It’s not so clear what this newness will consist of, much less whether it’s “better” than the humanity we’ve been doing for a while now. Indeed, it’s pretty much impossible to evaluate, even if we had a clear picture of the future. Its strangeness makes our mentalitè obsolete and our resentment of this newness skews our ability to understand, much less “objectively” assess what life might be like, or take a stance on whether the new is even “human.”
There are many possible perspectives on what it is to be human: physical appearance, sexual reproducibility, social connection, legal status, percentage of standard DNA, some combination of intelligence and language, the presence of a “soul,” and a gaggle of attributes/abilities we might look far, such as curiosity, tool-use, poetry, and an affinity for ice cream.
Virtually every one of these aspects can now be accomplished by some (human) creation/invention; so “human” might better be defined as some collection of multiple features, not just a single one. But what to include on the list? Is there one aspect that is really critical?
Bio-engineering, which encompasses in vitro fertilization, cloning, CRISPR gene-splicing techniques, sophisticated prosthetics, and organ replacement pretty much leaves only the brain as a part or function of the human body that cannot foreseeably be constructed/replicated/replaced (so far!).
Chatbots can write creditable poetry, music, and literature; comparable devices can paint and sculpt. If these creations cause “humans” to respond emotionally and intellectually, what does it matter that they were midwifed out of a computer using a rich set of inputs from prior “human” experience. What else is “art”? Wouldn’t a rose planted and tended by a robo-gardener smell as sweet?
The challenge is not confined to pseudo-Shakespearean sonnets. Big data-driven replication of everything we do is foreseeable. From coding to design, to teaching, to legislating, barrista-ing, and taxi-driving, homo ludens (man who works) is, sooner-or-later set to be superseded.
In 1993, Vernor Vinge, mathematician and SciFi writer wrote an essay called “Technological Singularity.” He said “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” [Hmmm …thirty years: 1993-2023]. The broad concept was picked up by Ray Kurzweil and more broadly popularized
In his 2005 book, The Singularity is Here, in which he lashed together trends in computing, bioengineering, nanotechnology, and robotics/AI to forecast the end of the biological era of humanity.
If we are out-done in terms of world changing techne; if we are losing the Darwinian competition for reproducibility/survivability, What’s left? And, is this next stage “bad”? Creation for self-satisfaction seems solipsistic. Similarly narrow are those “utopias:” intellectual idylls and environmental utopias that seem more defined and valued by projecting what we (as a species) have thought would be great for thousands of years than any “objective” standard of idealization and progress. Indeed, one might ask (with Godel), whether we are even capable of defining what “human” is, since we are, by definition, in the middle of it.
A hundred years before Vinge, in The Time Machine (1895), H.G. Wells talked about humans diverging into two species: the dark, mechanistic, and oppressed Morlocks and the ethereal and effete Eloi. The former seem useless and the latter seem pointless. So, Wells could see that fin-de-siècle humans couldn’t make sense out of what such a future might hold; even if he could see that it would be radically different. I’m not sure we’ve really advanced the ball much since then. Our dystopias depict the mass of humanity teetering on the brink of de-evolution, while some (usually small) percentage live a glamorous life; a combination of lotus-eaters and videogamers/virtualrealityists.
If so, we had better figure out something else; some other angle on “human” existence. Is it enlightenment (somewhere between Kantian and Buddhist) at either a personal or societal level? Or, perhaps, our collective job is just to keep the species going until we can figure out something better along the way? After all, as I noted last week, enlightenment is a “process” and there’s no reason to think we have cracked the code quite yet. Who knows what we might discover/figure out/invent. Indeed, to take a more optimistic slant, if we’ve come this far in the last 100,000 years, we might get to some real answers in the next several billion years before the Universe shuts down. It might take us a while, but it could keep us busy in the meantime.