Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Man, god, or man-god?

This term, too, I told students who were paying attention that when we think about the future, we often commit the mistake of assuming that the future will only be marginally different from now.  "We have no idea, really!" is what I have been telling students for years.  But--you know what's coming by now, right?--nobody listens to me anyway!

One of my many examples is this--the near-magical lives that we lead thanks to technology.  I don't mean merely the likes of the smartphones.  But our very existence.  There are people around with pacemakers. With stents. With artificial knees.  With titanium screws. With organs that once were in some other body.  With ... it is an endless list that tells me that the bionic man and the bionic woman arrived a while ago, and we apparently didn't even notice.

This incremental but significant march has always concerned me.  Because, as much as I am not a religious person, I worry that these have already redefined what existence means.  These deeply philosophical reasons were also why even a few years ago I completed my advanced directives.

A couple of weeks ago, when driving, I was listening to NPR.  I loved what I heard so much that I even talked with students about it.  The person interviewed, Yuval Noah Harari, "expects we will soon engineer our bodies, brains and minds in the same way that we now design products."  Given the examples like pacemakers I had listed, of course I was already sold.
First of all is to take our organic body and start tinkering with it with things like genetic engineering, speeding up natural selection and actually replacing it with intelligent design - not the intelligent design of some God above the clouds but our intelligent design.
The other way is to start combining organic with inorganic parts and creating cyborgs. For 4 billion years, all of evolution - not just of humans but of all beings - was confined to the organic realm. But very soon, we might be able to break out of the organic realm using things like brain-computer interfaces which combine organic parts like an organic brain with inorganic parts like bionic hands or eyes or ears.
And then the third and most extreme path is to create completely inorganic beings not even needing an organic brain but using instead artificial intelligence.
Yep, I can easily see this happening.  Maybe not within my lifetime--at least, I hope it won't be within my lifetime!

He then made an interesting comment:
medicine in the 21st century will switch from healing the sick to upgrading the healthy. This is true not only of plastic surgery and improvements to the body but also improvements to our cognitive abilities - for example, memory. If you find ways to repair the memory damaged by Alzheimers disease or dementia and so forth, it is very likely that the same methods could be used to upgrade the memory of completely healthy people.
Cue the theme from the Twilight Zone!

Harari was being interviewed because he has a new book out: Homo Deus.  In his review, Michael Shermer writes:
We evolved as bipedal primates on the African plains, and our senses and brains are geared toward projecting the immediate future based on the most recent past. “When we think about the future,” Harari concludes, “our thoughts and actions are usually constrained by present-day ideologies and social systems.” He wants us to try to think beyond these constraints, and, to that end, I return to Arthur C. Clarke and another observation he made in his 1951 book, The Exploration of Space: “If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run—and often in the short one—the most daring prophecies seem laughingly conservative.” Call that Clarke’s Fourth Law.
Like I tell students, "we have no idea, really!"


Ramesh said...

Yes , we have no idea really as "progress" happens in uncharted ways. But in reality, its long periods of relatively less change interspersed with furious change. The pace has however increased recently and will continue to do so, I guess.

Your medical examples you have quoted made me think of the Seventh Day Adventists. They strictly believe that this is bad -that's why they refuse even blood transfusions. I've often thought of them as crackpots. But then, who is to say. Each of us will lay boundaries on what is and what is not acceptable. I would hate to be a bionic man, but then can I really criticise somebody who wants to be.

Great post that should set everybody thinking.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, we should all think about all these things.

I love that Arthur Clarke observation that even our most daring prophecies turn out to be laughingly conservative. I have said those very ideas to students, but from now on I think I will simply quote Clarke. I can easily imagine inequality widening as a result and, therefore, even the dystopian future where the rich and the powerful are so powerful that the less-than-equal humans will be worse off than the androids ...

The proverbial genie is out the bottle. All I can do is think about how to make meaning of my existence.

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