Do Cyborgs Dream of Electric PowerPoint?


Ghost in the shell, one of the most famous cyberpunk films of all time and an inspiration for everything from The Matrix films to the study of cyber conflict, will turn 20 next year. Are we living in the future world that the anime film envisioned? A glance at what Ghost in the Shell got right and wrong (so far) is ultimately instructive for defense futurists. One of the clearest external indicators of the plausibility of a blue-sky dream of the future is the political and organizational arrangement it implies. To abuse Philip K. Dick, do cyborgs dream of electric PowerPoint? If you cannot imagine a sci-fi character giving a dull, buzzword-laden briefing to their superiors, then how can you imagine anything more than a small segment of national security’s future?

Ghost in the Shell’s domestic counterintelligence, counterterrorism and cyberwarfare unit, Section 9, and its cyborg special operative Major Motoko Kusanagi, are statements about what one vision of future conflict looks like. A world in which someone like the major is needed is one in which advanced technology, politics and bureaucracy merge together. Before she joined Section 9, the major – like many military officers – had to haggle with her commander for permission to travel off-base and spend money.

The paradox of Ghost in the Shell is that its organizational and political world is definitely recognizable to us, yet nothing like Section 9 really exists in the United States. This is partly explainable by the fact that a Section 9-like organization is more plausible in a European or Asian polity – not the anti-statist United States. However, to illustrate the complex relationship between technology and politics, it is entirely possible that if we had the underlying technologies presumed by the movie and its sequels, an American Section 9 would not be out of the realm of plausibility.

The fact that we currently do not have a Section 9 is a statement about both our own national security organizations and politics and whether or not we truly have Section 9-like technologies. Even 20 years later, we still have some way to go before we can each get a tachikoma of our very own and a Major Kusanagi to provide a mixture of cybernetically enhanced action heroism and deep philosophical musings.

A Thoroughly (Post)Modern Major

Ghost in the Shell premiered in theaters in November 1995. A mixture of police procedural, espionage thriller and philosophical contemplation about the nature of human (and artificial) life, it depicted the operations of a fictional Japanese counterintelligence and special operations unit: Public Security Section 9. Adapted from a manga by Shirow Masamune, it spawned several sequels and two television series.

Ghost in the Shell depicted a run-down, dirty world in which powerful consumer AI is commonplace and a large amount of the population uses either partial or full-body cybernetic enhancements in conjunction with other forms of human performance enhancement. Cyberwarfare is omnipresent, and the population’s connections to a large Net form a kind of collective consciousness. How much of this alternatively bleak and exciting vision of the future holds up with two decades of history with which to compare it? One benchmark is a comparison between the major’s activities as a squad leader in Section 9 and existing law enforcement and military counterparts in the United States. Do we have our own Section 9, and our own Major Kusanagi(s)?

Section 9’s reason for existence is counterintelligence, counterterrorism and combating major cybercrimes. It sits within the Japanese government’s Ministry of Home Affairs and is one of a group of public security bureaus, each with a specific area of jurisdiction. Section 9 consists of a diverse array of specialists, from the hulking former Army Ranger Batou to the police detective Togusa, whose respective expertise is mutually reinforcing. Though it has investigative and analytical capacities in the form of Togusa, the undercover operative Pazu and the intelligence support technicians Ishikawa and Borma, Section 9 is operationally oriented and maintains formidable special operations, cyberwarfare and autonomous weapon systems capabilities.

One might look at it as a combination of both the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as a mixture of Delta Force and the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team. They are armed, of course, with impossibly cute, talking AI tanks, which can cloak, swing around like Spiderman and fire light machine guns, Gatling guns, and rocket launcher rounds.

Ghost in the Bureaucracy

The Ghost in the Shell movie, in the abstract, captures today’s emphasis on intellectual property and technology as a core target for cyber espionage, though a United States that allowed Edward Snowden to escape with his life lacks the willingness of Section 9 to use lethal force in preventing knowledgeable individuals holding state secrets from escaping. And while autonomous programs like Project 2501 with immense information hacking and manipulation powers are obviously absent, states also view more advanced (and perhaps with varying degrees of autonomy) cyberwarfare and cyber weapons as core areas of development. So far, so good?

A further review of the U.S. government’s wire charts indicates that the autonomy, reach and integration of capabilities characteristic of Section 9 have no real parallel within the U.S. government.

Organizations like Section 9, which integrate advanced information exploitation and tactical operations, do at least superficially resemble some organizations within the U.S. national security enterprise. Christopher Lamb and Evan Munsing, for example, attribute the Iraq surge-era trend of “collaborative warfare” for special operations warfare successes in the modern era. However, as of yet, integration of cyber warfare and special operations is a work in progress. One has to ultimately look beyond the world of special operations and tactical units to see prominent integration of these capabilities. Indeed, nesting cyberwarfare capabilities within U.S. special operations units has previously raised some eyebrows, and within the military, prominent capabilities remain lodged within U.S. Cyber Command and Fort Meade. The FBI and the NSA both maintain various cyber components that also approximate Section 9-like qualities in some respect.

Each military service, however, is looking at some form of computer network operations (CNO) integration for its doctrine and operations, raising the hope perhaps that eventually the kind of integration suggested by Ghost in the Shell may become a reality. Though a domestic counter-intelligence and special operations operative, Kusanagi and the men she commands are almost all military veterans with cyber operations experience. And, like former CIA head General Michael Hayden, Kusanagi is dual-hatted as both an officer in the Japanese Self Defense Forces and a squad leader heading up a counter-terrorism, cybercrime and counter-intelligence unit within a civilian government entity.

This curious amalgamation of FBI and military-like functions in Section 9 also is somewhat context-dependent. Projects like Admiral John Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness Office (TIA) system and the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CFA) were hotly resisted, dismantled and implemented piecemeal. Today, the Defense Clandestine Service (DCS) seems more like a competitor to the CIA.

So why don’t we have a Section 9, given that is possible that other states may field a roughly similar organization? First, as Ken Allard argues, commonality within American military institutions is a pipe dream. Would-be reformers often settle for just interoperability between various services and branches. Second, as Matthew Kroenig argues, the shock of 9/11 may have prompted security centralization in the form of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but American anti-statism ultimately imposes strict limits on how much security can be centralized.

Kroenig’s point illustrates one prominent pitfall (beyond the questionable casting choice of a blond, white Australian woman for the role of a Japanese tactical operative) for those attempting to remake Ghost in the Shell for English-language audiences: the very plausibility of a Section 9 hinges on a political environment like Japan. The statism and centralization of the Japanese government would be unthinkable to Americans. Additionally, Europeans have a bona fide gendarmerie, elite domestic military counterterrorism forces and domestic intelligence services. Certainly even Japan itself lacks a Section 9, but such a hybrid organization is also vastly more plausible in countries with much more powerful government structures.

In the 2004 movie sequel and the later (2002-2005) of the two Ghost in the Shell television series, Stand Alone Complex, the Japanese and European statist context of the anime’s world is highlighted even more. Section 9’s quashing of a terrorist occupation of a foreign embassy in Season 2, for example, brings to mind the British Special Air Services’ (SAS) intervention in the 1979 Iranian embassy siege. Its quest to stop attacks on government officials in Season 1 resembles French investigator Claude Lebel’s fictional quest to stop a far-right assassin in The Day of the Jackal.

Cyberization > Inception

However, politics is also not destiny. By that logic, the U.S. would have never created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or the FBI, as neither existed for the majority of what is frankly an ad hoc and improvisational history of American. intelligence services from George Washington to Waziristan. What makes Ghost in the Shell still science fiction is its assumption of massive and widespread cyberization and human performance enhancement, strong artificial intelligence and a society connected not just through devices but also on an underlying intimate and emotional level.

Now, some may argue that we are already cyborgs, combinations of both our own internal cognitive processes and the external objects we interact with. Others may point to college kids chugging Adderall pills to ace the SATs as an example of human performance enhancement. And in some narrow areas of AI, we are seeing the rise of a “second economy” dominated by machine intelligence. We can also potentially view augmented and virtual reality along with wearable computing and biohacking as an example of suitably Ghost in the Shell-like phenomena, along with research in brainlike computing, biologically inspired algorithms or mind-controlled exoskeletons.

Yet one may look to Kusanagi herself as an example of how far we currently are from turning any of these ideas into reality. Yes, brain-computer interfaces are cool. But Major Kusanagi, who had to go full cyborg to survive a potentially life-ending accident has a fictional device known as a cyberbrain. Quoting from the series wiki:

Cyberization is the process whereby a normal brain is physically integrated with electronic components to produce an augmented organ referred to as a cyberbrain. Cyberbrain implants, in conjunction with micromachines, allow the brain to initiate and maintain a connection to computer networks or other individuals who also possess a cyberbrain. Through the use of a cyberbrain it is possible to have a direct, constant connection between the human brain and the Internet without the need for external devices. This capability results in a number of unforeseen psychosocial phenomena (including the Stand Alone Complex) whose emergence is a major plot element of the various Ghost in the Shell stories.

…One such [human augmentation procedure in the anime universe] involves cyberization of the human central nervous system. The resulting cyberization yields what is referred to as a cyberbrain, which is a hybrid of an individual’s original nervous tissue with cybernetic components. This procedure increases subject’s neural abilities beyond their original biological constraints in fields such as neurokinetics and data analysis. Additionally to gain these increased abilities it is not necessary for a subject to undergo complete cyberization and acquire a body prosthesis to support the cyberized brain. Due to advances in technology and the understanding of a human being’s biological processes, an individual may choose to only have their brain cyberized, leaving the rest of their body in its original state. Also, after undergoing neural cyberization an individual may easily be transferred to a new cyberbrain as conditions dictate and if integrated with a complete cyborg body an individual could increase their lifespan several fold beyond that of a normal human.

We live in a world in which even the hint of something approaching cyberization (the Google Glass) triggers violent assaults and lawsuits. It is frankly beyond our imagination what it would be like to live in a world where cyberization is accepted, ubiqituous and a fact of everyday life. Today, we struggle against people who steal our “identity” online, but this defines “identity” as the data and metadata about our personal, professional, and financial lives. Sometimes an attacker can destroy everything we care about, as was seen when a hacker wiped out all of Wired journalist Mats Honan’s personal and family data. But cyberization would take this a step further.

Ghost in the Shell’s most poignant moment occurs when Section 9 captures a mind-wiped pawn for a master hacker. “Doesn’t matter if you arrest me. I’m not gonna talk!” the crook says in a familiar movie tough guy posture. The response to this is surprising and terrifying:

Talk?! And what would I ask a guy who doesn’t even know his own name?! Your mother’s face. The place you grew up in. Memories of your childhood. Can you remember any of those things? There’s nothing sadder than a puppet without a [soul].

Like its analog cousin The Manchurian Candidate, the world that Ghost in the Shell’s technologies imply is downright terrifying. It is one in which the core of what we believe makes us human—and more importantly, what makes us ourselves – can be manipulated, sometimes in highly cruel and sadistic ways. It is also one in which the interface of technological systems and cognition allows for truly devious master-hackers. In the Ghost in the Shell Arise movie series, a renegade military operative takes command of the entire automotive and rail resources of the Japanese metropolitan transportation system to execute a brute force hack on a compartment holding embarrassing political and military secrets.

Cyberbrains, Androids, and PowerPoint

We do not live in cyberbrain-saturated world. Yet. Instead, we live in a world in which even the most spectacular of cyber attacks – the Stuxnet operation against Iran – has yet to kill a single human being. Moreover, the Stuxnet attack itself only slowed Iran down and is regarded by some as far less effective than popularly viewed. Motoko Kusanagi, on the other hand, would have never settled for such half measures!

What we have learned from this perusal of Ghost in the Shell elements is that the relationship between technology and society is complex. Technology is not a mere extension of societal biases and forms of social organization. In fact, if we did have cyberbrains, our politics and culture would change radically. We might even create radically new military and security institutions to protect ourselves and control the negative side effects of these new technologies. Yet we do not, and our Ghost in the Shell future is unevenly distributed.

Yes, we have hacking, AI, and exoskeletons. But no Major Kusanagis, Section 9s, or tachikomas. I can live with that. It means not having to run Software Update and patch my brain, or be forced to update the operating system altogether when the operating system distribution for my cyberbrain software updates every two years. Lastly, I can’t rule out the possibility that some idiot would decide to use Unity for the cyberbrain’s desktop Graphical User Interface. Out-of-control superhackers are one thing, but having your cyberbrain be defaced by a failure to follow sound Linux user interface practices adds up to a uniquely dystopian cyberpunk future.


Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a columnist at War on the Rocks. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.