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Scientist: Hawking is 'brain in a vat'

commentary To celebrate Stephen Hawking's 71st birthday, a fellow scientist suggests that perhaps it is the machines rather than the man who should be celebrated. She compares him to Darth Vader.

MrCharliesView/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

The generally accepted form of wishing someone a happy birthday is to sing to the lucky person. Or perhaps buy him or her a gift.

A less accepted form is to compare the birthday person to Darth Vader and suggest he or she is merely a "brain in a vat."

Still, Helene Mialet, a UC Berkeley anthropologist of science, chose the path slightly less trodden.

Writing in Wired, she offered that perhaps Hawking should be referred to as Obi-Wan refers to Darth Vader: "More machine than man."

She went on to suggest that the eminent physicist's beautiful mind is made beautiful only with large amounts of external assistance:

He is delegated across numerous other bodies: technicians, students, assistants, and of course, machines. Hawking's "genius," far from being the product of his mind alone, is in fact profoundly located, material, and collective in nature.

Some might imagine that this was mere invective, placed strategically to assist the career of Helene Mialet.

However, she insists that she followed him closely and talked to all those who assist him in his daily life.

It's not that he is similar to a superstar, with an entourage feeding his every whim. She explained:

Hawking isn't just issuing remote commands and expressed desires, his entire body and even his entire identity have become the property of a collective human-machine network. He is what I call a distributed centered-subject: a brain in a vat, living through the world outside the vat.

Somehow, she believes that the members of Hawking's entourage "complete his thoughts through their work."

Perhaps Millet hasn't spent enough time with many Hollywood stars, whose thoughts would never be complete -- might never even begin -- without those who manage their lives.

The Daily Mail naturally found representatives of the Motor Neurone Disease Association to call her comments "dehumanizing."

However, she ended by suggesting we are all, in some sense, disabled. Without Google, without books, without people, we're just entities thinking aloud and hoping we'll be heard, understood, and even improved.

Still, anyone who has followed Hawking's colorful personal life -- or indeed, seen him in a recent auto insurance ad -- might conclude that he is very human indeed.