Monthly Archives: August 2016
When the man-machine boundary begins to disappear
The advancements of humanity in science, mathematics & engineering have enabled us to live better in our planet; build better habitats, secure & improve our nutrition, collaborate better, enjoy life more. In many ways we have engineered the world around us to secure our survival and to thrive in this world. For the past years and for sure in the decades to come, our level of sophistication in those fields of science will have risen to the point where we’ll be able to shift our focus inwards and start engineering ourselves. We have already kind of achieved that, with medical advances, but our capabilities and invasiveness will soon be greatly enhanced to the point that it will put under question the limits of what is still considered human and when we have started to progress to… something else.
Our current knowledge & imagination can give hints of some of the many enhancements that are to come:
- We will be able to alter our DNA, inserting new desirable characteristics or removing unwanted ones
- We already have the ability to 3D-print prosthetics for body parts, and soon it will be very effective & cheap
- We will have the capability to grow artificial organs in order to replace decaying/malfunctioning ones
- We’ll be able to create performance enhancements in many, many ways (with drugs, with wearable tools & gadgets that enrich our capability to perceive/think/act, with artificial organs that work better that the human ones)
- We’ll have brain-to-computer interfaces so that we can plug our brain directly to mechanical & electronic vehicles & devices to control them.
The humans of tomorrow
At some point in time, you won’t be so reliant on your legs & hands, if you can have an artificial skeleton that moves with your thought and is much stronger than your previous body. In fact, some workers in labor-intensive jobs might even prefer it to have artificial body parts, or exoskeletons, or mechanical prosthetics that move by thought. Their employers would certainly like it too…
And you won’t need to be too dear to your heart or any other of your internal organs; if it fails you can always grow another one, genetically compatible to your own, potentially even better! If this practice gets finetuned & works, at some point in time a middle-aged man could end up having more artificial organs than his natural ones, without this causing any problem to him.
And when someone who lost an eye now has the capability to get an artificial one with zoom capability or capability to see in infrared, or a supernatural ear that can hear all frequencies, some people will start asking themselves: If the artificial organ is better than the one I was born with, isn’t it tempting to drop voluntarily a perfectly healthy organ in order to replace it with an artificial one? (if I can afford it of course). The answer to this question is not an easy one, but it’s sure to facilitate widespread adoption of these enhancements by the human population. Yes, sometimes we’re sentimental, but many times we are utilitarian and will do what is best for us.
This transition effect will be complemented by the genetic engineering, which will start from harmless operations (changing the color of your eyes/hair) and go from there to more invasive operations (inserting genes to become taller? To increase the size of our body parts? … To become smarter?).
On top of all these alterations to what we now still call homo sapiens, we’ll have the brain-to-computer interfaces! At first, these will allow us to become one with the machines, so we’ll feel like a car & move like a car, mostly because we are connected to the car itself, we get the input from its sensors and act directly on its moving parts. Disabled persons won’t need to move a wheel-chair. Their body will be expanded with a wheel-chair, since their brain will be connected to the machine and be able to move it directly as if it was its hands & feet. Actually, in this specific example, there won’t even be a wheel-chair. It’ll probably be a robotic exoskeleton with arms & feet that get moved by the mind of the “now-enabled” person! That is, if we first haven’t solved the ability to regenerate legs & hands.
Brain interfaces will be better than drugs
But this brain-to-computer interface can be expanded to be much more. It could stimulate our senses directly, without having to move/touch. You could be having the best sex in your life by just connecting your brain to a program that will simulate a sexual stimulation experience, as if not one but many partners are touching you in just the right ways for you to climax. Yes, yes, it’s just an illusion, it’s not real life. But what if the emulation is better than the real thing? Would you choose reality over the absolute pleasure?
You see, it will be even better than drugs! Right now, some people take drugs to experience the thrill, the pleasure, the out-of-this-world experience, and risk their health by using these hazardous substances. If you can have all these, in a safe manner and a manner that is personalized to your liking… who would have the courage to say no? Anybody who would deny such pleasure-giving experiences would be the analogous of monks & nuns of our days, i.e. they will be a very small minority.
Of course there are many other hazards related to exactly this capability of humans to tap on our pleasure center on demand. It’s counter-evolutionary and can lead to addiction & loss of our willingness to be productive in life (what’s the point of “suffering” if you can live a life imbued in pleasure?). But that is a topic of another discussion. For the time being, let’s focus on the fact that our ability to understand and manipulate the driving forces of our brain (hunger, sex drive, etc) has serious implications. Normally, when you satisfy these driving forces, you get pleasure out of it. But if you have unlocked the ability to stimulate your pleasure centers directly, these evolutionary “tools” are circumvented and thus become almost useless. In other words, one of the main characteristics of man and a driver of much of its activity (the need to eat & to reproduce) will at some point be considered a relic of the past.
Can we still recognize our future self?
So where have we arrived at? A human that is enhanced & reengineered genetically, has artificial body parts, artificial organs, is augmented by mechanical & electronic tools (in similar ways to what we call a “cyborg”), is maintained by biological agents & micro-bots in our bloodstream, and can connect to the outside world by plugging in his neural interfaces directly to devices, machines & even other people. Oh, and on top of this we might need to deactivate his core driving forces (the ability to feel pain, cold, hungry, to get sexually aroused), because these were ancient defense mechanisms and we now have much more efficient mechanisms to regulate automatically his bodily functions and to give him arousal & pleasure on demand.
Is this human still a homo sapiens? Is he really just an improved version of homo sapiens? Is he a threat to homo sapiens? Does he have only a simple advantage over “ordinary” men? Should ordinary men be fearful that they will gradually be displaced by their genetically engineered overlords? Should we setup protective mechanisms in society to shield ourselves from this… evolutionary child of ours?
After all, we made it! Our human ingenuity, our progression in physics, engineering, biology made this possible. And it will come gradually. Little by little we’ll start foregoing all the bits & pieces that make a human human. And we’ll do it gladly, because… it will be a solution for the amputees. It will be a solution for the critically ill. It will be a killer-advantage for the professional athletes. It will be a solution for easy & harmless pleasure for the masses. And above all, it will be a great productivity booster in our globalized, competitive, capitalistic economy; and if one country tries not to adopt all this, the others will, and the former will need to follow through in order not to be left behind.
Is it that much different from a fully artificial human?
Several notable minds of our times (Steven Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, etc.) have expressed significant worries on the rising Artificial Intelligence, and how humans should be protected from it. So why are we so afraid of the Artificial Intelligence of the future? We are afraid of an artificial mind in an artificial body. But we’re not afraid of a genetically-engineered human mind, that is augmented by biology & technology, that interacts with its environment only by thinking, that has some of its driving forces deactivated for good reason, and sits on top of a mostly-artificial body.
And let’s not forget that this artificial mind, this artificial intelligence is not something alien to us, it’s not really a new invention. The inspiration to create intelligence, to create Noesis, will come from our observation of nature and the intelligence of living beings, and above all of human beings. The most perfect working example of intelligence that we know of is the human brain. Therefore, when through hard work & luck we manage to reproduce intelligence, the best we can hope of is to emulate the human intelligence, even to 100% if possible. And it won’t be a cold-blooded computer intelligence that most science fiction is used to depicting; it doesn’t work that way. AI will have feelings & emotions, will be fuzzy, will make mistakes, will learn gradually through its mistakes, will have affinity for all the stuff that give it pleasure, etc. This is the model we have seen working in nature (in animals & humans), this is the model that is our best bet to emulate and make it work. In my opinion it is too arrogant to think we can outsmart millions of years of evolution and design an AI equivalent or better than that of a human being, have all the smarts of a human but none of the drawbacks. Right now we have only ONE algorithm that represents the pinnacle of intelligent life on earth. Instead of trying to circumvent & outsmart it, our best bet is to try to understand it and emulate it to the best possible degree. I’m saying all this to conclude that when we will have working Artificial Intelligence in front of us, we will come to realize that it more similar to a human than to a computer! And for sure it will have feelings.
So coming back to the original question… we are afraid of an artificial mind (that will be quite similar to a human one) on top of an artificial body, and we’re not afraid of a genetically/biologically/scientifically enhanced mind (that will be quite dissimilar to our current human ones) on top of a mostly artificial body?
A boundary that fades and disappears
Instead of this false dichotomy, I want to counter-propose another thing. Let’s agree that the limits of what is human and what is not will start becoming more & more fuzzy as time goes by. Our body, as a house for our mind, will start becoming gifted with all the benefits of scientific progress. Our minds will start having less & less of their biological limitations, that served them well for millions of years, and have improved abilities to perceive, to think, to remember, to interact. And in parallel we might be able to decrypt our own thinking process and attempt to emulate this algorithm by building it on a… non-traditional housing.
All this is good progress. We should not be fearful of it or try to block it. It is the inevitable next step. We need to realize that the mind is the only body part needed to define a living being, and that’s because the mind is the tool that implements an algorithm of Noesis and allows this being to perceive, to think & to act. There can be many minds and many different implementations of Noesis, with various degrees of success. There already are! There are smart people, not-so-smart people, creative people, smart animals that are almost as smart as some less-privileged people. And we might be able to create Artificial minds that are almost as smart as people… The ability of all those different beings to implement a Noetic algorithm in order to think, to perceive, to live is what binds them all together as one, and what needs to be protected. Their diversity needs to be acknowledged, accepted & safeguarded. Diversity of nature is one of its undeniable characteristics and it works well; it’s even our source of inspirations for new drugs, for new inventions, for art, for progress in general. Every diversified being with the ability to Think should have an equal right to life, whether it is a privileged, rich, genetically enhanced human, or it is a poor “plain vanilla” human that doesn’t have the money or the capability to get enhanced, or a smart animal, or a not-so-dumb AI, or a brilliant AI.
As humans, we have gotten used for many millennia to be the sole smart occupants of this planet, ever since homo neanderthal took himself out of the equation and left us alone. This won’t be true for much longer. A great variety of smartness (either pure-human or like-human) will start emerging from many different places. Thus, we’ll need to expand our view and be willing to make room for everybody. And if this all leads us to start wondering what in the end is a human being, an answer could be found in extracting some of the highest morals & ideals that humanity gave birth to (like liberty, equality and kindheartedness) and solidify them as the basis for harmonious coexistence of all Thinking beings. These will enable us to live in peace and continue thriving in the same way we have done thus far, and hopefully even better.