Media, Technology, and Education
Artificial IntelligenceMaking MeaningPhilosophySociety

Human Pain

I’ve been watching Battlestar Galatica on DVD.  One of the roles of science fiction, I think, is to raise controversial issues, to help us understand what it means to be human.  Although the original 1970’s miniseries was cheesy and not very interesting, a few changes to the original idea makes the recent TV show one of the best when it comes to asking difficult questions and making us think about things in a new way.

The basic plot of the show is that humans created machines which then evolved into autonomous, intelligent beings called Cylons.  Humans colonized twelve planets and after years of relative peace, the Cylons attacked the humans, destroying much of the human population of the colonies.  The survivors, including those aboard a number of space ships, are now on the run from the Cylons, struggling to survive a war with a superior enemy.

One of the major changes from the miniseries to the TV show is in the look of the Cylons.  In the miniseries, the Cylons were one of the cheesiest parts of the show, looking like robots made primarily of cardboard.  In the new show, some of the Cylons look like machines but now they are computer-generated and sophisticated.  But the most interesting change comes from the fact that Cylons can look and act just like humans.  They bleed and sweat and some of them are even programmed to think that they are human, leading to what appear to be emotional responses such as love.  Human-looking cylons allow the writers to raise questions about civil rights and justice and faith. 

For example, season one of the show, which aired in 2004 and 2005, raised issues about terrorism and torture and justice at a time when the Abu Ghraib scandal was fresh in the news.  The humans on the ship called Galactica discover a human-looking Cylon in their midst.  Their instinct is to kill the Cylon by putting it into space (because human-looking Cylons breathe oxygen just as humans do) but the Cylon claims that there are several bombs planted throughout the fleet, scheduled to go off in a short amount of time.  Sensing an opportunity to prevent these bomb attacks, the military commander sends the best human pilot, Starbuck, to question the Cylon (ok–so the plots are always completely logical).  The Cylon messes with Starbuck’s head, telling her lies containing just enough truth to make her wonder what’s true and what isn’t.  But he won’t tell her where the bombs are.  Starbuck notices that the Cylon sweats and reasons that if he sweats, he must feel fear and pain.  So she and her colleagues begin to torture the Cylon.

One of the most thought-provoking exchanges during this torture comes when Starbuck tells the Cylon that she recognizes the dilemma he is in.  He wants to be human because being human is better than being a machine.  But while he is being tortured, every instinct must be telling him to turn off his pain software.  But if he turns it off, he won’t be human anymore because the defining characteristic of being human is the capacity to feel pain.   I don’t know if I think that’s true or not but the conversation reminded me of research in machine learning that postulates that in order to really learn about the world, a robot must have a body. 

The importance of embodiment to learning comes from the observation that human knowledge, especially that most basic knowledge that makes up our “common sense”, is gained through via perception, through the interaction of our bodies with the physical world.  Not all AI researchers believe embodiment is necessary for learning.  Cyc is probably the most famous example of an attempt to codify all of human knowledge without the use of embodied machines.  The project was started in 1984 and has yet to be completed because of the difficulty of articulating all human knowledge.  Imagine trying to put all human knowledge into a computer by writing statements such as “Bill Clinton was a President”, “All trees are plants” and “Abraham Lincoln is dead.”  Each night, after spending the day coding statements like this, the researchers run some software (called an inference engine) which allows the computer to infer new statements about the world.  Each mornin, the researchers look at what the computer has inferred.  The inference process is somewhat flawed and the researchers find themselves having to correct some of the computer’s logic, encoding such bizarre facts as “If a person is dead, her left foot is also dead.”  Because of the difficulty of encoding these kind of facts, many researchers now believe that embodiment and direct experience of the world is a more efficient way to teach a machine about common sense knowledge.  So perhaps feeling pain is a necessary requirement for being human.

The same episode that contains this interesting conversation about the nature of humanity also contains a conversation about the purpose and effectiveness of torture.  After many hours of torturing the Cylon, Starbuck and her colleagues are visited by the President of the colonies who asks Starbuck whether she knows where the bombs are yet.  When Starbuck says no, the President asks why she has been torturing this man for eighteen hours, what makes her think she will get him to talk.  Starbuck replies that the Cylon is not a man which she seems to think justifies the torture.  The President orders that the torture be stopped since it has clearly not been effective.  The President later shows that this is not a sentimental choice, one that has been made because she is soft on the Cylons.  After getting the information she needs from the Cylon, she orders that he be placed in the airlock and sucked out into space so that he will no longer pose a threat.  The implication is that she ordered that the torture be stopped so that the humans would remain human, that the torture was damaging to the torturers and their humanity.

Themes of faith and love and treatment of outsiders and many other of the most interesting, controversial debates in our society run throughout this series.  I agree with Diane Winston, who said on Speaking of Faith that shows like Battlestar Galactica represent the great literature of our time, that people will come back to shows like this over and over, just as they read great books over and over.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. Liz

    Did NOT know that you were ALSO watching B.G. I just finished it up. And, yes, the original was super cheesy, but I was so totally addicted to it. I might have to check some episodes out on Hulu or something.

  2. Pingback: » Differences in Media Desert of My Real Life

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