Heroes are a very important part of every society. They act as a focal point for the members of a society to be inspired to do special good things with their lives. Most of the time, heroes are thought of as individuals who save other people from danger. Wartime generals and wartime civilians, as well as ordinary people who go out of their way and sometimes risk their lives in order to save others from danger. Some real-life heroes are heroes, not because of feats of physical protection, but because of their work in some special peacetime activity: sports, the arts, the sciences, the intellectual world in general, government, law, community activism, social work, and business. These are all areas where those who excel can act as an inspiration for other people, and thus become their heroes. There are also mythological heroes: imaginary people who, in the stories of polytheistic religions, interact with gods and frequently perform amazing fantastic feats. There are folk heroes who are real people that have performed important feats in their real lives, but who frequently have their life stories stretched and amplified into legendary proportions. Then there are fantasy heroes that aren’t real people and aren’t attached to any community religious beliefs. Fantasy heroes are entirely fabricated by one or more writers and frequently have unusual superhuman abilities.
The one thing that all these heroes have in common is that they are, at core, human. Of course, one may say, they are human. What else would they be? Actually, it is true that we sometimes ascribe the term hero to dogs who save their masters from different catastrophic situations. Mostly though, the term hero has been reserved for humans. Nevertheless, in our modern age, other complex behavioral entities are being developed to do some beneficial, even heroic tasks, for humans. In the online magazine, New Atlas (Gizmag), there is an article about some very interesting robots that are being developed to improve human health. In the article, “World’s first ciliary micro-robots could change the way we take medicine” (9/19/16) by Lynda Delacey, we learn that some South Korean scientists have developed some super fast-moving micro-robots that move directly through the blood stream to bring medicine to those organs for which the medicine has been designated. No more concerns about an overdose. No more concerns about systemic reactions to the medicine like nausea or like debilitating the immune systems. These micro-robots eliminate the protective reactions of the body in dealing with foreign chemicals being introduced inside it. These micro-robots, that are the size of paramecium and that have methods of transportation similar to paramecium, are carrying out the heroic task of configuring the delivery of medicine to a patient in such a way as to eliminate harmful side effects.
The micro-robot discussed in this article is an improvement over previous micro-robots because of its speed, its range of movement, and its potential to carry payloads that weigh more to the organs targeted. After the micro-robots have completed their mission, South Korean scientists plan for them to simply dissolve. Self-immolation after they have carried out their noble cause.
What these micro-robots are doing is taking a difficult journey in a human body in order to improve that human’s health. Preventing a secondary reaction in the body, which reaction can sometimes be as bad as the original health issue. Preventing the body from turning against itself. But the journey of the micro-robot has an element of a soldier carrying out a mission behind enemy lines during a war or a relief convoy bringing supplies to civilians during a war. Perhaps, soon we will have robots that can perform tasks like this. Robots that carry out secret missions for armies where most or all of the soldiers are robots. Robots that lead relief convoys of self-driving trucks to bring supplies to civilians that are trapped behind enemy lines. Tasks that have traditional elicited great admiration in bystanders who have observed them. Tasks that have frequently led the people who carry out these tasks to be called heroes. Performing extraordinary tasks for the benefit of people.
But robots tend to routinize tasks. And in so doing, robots tend to trivialize tasks. All the glory will leave a heroic task when robots do it, precisely because they are simply programmed to do it. They have no choice. They lack a coherent sense of self to help them to make and refine decisions that are unique to their particular life situation. A heroic task is considered heroic precisely because a person chooses to do something that is unusually good, often at great risk to himself.
A decision to perform a heroic task is not simply based on defined discrete signals in a brain telling a person that a certain task is the appropriate task to perform under certain circumstances. This is because a person is not a machine, and there are flowing blendable continual intangible elements that have to be present in his nature to perform a heroic task, and, if they are present, they have to be primed for action. This is why, in real life, there aren’t many heroes. And because there aren’t many, this is why heroes are so valued and cherished.
Heroes are always putting some aspects of their being at risk. If not their lives, their reputations. Cultural heroes put their reputation at risk. Many artists, composers and writers were laughed at and berated until later on in their lives or after they died, and only then were they appreciated. Many inventors were laughed at in the initial trials of their inventions, until the inventions became convincingly successful.
A robot does not have the kind of coherent sense of self to maintain a consciousness that can make heroic decisions. But as modern technology puts order in the world and makes life more frictionless, there seem to be fewer and fewer situations where heroic decisions are required. More and more conflict situations either occur anonymously with suicide bombers or remotely with air strikes and drones. And most people today are too numb and jaded as a result of the sensory distortion from modern technology to either make significant cultural innovations or to be impacted by them.
But robots are not heroes. Micro-robots may soon be able to get rid of a lot of human discomfort by regularly getting rid of the side effects that the medicines that they carry to their target organs normally bring. But by bypassing the global defenses of the human body, they are, in effect, shutting down the integrity of a body’s response to protect itself against foreign invasion. If an immune system is debilitated, it is because it is in the process of defending a body’s integrity. And ultimately the integrity, the coherence of a person’s sense of self. The immune system may become debilitated from the delivery of certain medicines, but the sense of self may become strengthened. In effect, a person becomes his own hero.
Probably, there are many readers who feel that temporarily losing control of one’s body and not becoming a hero is a small price to pay for getting rid of the discomfort produced by many modern medicines. And in today’s world, anything that helps to relieve a person of the terrible side effects of these medicines is considered a real plus. I am only trying to point out that a very important if subtle price will be paid by people who resort to micro-robots to relieve themselves of the discomfort that comes with certain medical treatments.
(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow