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TV review: Peter: The human cyborg, and African Renaissance: Where art meets power

04 September 2020

channel 4

Dr Peter Scott-Morgan, who has motor neurone disease, in Peter: The human cyborg (Channel 4, Wednesday of last week)

Dr Peter Scott-Morgan, who has motor neurone disease, in Peter: The human cyborg (Channel 4, Wednesday of last week)

“OF THE glorious body telling” — the phrase kept ringing in my ears as I watched Peter: The human cyborg (Channel 4, Wednesday of last week). Dr Peter Scott-Morgan is a leading roboticist whose body is anything but glorious: it is being inexorably shut down by motor neurone disease (MND).

Fortunately, he is a man of faith: an absolute faith in science, which, he believes, can solve any problem. So, with great courage (and enviable financial resources), he resolves to turn himself into a man/machine cyborg, technology replacing the organs that have ceased functioning properly.

His quest, he convincingly assures us, is not just for his own benefit: all progress that he makes will help others. Many of the transformations raise no new moral questions: the complex wheelchair that can support him standing upright, so that, rather than be always looked down at, he can once more meet the world at eye level; the fixed tubes that feed him and remove his body waste.

These, if reaching new levels of sophistication, are developments of the external interventions that have eased patients’ lives for decades. But without a complete tracheostomy his lungs will fill with liquid and he will die; agreeing to the operation means that he can never again utter a word. MND creates the cruellest locked-in state: mind and brain continue to function perfectly, but cannot control the body or communicate.

We all remember Stephen Hawking’s computer-generated voice, but Dr Scott-Morgan insisted on a solution that would deliver far more immediate “speech”, synthesised from his own voice. So, because any minute muscle control that he might retain would result in language far too slow, he employs AI to generate what his likely words would be. This seems to cross a significant ethical boundary, closer to the human/machine synthesis implied by the term “cyborg”. Yet, in action, it did not appear to present any fundamental threat to his personal human integrity. Surprisingly, the strongest impression was of being privileged to witness a deeply moving love story, demonstrated in the support and care given by Dr Scott-Morgan’s partner of 40 years, Francis.

Afua Hirsch has now presented two of her three programmes African Renaissance: Where art meets power (BBC4, Thursdays). It was good to see how much space and significance she gives to religion, especially in the first episode on Ethiopia, where she joined worshippers as they climbed the hill to take part in the immemorial Orthodox liturgy, chanted and danced — “authentic and joyful”, in her words. Why, she wondered, did 19th-century missionaries consider it necessary to convert this nation to Christianity? Why, indeed?

She reports vibrant, brilliantly coloured, confident new art, often community-based. It is proud of its heritage, traditionally intertwining music, poetry, story, and movement, energised by a rejection of centuries of Western imperialism, oppression, and contemptuous condescension as being “primitive”; and opposing more recent and indigenous corruption and injustice.

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