In a dilapidated apartment complex, a handyman tinkers with a grotesque project. It’s a sort of a pet–globs of thick-skinned meat, spurting wires connected to electronic equipment, plopped across a few shelves in the back of a facilities office–but it’s got personality! Look how its mouth-like orifice quivers when it breathes. Aw. This is Flesh Computer, a short film from writer/director Ethan Shaftel.
It’s a simple setup. Drunk dirt bags are terrorizing the building’s most vulnerable residents, like the handyman’s cat and a little girl with an inexplicably cybernetic eye. Then, they encounter something–or someone–that’s not as helpless as they think.
There’s also a housefly buzzing around as the actual philosopher David Chalmers on a fuzzy TV screen. “We have a hundred billion neurons in our head interacting like a giant computer–processing inputs, producing outputs,” he says. “But we know we are not giant robots. We have subjective, conscious experiences on the inside.”
Shaftel says he included the philosopher as a “counterpoint” for the gritty, fantastical action on screen and flourishes of Cronenberg-esque body horror. Chalmers is known for formulating “hard problems of consciousness” and charismatically massaging the gap which neuroscience can’t easily fill, pondering the mysterious existence of subjective feelings and sensations which are produced along with our minds’ more mechanic processing of sensory information. In his short dialogue in the film, he relates these human processes to artificial intelligence and vice versa.
The short is an entertaining, timely look at the timeless questions poised by philosophers and science fiction, particularly in the proliferation of DIY technology projects enabled by the open-source culture. Meanwhile, our definitions of consciousness become more nuanced as we begin to relate with artificial intelligence. It’s a cold relationship–one between consumers and products. We get freaked out about user-responsive social media algorithms, wowed by biometric sensing wearables, and dependent on Internet-enabled compact technology as an extension of our personhood that physical brains and bodies can’t store or display. But can we have feelings for machines and interfaces? Can we care or fear for one? What if it’s surrounded by globs of shivering flesh, making little breathing sounds and needs its waste pan changed, like your cat?