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What does it mean to be human?

Where do I come from and where am I going? Somewhat important questions to most humans one imagines.

Why are these important questions?

Well, because our answer to the first shapes our concepts of who we are, and our answers to the second gives us goals to live for. Together our answers help us frame our worldview, they shape the narrative that gives our lives meaning.

AI: a new concept or not so much?

Artificial intelligence (AI) or Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), which some think will surpass human intelligence within a relatively short time, is the buzzword drowning out most technology based conversations these days, GPT-3, BERT, LaMDA, Chatbots, Digital Assistants, Facial Detection & Recognition, Self-Driving Cars, Virtual Travel Booking Agent etc.

However it is not a new concept, it was first coined in 1955, and I am certain most of us have read, or at least heard of two very famous futuristic scenarios (1) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley written in 1931 and (2) 1984 written by George Orwell in 1949. Both of these were highly ranked as influential novels of their time. Both are dystopian, which as per the Oxford Dictionary, means an imaginary place or condition that is as bad as possible. So what did these authors say about the future?

The future: predictions from 70 years ago

Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death reflects on the positions described by the above authors, and it makes for interesting reflection:

George OrwellAldous Huxley
Warned that we will be overcome by externally imposed oppression ie. Big Brother who would deprive people of their autonomy and maturity.Believed that no Big Brother will be required since people will come to love their oppressor, adoring the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
Concerned that books would be banned by those controlling humanity.Huxley feared that there would no reason to ban books since no one wanted to read anymore.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
Orwell feared that truth would be concealed from us.Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.
Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us.Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Reading the above one could be forgiven for being surprised that both these books were written more than 70 years ago.

What is being human?

I wrote a short blog on this topic some time back, you can pop over to read it, however I guess that what being human really means will be something different to each one of us. Our beliefs would depend very much on whether we see humans as being creations of a greater power or intelligence. Or whether we believe that we evolved into the humans we identify with today over time.

The UK Astronomer Royal Lord Rees says, “We can have zero confidence that the dominant intelligence a few centuries from now will have any emotional resonance with us, even though they may have an algorithmic understanding of how we behave”.

When IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov, Garry was distraught, however deep Blue didnt dance around jubilantly celebrating its win, in fact, it didn’t feel anything at all. It’s algorithms didn’t feel joy, it wasn’t proud of its achievements, it certainly did not go out and celebrate its life changinging win with friends. So how can we be sure that an ethical, moral dimension can ever be built into an algorithm that is itself devoid of heart, mind or soul?

What makes us human?

John Lennox, author of 2084: Artificial Intelligence and The Future of Humanity, asks the following question, “If the laws of nature are so powerful that they can create life, who created the laws?”

To a certain extent humans have already started merging with technology. We wear virtual reality glasses, we have all kinds of high-quality headphones and we are starting to embed computer chips into our brains, for instance to cure deafness. John Lennox states that new technologies such as cybernetics, synthetic intelligence, cryonics, molecular engineering and virtual reality will forever change what it means to be human.

It is predicted that computers will surpass the processing power of a single human brain by 2025, and that a single computer may match the power of all human brains combined by 2050 (Dr. Ray Kurzweil).

Are brains alone what make us human?

Gerd Leonhard, a well known futurist says the following, “Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300 years, with the future unlikely to be an extension of the present”.

Data and of course, more data

We need to remember however that all the data which is harvested from us as a result of our blind infatuation with technology can be used not only to inform us, it can also be used to control us. Ask yourself, who controls all your data? Owning your data is afterall an immensely profitable business that has subtle and very often hidden ramifications. John Lennox, notes the following when speaking about digital assistants such as Siri and Alexa, “Novelty blurs the oddity of paying to live with a vigilant inhuman superspy linked to an all-too-human corporate profit centre thousands of miles away. Welcoming an ill-regulated corporate eavesdropper into your house as a welcome guest is a dumb, and reckless bit of self bugging. Yet millions, maybe billions, of us do it”.

“How long will it take for these external brains who now know you, to go to representing you, to being you?” A powerful question Gerd Leonhard asks us to consider.

China is already using AI to achieve social control. Gradually rolling out a social credit system in order to check on the reliability and trustworthiness of citizens. As your points accumulate you are granted better perks, access to a wider range of jobs, mortgage opportunities, travel possibilities etc. If you behave in ways thought to be anti social, like associating with the wrong crowd, overindulgence of alcohol etc. you lose points resulting in limited access to jobs, travel restrictions, limitation on the range of restaurants you can visit etc. Black mirror floods my mind (a series that reflects some disturbing future possibilities).

Is it inevitable that Big Data will lead to Big Brother? Once Big Data systems know me better than I know myself, and authority shifts from from humans to algorithms, will Big Data then empower Big Brother?

What do you say?

Valdimir Putin said the following, “Artificial Intelligence is the future, not only for Russia but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world”.

On another note Mathematician Hannah Fry makes the following comment, “For the time being, worrying about evil AI is a bit like worrying about overcrowding on Mars”.

Whatever your stance on AI and technology is, both are definitely here to stay, and the questions remain. Can consciousness, empathy and compassion be replicated? Can morals, values and ethics be reduced to mere algorithms, can emotions be replicated in cold linear fashion? What does a future without these look like?

“Remember that the future does not merely happen to us. It is created by us, everyday, and we will be held responsible for the decisions we make at this very moment” – Gerd Leonhard.

Ultimately, we all need to ask ourselves just one question ……..

What does it mean to be human?

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