Thursday, January 21, 2016

I emote, therefore I am?

I return to one of my favorite topics, because even the blog-following students complained that I have written too much "shit" about this, and the lazy guy on the other side of the planet says he will "die" if I blogged again about this.  I tell ya, it is not easy keeping all the readers happy.
(Editor: When exactly did you start caring about what others thought?  Me: Shhhh ... I don't care a shit; it is all an act on the stage that is the world!)

The favorite topic that I return to is one that should be everybody's favorite as well: What does it mean to be human, especially with all the rapid technological changes that point towards artificial intelligence?

Consider the following:
there is the question of how we see ourselves. Human nature is a baggy, capacious concept, and one that technology has altered and extended throughout history. Digital technologies challenge us once again to ask what place we occupy in the universe: what it means to be creatures of language, self-awareness and rationality. 
As we eagerly chase after the next iPhone, we need to pause and think about how our individual and collective understanding of what it means to be human is changing, seemingly by the minute.  But, we don't pause.  Instead, we rush to buy that iGadget!

The author, Tom Chatfield, is incredibly accomplished for his young age, adds this about the digital machines that we create:
Our creations are effective in part because they are unburdened by most of what makes humans human: the broiling biological pot of emotion, sensation, bias and belief that constitutes the bulk of mental life. We are biased, beautiful creatures. Technology and intellect allow us to externalise our goals; but the ends pursued are those we chose.
Do the incentives our tools tirelessly pursue on our behalf include human thriving, meaningful work, rich and humane interactions? Do we believe these things to be unachievable, unknowable or worthless? If not, when are we going to shift our focus?
The less that we individually and collectively think about these issues, the faster we hurl ourselves into a brave new world, like the one that Michael Shermer writes about in his column in the Scientific American: Can our minds live forever?  Shermer writes about the "attempt to preserve a brain's connectome—the comprehensive diagram of all neural synaptic connections."
Can brains be so preserved? Fahy and his colleague Robert L. McIntyre are now developing techniques that they hope will win the Brain Preservation Technology Prize, the brainchild of neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth (I'm on their advisory board as the advocatus diaboli). As I write this, the prize is currently valued at more than $106,000; the first 25 percent of the award will be for the complete preservation of the synaptic structure of a whole mouse brain, and the other 75 percent will go to the first team “to successfully preserve a whole large animal brain in a manner that could also be adopted for humans in a hospital or hospice setting immediately upon clinical death.”
Of course, brain preservation and thawing the brain to life will not be feasible for a very long time.  But, think about where this research is headed:
“I refuse to accept that the human race will stop technological and scientific progress,” Hayworth told me. “We are destined to eventually replace our biological bodies and minds with optimally designed synthetic ones. And the result will be a far healthier, smarter and happier race of posthumans poised to explore and colonize the universe.”
Chatfield puts it well on why even half-baked pretentious intellectuals like me are interested in all these, and why you should too:
Our creations are certain to grow far beyond our current comprehension: how far and how fast is perhaps our most urgent existential question. Our best hopes of progress, however, remain deceptively familiar: understanding ourselves better; asking what aims may serve not only our survival, but also our thriving; and striving to build systems that serve rather than subvert these.
This is certainly one amazing time to be alive with so much in the horizon and with seemingly so much at stake.  Good thing that I will be gone well before all these creations unfold; so long, suckers! ;)

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