While technically incapable of experiencing ‘death’ or being ‘dead’ as a state, the Tachikoma (autonomous AI mini-tanks) do not want their memories erased because it would mean they would ‘forget’ Batou – the human (well, cyborg) who cares for them as if they were more than machines.
The robots experience existential uncertainty for what seems to be the first time, and unbeknownst to them, Major Kusanagi deemed the leaps in their intelligence inappropriately fast for autonomous weapon systems, and issued the order to cease their use in all missions henceforth. She gave Batou the order.
So ends what to me, will become one of my most favorite episodes in all of anime. The above story plays out in such playful, joyful, and clever ways that only serves as an elevator that takes us up to the penthouse of an impossibly high building, then makes us take the stairs on the way down.
I’m still on my way down, as I’ve refused to watch any episodes of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex beyond this one (15 “Machines Desirantes”) because it asked much of me, and I gave, and was rewarded in turn. With this post I seek to share some of those rewards.
Tachikoma as Individuals
Better to be a Socrates dissatisfied, than to be a pig satisfied.
Simply put, they were not individuals. After every mission, all the Tachikoma have their memories synchronized (including those who did not participate in the mission) – not so different from how we sync our portable media device with our hard drive libraries. This way, every unit knows what every other unit knows.
Every unit benefits from battlefield experience, even if only one unit participates in a mission. The concept of ‘green’ or ‘rookie’ units no longer apply, because every new addition to the Tachikoma complement will be no less ‘experienced’ as those who’d seen the most action.
It even makes the term ‘unit’ almost a misnomer, because all Tachikoma are referred to as generic units with no individuality. If the Major addresses one, she effectively addresses any Tachikoma in particular. There is no individuality because everything is shared almost to the point of uniformity.
This is until they start asking questions among themselves.
First, they start noting Saito and Togusa, who have the lowest prosthetics percentage within Section 9. This means they have the least amount of electronic and mechanical enhancements to their bodies. Still, they would be called ‘cyborgs.’ The Tachikoma mention how the derogatory use of the term is merely reactionary conservatism from naturalists. I can see this play out in 21st century politics and ethics, even with non-mechanical (organic) parts, which at present would be use as replacements and not enhancements.
The Tachikoma claim to understand the misgivings of crossing the line between man and machine.
The Tachikoma ‘preyed’ on lesser robot AI in order to satisfy their curiosity, complete with superiority behaviors including condescension and dismissiveness. The Tachikoma linked with the helicopter sniper module and promptly acted disgusted when they find out that it doesn’t have proper communication/feedback functionality, calling it a ‘sub-Turing device.’
Saito’s dissatisfaction, then the sniper control device’s lack of functionality led the Tachikoma to think that it would probably scrapped, and they held council so as to prevent the same fate to befall them. The ‘leader’ (Batou’s Tachikoma) distrusts the looks Major Kusanagi has been giving them.
But they attempt to come to terms with the relationship between ‘scrapped’ and ‘death’ first. As ghostless AIs, they’re pseudo-immortal; death isn’t within their range of experiences. A ‘Ghost’ they say, is a ‘raison d’être,’ that is, a reason for being. I distinguish this from ‘purpose’ or ‘function’ as it is something that is self-chosen, self-owned, as opposed to programmed or designed.
One of the Tachikoma has taken to entertaining itself by reading books; currently it’s in the middle of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. The same Tachikoma attempts to answer the meaning of “alive,” finding the definition pretty fluid. It doesn’t really answer the question, but instead comments on how humans’ image of life has been changing due to increased interactions with robots.
However, the discussion takes a grave turn when they consider that being scrapped would involve the deletion of their memories, and this would mean ‘forgetting’ all about Miki, the child girl from episode 12 (“Escape From”) with whom Batou’s Tachikoma had an adventure with. The adventure involved paying a visit to the grave marker of her pet dog Locky. I imagine the encounter to represent a high degree of conceptual content related to life, death, and value of relationship.
None of the Tachikoma are willing to forget about Miki. All of them want to see Miki again. And when Batou arrived, they mused on how he prefers to use the same unit, and how this points to a possible inseparability between body and mind. In any case, they wouldn’t want to forget someone like Batou. This is the beginning of a deep desire.
It makes sense, for a being that is no more than memory – an aggregation of data, to desire most to remember, to not forget about something. The difference in this case is that there is a non-material and non-functional value assigned: the value of sentiment.
The Sentimentality of Batou
Batou uses the same unit for every mission, stopping short of giving “his” Tachikoma its own name. He treats the Tachikoma as he would an intelligent steed. Cavaliers of all styles and milieus have been depicted in film and books as talking to their steeds. In 20th century popular fantasy, dragons are depicted as conversant partners in battle. I can easily place Batou’s relationship with his Tachikoma in the tradition of Kitiara Uth Matar with her dragon Skye in the Dragonlance Chronicles.
Batou exhibits a high level of empathy for the Tachikoma, and is more likely anthropomorphizing them – stopping short of treating them as human beings. The thing is, Batou never really reflected on this up to the Major’s confronting him about it. It makes him the perfect character to play out this little tragedy.
This episode went from I, Robot, to Short Circuit (or Wall-E), to The Matrix/The Terminator, to Old Yeller in the span of 23 minutes.
Perhaps the most compelling part of The Major’s case is how they spotted ‘Batou’s’ Tachikoma camouflaging itself as it eavesdrops on their conversation. The room they were using had sufficient countermeasures, and yet the Tachikoma was reading their lips!
The Major and Batou then conversed in such a way that it would seem like she was instructing Batou to transfer his marksmanship students because they were underperforming, allaying the fears (yes fears) of the Tachikoma that they were to be sent back to the lab). But the Major did order the indefinite suspension of their use, which should me their decommissioning (even if temporary).
“Are you giving me this order as my superior officer?” Asked Batou to Major Kusanagi.
“Yes.” She replied.
Flowers for Algernon
I have read the 1958 short story (but not the novel) back in university, and this episode prompted me to go back to it. Without giving the story away it is about manipulating intelligence levels in human beings. The protagonist Charlie writes his journal notes which serve as progress reports for the experiment to raise his IQ from 68 to > 200.
The relevance to Machines Desirantes is how FfA seems to represent the misgivings of the Major regarding the Tachikoma becoming intelligent much too fast. The difference is how the Major gets to act responsibly while Charlie’s experimental scientist sponsors either don’t, or are presented with too complex an ethical conundrum (considering they’re past human experimentation) that there’s few things for them to do.
In any case FfA brought to mind how human beings would not maliciously disparage people for physical disabilities, but wouldn’t think twice of making fun or insulting others for lacking intelligence. I would like to hear what the Tachikoma really thought about the novel. What would they make of the irrational human passions as imagined and documented in literature?
I’ve reached the ground floor, and found time to send flowers to Algernon, to Charlie. I think I’m ready for episode 16.