What does it mean to be human and what are the limitations?
If we bring a Stone Age person, an early farmer from Mesopotamia, a Greek philosopher, a Renaissance merchant from Florence and one of us together, blindfolded. We organise a picnic in the forest around a campfire, drink ale and start chatting we will very quickly find out we do have a lot in common. After a few pints we will sing together and rapidly end up in jovial embracing. At this level very little has changed in the biological evolution of humans.
What has changed is the environment we live in using the tools we developed. Ever since our cultural environment started to develop (some 5000 years ago) memes – the cultural equivalent of our biologic genes – took over from genes as being the basic force behind human development. Of course our genes remain in place looking among other things after after our social skills, empathy, collaboration, self sacrifice and so on. Change in genes depend on two people passing on DNA, changes in memes is collaborative and social and result in far more rapid changes. Of course we as being made out of DNA and embedded in our culture, body and mind are intertwined. Furthermore we are part of a ‘situation; with family, culture, language, etc. again ’embodied’. Add to this the interactions with ‘others’ all of this shapes us as we are. It is important to state this upfront as we later start concentrating on consciousness and discuss this separately.
The further we evolve the clearer it becomes we are social animals, we need each other and we have to move forwards together. The more globalised the world gets the more important are the social element of our society and its future.
My Dutch friend and colleague Fred Kappetijn has written an interesting blog about genes and memes; our evolutionary and cultural urge to reproduce (use Google to translate into English).
To dig a bit deeper here, it is amazing to see culturally, with the assistance of technology, the global human condition has been enormously improved. Even more mind-boggling is that such a lot has happened in the last 50 years. It is amazing what humans, and their tools can achieve, not just in technology but also in social, healthcare and educational areas. As a collective, humanity has improved, that is not to say that some groups have benefited more than others, that some groups are stagnant and some go even backwards, but as a hole we are doing better than our forebears. More info on this in another article I have written: Factfulness – there is also lots of positive news.
Consider the developments from stone axes to iron swords, and ploughs to cars, smartphones, etc. Now look at the time frame the Stone Age person from 20,000 years ago, the farmer from 10,000 year ago and us now? What can we expect from tool developments in the future?
If we now look at what makes us human than I will quickly get agreement this is our consciousness. At this stage it is important to differentiate this from intelligence. The latter is our ability to solve novel problems. Consciousness is a subjective experience , what it is to be a human (or an animal), the human level however, is of a rather different magnitude. Intelligence and consciousness don’t have to be linked.
With the ongoing and ever faster tool developments we are less and less depending on our body to do the work, organs can be transplanted, and other tools can enhance our biological and cognitive functions. Note these tools (computers) don’t think nor do they have any subjective experience. It is also important to understand that tools such artificial intelligence (AI) and its subset machine learning (ML) are still in a stage of infancy. Looking at our intelligence and consciousness in isolation, why would we need a body? Amazingly Aristotle asked that same question 2500 years ago.
Then Avicenna wrote along the lines consciousness is very personal and unique to each individual human being. Perhaps this could be the largest stumbling block for a full human transformation and as such the single most important element will ensure we will remain individual humans for centuries to come, if not even beyond. So while Aristotle might be right it will be incredible difficult to create artificial cognition, even more so as we still have no idea how autonomous -genetic formed – consciousness works:
- Certain sensations create reactions in our brain such as thoughts and dreams.
- These are different processes, both hardware and a software based.
- It creates context and comprehension through mental concepts (precepts) and subjective experiences (qualia) leading to a holistic (gestalt) comprehension of ourselves.
- Language e.g. requires context and a holistic approach (language and thoughts are inextricable).
- At a next level, we can reason and do abstract thinking
- Than there is uncontrolled non-consciousness when consciousness is not quick enough to kick in (including dreams).
It is important to note we are discussing consciousness here. We need our biological human elements to live our lives as well as our cognitive elements (embodied consciousness).
In relation to the above mentioned consciousness processes, we have little understand how these interact with each other. We know without sensations there are no experiences, but we have no idea how that works. We also know our consciousness constantly changes based those sensations from both our own being and our environment (genes and memes). It also looks this is very much linked to our finite life, it is all about survival of the genes and the memes. Memes are soaking up memories, cultural, emotional, natural, and many more impressions, trillions of them over a life time. All of these trillions of experiences are different for each person on earth.
Complex life will only become more complex. As our brain doesn’t have the capacity to oversee ‘everything’ it often looks like a chain of ‘accidental’ and highly unpredictable developments we are a part of. But what we increasingly see is that everything we ‘discover’ eventually follows natural rules and laws. So this complexity will most likely be unraveled further in the periods that lay ahead of us.
In the context of our limited understanding it often looks like that it are a number of small probabilities that create massive changes. There are many unknown unknowns and outcomes are often based on serendipity. We however, do need to be prepared to react and this seems to be a problem, we lack ‘fast thinking’ in such situations. The covid pandemic is a good example we knew this could happen, there were plenty of warnings but we decided not to prepare and were not ready when the event occurs. Climate change is another event where there is still a lot of indecisiveness regarding preparation.
Coming back to our picnic in the forest. With the varied groups chatting around the campfire, we still would not be able to find answers for the big questions of life, about the meaning of life, free will, what is truth and so on. In our times we can add to these the political and social problems we are facing in relation to democracy, fake news, conspiracy theories, social media echo chambers, populism, and totalitarianism. The human mind is cognitively ill prepared to tackle these problems. Philosophers such as Bertrand Russell supports this idea. Over the last 50 years technology has taken such leaps forwards that it is getting ahead of us. As a result we specialised but this means we no longer understand the full picture and get bogged down in endless debates without clear decision making processes.
What is needed for us to improve on our current situation?
If history is a guideline than it is doubtful the biological humans-as-we-are in another 10,000 years’ would be much different from us or our forebears. Our cognitive limitations are already a problem for the complex problems facing us today, let alone for the even more complex situations we will face going forwards. We need better solutions and better tools to assist us in addressing today’s major issues such as managing the global society across ideological divisions. It is not the technology that is stopping us from addressing these issues, but the cognitive limitations of humans to deal with these situations in order to best use technology. What is eventuating around us is that the quintessential force in our life, is being disrupted, largely by the rapid accumulation of technology. We clearly are at the doorstep of an inflection point. We do need mindset shifts.
How can technology assist in addressing this issue?
The tools we are developing today indicate a trend towards assisting and enhancing our cognitive capacities. We need to be able to think and act faster, be better in a much more efficient way. This is where technology can assist in providing us with the rationale, the data, the information, the options allow us to do better. They can assist in enhance our own cognitive capabilities.
- Augmented humans, augmented intelligence and augmented leaders in order to achieve better outcomes for all of humanity.
- To get a much better grip and a better comprehension on the increasingly more complex world around us.
- Find solutions before the issues become major problems (the covid pandemic is a good example here).
- Create systems where humans intelligence and artificial intelligence work together in an augmented and symbiotic way.
Machines are good on a rational level and can manage large amount of widely variable data, something the brain is ill equipped for. However, they can’t act on their own, humans have to be there to make the decisions. These processes include our human elements of emotions, ethics, empathy and humility. Computers have already been programmed in such a way that they easy outpace human brains capacity in relation to rational action, but they can’t evolve beyond that without human intervention.
For the foreseeable future (hundreds of years) this is where trans humanism will evolve. We already have a large digital workforce so we are in a good position to face this challenge. From now on decision making processes in a digital environment can’t be hierarchical anymore, they need to be based distributed models and networked structures. In such open systems we can all be sensors and participate. This allows for virtual collaboration. This will lead to many unanticipated outcomes, they can be right and wrong but we need to weed the bad ones out and foster the good ones. We see these developments already in our new digital environment (fail fast and learn fast).
Just looking ahead, especially over centuries and millennia it is certain that our tool making capacity will significantly improve. Will this include a move from artificial intelligence to artificial consciousness (machine consciousness, synthetic consciousness) ?
Those supporting doomsday scenarios will indicate these technology developments might be stopped when we get is a collapse of human society and/or these technologies are going to be the cause of such a scenario. But again, history being the measure, even if that happens over time humanity/life will recover and rebuild. Eventually to reach the level we are on now and take it further. These cycles will only stop when life on earth goes extinct. This could happen in a few billion years when the sun stops shining and as such destroys all life on earth. Do we then need to be ready to live intergalactic?
So for the the foreseeable future a doomsday scenario is not a way out, we need to think even beyond that. We also need to much better anticipate doomsday scenarios and be prepared to act quickly when things go wrong.
Thanshumanism for enhanced humans
Philosophers involved in the theories of post-humanism and trans-humanism are captivated by the technological possibilities and dangers the future poses to our understanding of human life.
Trans-human (enhanced humans) is a more easier to accept state as in this case the human is technologically or biologically augmented but still a person who belongs to the human race. A process that already started a few million years ago, sped up some 5,000 years ago and is racing ahead as we speak.
Despite the hype around AI and robots what might lead us to believe in a dystopian future, non of the post-human massive developments are happening any time soon. We simply lack the human capacity for this and this might be a good thing. Trans-human developments are made incrementally; often two steps forwards and three steps back. Nicely linked to the way we humans progress.
The tools we are creating indicate a logical and rational direction towards cultural rather than biological trans humanism.
That is not to say there are no dangers in the current technological developments. So far, we have been able to stay in control of the technology we have developed. However, self-learning algorithms and developments in Machine Learning (ML), DNA engineering (CRISPR), biotechnics, neuro-technologies and quantum mechanism/quantum biophysics show we do need to manage this well. We do know what technological ethics are needed. However, in our interconnected world we need further global consensus on their implementation (as we successfully engineered in e.g. relation to nuclear and biochemical warfare). Do we first need a crisis to engineer global consensus. Will this be too late at that time? Will our innate warring tribal instinct lead to selected groups of trans humans?
Post humanism – artificial consciousness
According to Wikipedia, the idea of the post-human originates in the fields of science fiction, futurology, contemporary art and philosophy that literally refers to a person or entity that exists in a state beyond being human. In other words, a human so advanced that he or she is more or less distinct from our current conception of the ordinary person. This has to be mostly facilitated by technological developments.
While we do have an understanding of consciousness there many more parts of the puzzle we are totally missing. We have described this process above (sensations, percepts, qualia, gestalt). In order to create artificial consciousness we need to understand all the different types of conscious experiences in detail and how they correlate with brain activity. From here, develop principles and models and apply all of this artificially.
Many philosophers have been racking their brains over the process of reasoning. Aristotle was perhaps the first to discussed reason (logos), Hobbes about ‘notes of remembrance’, Kant talked about ‘nous’, just to name a few.
While we can conceptualise artificial consciousness, the big question is, if, we eventually will be able to create artificial consciousness? Never say never but that could take centuries. It is not inconceivable that in future centuries we will be able to understand consciousness better and indeed be able to create it in an artificial way. Philosopher Grant Bartley (editor Philosophy Now) argues we would have to develop a bottom-up process to understand and replicate each of the processes both in relation to the hardware (brain) and the software (outcome of brain activity). Will artificial consciousness be transpersonal, reach its own own gestalt?
Will this mean that we individually be able exist in whatever form we like (eg being gods) or will an outside force take over consciousness. As mentioned even if it might be possible to create artificial consciousnesses, is it desirable? This is something very hard to judge. Tell somebody 100 year ago that we ‘liking’ people that we don’t even know, play video games, go to gyms and they might ask if that is desirable. We don’t know the cultural framework that the people will have who live at the time when something like this is possible. If posthumanism indeed start to emerge it means that basically all human elements have been virtualised, if we also have been able understand the fundamentals of physics we might have been able to create a virtual simulation of the universe and the virtualised posthumans could explore this as we now envisage in time travelling. Could our virtual consciousness develop and reach such levels that it is able to permeate the universe and as such become a formative force in the configuration of the universe? This could link in with quantum mechanics. Or could we just be a part of a superorganism linked together in some form of a quantum structure? It is hard to believe that we are the only unit in the universe that matters.
In the chapter Consciousness and quantum processing we mentioned that it looks like there is an photonic interaction between an outside quantum process and our consciousness.Physicist John Wheeler even entertained the thought that the presence of living beings, which are capable of “noticing” (observer effect), has transformed what was previously a multitude of possible quantum pasts into one concrete history (wave probability). In this sense, Wheeler said, we become participants in the evolution of the Universe since its very beginning. In his words, we live in a “participatory universe.” Philosophers such as Adrian Kent, while skeptical, agrees it is a most fascinating thought that consciousnesses could interact with other quantum events. The ‘observer effect’ only seems to exist in ideal situation (so far only theoretically). As soon as the photons travel they are mixed in with other electrons and a deconstruction appears and this is what we experience, so it is not our consciousness that causes that to happen. The collapse of the individual photon waves happen anywhere between the source of it and our conscious observation of it. This is our reality we only see the result of collapse of the wave probabilities and that is our reality (classical world, as different from the quantum – divided by what is known as the Heisenberg Cut). The collapse itself is not a result of our conscious observation. If we go back to the pure quantum stage (super position) than each probability wave could have its own reality, at the even we could have various realities of ourselves, the Schrödinger’s cat theory shows such possibilities.
These quantum waves could even travel through black holes into the multiverse. All of these theories and tests are still in their infancy, however, it shows that we will have some very interesting discoveries ahead of us.
As both Stephen Hawking and Ray Kurzweil have said we need to face these challenges otherwise we will be out-competed by whatever trans- or post humans will arrive on the scene. Kurzweil examined this in detail in his book The Singularity is near; When humans transcend biology, where he talks about a technological singularity.
Can humans remain in charge?
Humans are tribalistic in nature. There is discrimination between gender, race, nationality, ability. We will need to overcome this, yet progress here isn’t linear. It is questionable if humanity can overcome tribalism. We might solve some of these issues. At the same time, humans in their current form will rapidly find new ones to fight over (technology, robots, AI and so on).
In order to overcome these deeply ingrained human obstacles, trans humanism points to technologies that can be of assistance to manage humanity and our planet earth in a more sustainable way. A prerequisite for this is it needs to be done for the good of all. And here lays a big problem our societal and technological developments are not in line with each other, so we could see a real inequality in trans human developments. Imagine the problems and conflicts this will cause. We don’t have the combined cognitive capacity to plan ahead this might continue to be a process of muddling on, hopefully avoiding major catastrophes.
Key issues that humanity will have to surmount are ideology, corruption, despotism and roadblocks to human development, whether it be socially, culturally or economically. None of this will be easy and in the political reality of today, it could be seen as pure fantasy. But over decennia and centuries, things will change, hopefully for the good.
From a philosophical and scientific point of view, we can think of scenarios that could assist us here. Even if we see a global crisis creating massive havoc among our global population, we have already the basic tools we can build on and they can assist us to look for solutions beyond such a certain situation, and with the corona virus, we are seeing a spur of internationally collaborative developments that will greatly enhance this situation further, for the good of all.
The longer term developments will take decades, centuries and even millennia. However, these developments do start somewhere, and it looks this is happening in our time. Our role is to manage and take responsibility of this first stage. Trying to stop this is futile nor advantageous for our race. We didn’t stop nuclear technologies or biochemical developments even when we knew they could end civilization as we know it. Managing technologies in the right direction is the all important task. Ethics and humility are important elements we humans can add to these developments.
Many industry leaders and scientists have urged governments to become involved in ensuring these developments will be for the good of all. But like taking proactive measures in relation to the covid pandemic, governments are procrastinating also in this area. I most certainly would like to add my voice for the need of international arrangements, agreements and regulations. Key principles should include that new developments in technology should be based on: protecting autonomy, promoting human safety and well-being, ensuring transparency, fostering accountability, ensuring equity and developing tools that are responsive and sustainable.
We urgently need to address the rampant digital flow of information that is creating enormous human confusion (fake news, conspiracy theories, social media echo chambers, populism, and totalitarianism). This is challenging for democratic societies as we see that China has already a good grip on this problem though its totalitarian system. However we have the tools that allows for augmented humans, augmented intelligence and augmented leadership, we have a large digital workforce and operate increasingly as a networked organism. The internet being the key infrastructure for this. We now need to apply this so we can think and act better and faster, we must become better in planning for the future.
In order to ensure we are working towards to good for all, Professor Stuart Russell, lists three principles to guide the development of beneficial machines. He emphasises that these principles are not meant to be explicitly coded into the machines; rather, they are intended for the human developers. The principles are as follows:
- The machine’s only objective is to maximise the realisation of human preferences.
- The machine is initially uncertain about what those preferences are.
- The ultimate source of information about human preferences is human behaviour.
We should not use AI and other technologies to solve our complex problems for us, instead we should concentrate on developing technologies that equip us better to solve these problems faster and more effective. AI should not be run on autopilot, it needs to be used on decisions made by humans. If it becomes self-directed the unintended consequences may be devastating.
In all of these trans human and eventually post human developments, technology per-se is not the issue, human behaviour however is. In all reality a more likely scenario is that we will muddle on, run into a crisis and than find the time and place to combine forces and do something about it.
Beyond the current times we might need to redefine what human means. Who knows what lays ahead in the centuries, let alone the millennia in front of us? Planet earth perhaps has another billion years to go and it’s highly unlikely humans remain the same as humans we know today.
Most likely, it will be in some form of software that could start emulating the various elements of our conscious experiences. Following, it would require highly integrated technologies that could instantly process zettabytes of information, this is at the moment extremely hard to fathom. It is impossible to make post human predictions from our current position. What we know is it is centuries away, at this stage it remains interesting to philosophise over ‘what if’.
Let us hope humans, while still in charge, will adhere to these ethical principles on their way to further develop the already unstoppable trans- and post human technologies.
Disclosure. I have been able to write this by standing on the shoulders of giants in my national and international philosophy and technology circles .
Appendix Thanshuman technologies
Science and technology as critical elements in our cultural development are already seeing an integration between humans and technology. What we are also learning is science is uncertain. We see facts don’t settle disputes. Facts no longer are doing the job of creating truth. Perhaps this is not a bad thing. In a networked society we become all sensors and participants, this creates debates. The internet as the networked environment has changed older forms of science, knowledge and fact. This is creating a lot of uncertainty. We are shocked out of a rather comfortable top down situation of information, science, knowledge and facts to a totally different and very noisy new environment of uncertainty, but as transcendent people we will learn to live with this and overcome this and adopt to a better situation sooner rather than later.
The same applies to the technologies below, they are not set in concrete, they are all in its infancy, most will fail, new ideas, concepts and technology will sprout from others and some will continue to evolve.
Look at pacemakers, bionic ears and eyes, artificial limbs and so on. Biotecnics makes it possible to grow new body parts outside the body. We already have smart pills. Cybernetics has seen many breakthroughs in recent years, including the development of advanced prosthetic, used to provide amputees with a better quality of life.
The latest developments here are linking these prostheses direct to our brain and nervous system, making it increasingly more seamless. Soon individuals, other than disabled persons, may want similar functionalities. Think here for example about athletes the military and people who are already experimenting themselves with these technologies.
The MIT Media Lab is one of many organisations looking into such cyborg developments. This is a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts.
Also known as ‘cognitive enhancers’ are drugs that some people use in an attempt to improve memory, increase mental alertness and concentration as well as boost energy levels and wakefulness.
Aimed at endowing a robot with intelligent behavior by providing it with a processing architecture that will allow it to learn and reason about how to behave in response to complex goals in a complex world. Eventually looking at the post humanist technology of humanoids. They have an appearance resembling a human without being one. The current attempts still look more science fiction and underdeveloped but compare them with the robots from a few decades ago and we see significant advances. Professor Minoru Asada from the Osaka University is one of the leaders in this field.
Away from the hardware, now on to the software. Digital technology is already having an enormous impact on how we see ourselves. We already have primitive forms of ‘digital twins’: our persona in digital formats, such as on social media. But there are other developments underway that would go far beyond this, if they ever get off the ground.
The Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative is aimed at revolutionising our understanding of the human brain. It was initiated by former US President Barack Obama in 2013. By accelerating the development and application of innovative technologies, researchers aim to produce a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space. Long desired by researchers seeking new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders, this picture will fill major gaps in our current knowledge and provide unprecedented opportunities for exploring exactly how the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilize, store, and retrieve vast quantities of information, all at the speed of thought. BRAIN has a US$4.5 billion budget for a 13 year period.
Nanotechnologies are progressing well also for example with developments such as Neuralink: an optogenetic technology that could allow a human brain to download directly from a computer. However, this will be a copy without ‘consciousness’ attached to it.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies will soon be able to assist humans with the most complex and difficult problems. Through mind-uploading such as the Nectome program and mind-merging, the best brains of the world can work together, creating the Brainternet. Again consciousness will be an issue here.
A technology known as neural lace will see the implanting tiny of electrodes into the brain. The result would be the enhancement of memory and cognitive powers by effectively merging humans and AI. Is this what we need to overcome current tribal human problems? Is it consciousness, rather than physical appearance, that makes us human?
To a certain extend our smart phone is already delivering an ‘extra brain’ to us.