings. Its existence opens the floor for a societal-wide discourse of how both of those experiences are defined and encountered individually, and together.