SOMA: Pulling the plug on your preconceived human self-awareness

In ”SOMA” we are encountered with the dilemmas of human consciousness and robotic embodiment. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic narrative where almost all of humanity, except the crew of an underwater research facility, has been wiped from the earth by a comet. Following the extermination of humankind the crew decides to scan their consciousness and transform it into data as to preserve the last of human consciousness past their own mortality. This plan is obstructed by the artificial intelligence WAU who, as it was programmed to, desperately tries to keep the human in it’s material form as to protect the last remainder of the link between human mind and embodiment. WAU does so either by using the simple maintenance robots to hold the copied consciousness of the crew or by moulding techno-bodies out of the combination of human corpses and robotic parts.

Example of WAU transferring scanned human consciousness, in this case the pilot Carl, onto purely robotic hosts.

SOMA very eloquently makes us rethink our relation to the conscious mind and body question. At first glance it is hard not to feel mostly connected to the monstrous techno-bodies roaming the halls because they outwards still in part resemble the thought of humanity as a materialistic embodiment, but at the same time these characters do not hold the full capacity of the human consciousness and are more a resemblance of the zombie-state-of-mind. On the other hand presences like that of the copied fully-aware human consciousness embodied in a pure robotic form evoke unforeseen empathy and highlight an interesting addition to Turing’s statement

 […]we should feel there was little point in trying to make a ‘thinking machine’ more human by dressing it up in such artificial flesh. (Turing: Machinery and Intelligence, p. 434)

In the end the horrific techno-bodies of SOMA do not seem human despite their human features and this poses the counter question does the human consciousness become less human by dressing up in robotic parts?. As a player you are constantly torn between plugging the machines containing scans of human consciousness or letting them live on as they beg to you that they are just as human as ever. You may convince yourself of the mercifulness in your decision to pull the plug but as soon as you hear the painful cries of torment and see the red light slowly disappear from their robotic eyes, you are confronted with the fact that their consciousness too hold “ a specific subjective character, which it is beyond our ability to conceive”(Nagel: “What is it like to be a bat”, s. 3).

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Mads Søndergaard
Very well written, and very good considerations – I had personally stared myself blind on the issue of crystallized versus fluid consciousness. As for your question, I think the game itself has some good arguments both for and against either side of the argument. I’d say that the game proposes that each individual consciousness has a kernel of human consciousness, but that the exact nature and well-being of that consciousness, is dependent on the body it inhabits – whether it has access to the same invariant principles of object recognition and interaction as, for example, Harnad deems necessary to explain… Read more »