Being Human in a Post-Human World

What happens when man and machine mix?

In the 1960’s, I.J. Good proposed an upcoming intelligence explosion. Riffing on Good’s work, Vernor Vinge developed this notion further. In his famous paper on the technological singularity, Vinge proposed two alternative scenarios for intelligence explosion: the AI, or artificial intelligence, scenario, and the IA, or intelligence amplification scenario.

We are at the brink of this predicted explosion right now. In a matter of few years, the man-machine integration will be smooth enough to allow us to tap into vast amounts of information in our everyday life.

But it’s crazy how mundane it has become to be able to google things up in everyday life situations. Yet less than ten years ago, the idea that you could check a fact in a bus or in a bar conversation straight away, was pure science fiction.

Now, we are looking at the next wave of man-machine integration: wearable technology. When technology moved from the warehouse to the desktop, the way we think changed radically. We could already amplify our intelligence a great deal with a computer in the house.

When technology moved from the desktop into the pocket, this integration deepened. Now we can do amazing things with our portable computers. Yet they have integrated into our everyday life astoundingly well. Having a Star Trek tricorder in the pocket just doesn’t seem that big a deal once you have one.

And I predict that in a couple of years, once the integration of augmented reality displays and other wearable tech has been cracked properly, having a digital overlay on our everyday life won’t feel much more special than being able to draw cash from an ATM.

The interesting thing is that all the while our intellectual collective capacity is increasing exponentially, and about to explode into something it is very hard to predict, we are staying emphatically human.

I believe that the AI hypothesis with its Terminator and Matrix corollaries is far more imaginary than people tend to think. After all, we still hardly understand how we ourselves think. Going from this to actually building a machine that thinks requires for the time being at least some kind of a leap of faith.

On the other hand, AI will also play a great deal into our next level of thought. It too, I believe, will integrate into the cognitive whole that is formed by us humans and our tools. Just like a navigator or a smart search algorithm can boost our intellect, think how a strong AI could boost it more.

In a sense, then, the AI hypothesis and the IA hypothesis may well merge in the future, into something that is far more potent than AI by itself, much less human beings withouth the tools we use.

While human-like AI does present some philosophical and pragmatic problems, the IA hypothesis does not. After all, we are tool-using animals, and have been for tens of thousands of years. And with each tool, we can think better and smarter. A pen helps us pull our thoughts together. A computer helps us manage vast amounts of information. And a mobile phone helps us share that information.

Wearable tech will make all this much easier. It will ease the distribution of labor between the biological mind(s) and the digital mind(s). In a sense, as a Wired article recently put it, it will reduce the number of seconds in a day that we are confused.

We are at the brink of an intelligence explosion, and that explosion is, I am quite sure, far more human than we think. The technology we bring to play in our everyday life has followed a beautifully exponential curve for at least the last thousand years. And while the world has changed a great deal, our lives remain emphatically human.

It is the case, drawing from the ideas of  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that as we learn to distribute labor among ourselves and our machines, we do not meld into a formless mass of drones.

Rather, our individuality is increased by this amplified collective intelligence.

With the intelligence explosion, and its man-machine integration, we can all be far more human, far more ourselves, than we ever have been able to in the entire history of the humankind.


68 thoughts on “Being Human in a Post-Human World

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  3. This was very interesting, and I enjoyed reading about the technological theory you cited, as opposed to a lot of films and fictional pieces (which I tend to turn to!)

    • You’re right. The future is not all carefree, and in fact for every great scenario there are equally scary alternatives.

      Interestingly it may be that here too the two may converge. For example, both the environmental crisis and technological development evolve on an exponential scale. It may be that if we catch up with our tech fast enough, we can still get on top of the environmental issues.

      Most likely won’t be easy, though.

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  5. I’d like to think we’ll become more individual and more human. I tend to be an optimist, even though I see far too much of humans surrendering their individuality and humanness to the machines. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed .Lots of interesting topics here, and I look forward to reading more in the future.

    • I very much agree. The creators of the machines are the ones responsible for making the human race progress. It is us who delt with the side effects of these creations which means, as you said, that we surrender to eye sight and pure physical human interaction.

  6. It’s a very good point to raise, but I balk at the use of the phrase, “post-human.” Even our integration of technology is what Nietzsche called, human, all too human. We’ll be fully upgradable cyborgs spending our time watching videos of cats.

  7. nikkiharvey says:

    Good post 🙂 I think our humanity is important and if it ever got to the point where we were losing our humanity and our individuality, people would stop creating the technology that was making us that way

    • I think you’re half correct. We would react. On the other hand, I believe that if something is possible, somebody will end up doing it eventually. But how widespread such practices would become would likely be limited by their human relevance.

      • nikkiharvey says:

        I think maybe I didn’t make clear what I meant.. Like I think someone would try it but the majority would be against it and so they would run out of money to continue advancing it before it became a real problem.. Like how smartphones wouldn’t exist if basic phones hadn’t made money.. As soon as something begins to threaten our humanity and individuality I think it won’t make any money and so any real threat wouldn’t come into existence.

  8. mcwcwfc says:

    well written! completely agree with you ! the idea of half human and half machine is quite an awakening. My fiance always tells me that movies always tend to be ahead of us and im finding it to be true!

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  10. obzervashunal says:

    In considering the Singularity Theory, or a ‘quantum leap’ in our biological/technological mending, my greatest worry is that we will not become more human, but withdraw more from our human-ness with each other. I tend to see a few too many people on the streets, completely engaged with their tech to even acknowledge the existence of those around them… fantastic post, by the way!

    • Yep, this is a double edged sword. As with any tool, its the use of it that matters.

      Interestingly enough, though, many people (myself included) feel that social media for instance has actually added to the amount of human contact experienced. But it takes some work to balance it out, I guess.

  11. Jonathan Ulyatt says:

    Great read. If you’re interested I have a post kind of opposing your view and looking at technology in a different light in a humorous approach. Things are no tangible object these days. Check it out, might be interesting for you!

  12. If only you were right. Our individuality is decreasing as we strive for knowledge at the expense of empathy and understanding. Empathy and understanding can only be learned through experience (or the experience of others, which is why stories have always been used to expand our minds and teach us how to behave as good humans). We are becoming more alike as social networks put us back into high school mentality where we are all equally selfish, jealous and trying to be in with the in crowd. Our own good nature is being used against us as we modify our thoughts so as not to cause offence and remove from our society anyone whose thoughts contradict our own.
    We are exactly equal to all humans going back millenia, it is our belief that we are somehow superior that keeps us from achieving the pure humanity that is in our hearts and minds. Never forget that we are animals and it is our animal self that holds the key to achieving a higher state of being.

    • You are right: biologically our brains and bodies have not really evolved much during the last 60 thousand years. In effect, we are still biological cavemen.

      I also agree with your analysis, but only in part.

      I see two competing trends arising as we speak. One of them is this Huxleyan deindividualization I see in your description, as well as in Jonathan Ulyatt’s comments and links above. The other is the trend towards a new era of individual flourishing and human abundance that my post is in part addressing.

      It is really difficult to say which trend will come out on top. After all, this is a progression that has gone on for millennia: you can see the very same dynamic already in Plato. 🙂

  13. Unfortunately I know which is currently on top. Look up the economic theory “The Prisoners Dilemma”, basically although humanity is better off if we all believe and trust that others will behave as well as us, our doubt of the motives of others always leads to humans believing in themselves and doubting others which leads to the worst possible outcome.

    Or think back to school days. The cocky, know all kids have their followers, while the earnest try hards are laughed at and ridiculed.

    Who has power and authority in our countries? The humble, kind and gentle? Or the arrogant, self serving believers in their own personal judgement as superior to their underlings?

    Or look at popular culture, we go to arenas to laugh at our common failings, but storytelling that makes us think about how we could be better people is a dying art.

    It is why it makes economic and mathematical sense to have “faith” in the goodness of humanity, or a loving “God” at the heart of our individual decision making process. Unfortunately our knowledge of science and the universe stops us from even allowing the concept of a loving God to be beneficial. So we all look out for our individual selves at the expense of the common good and believe the things we like and own are what make us individual – don’t the advertisers and profiteers just love how easily manipulated we are.

    • Interesting notions that I feel invite a few counterpoints.

      First, Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game theoretical abstraction, and its application to real life situations is questionable. The application of game theory to behavior was itself questioned later by one of its most significant promoters, John Nash. Also, Dacher Keltner explores some empirical research that points out that people tend to promote empathic behavior in real life PD situations. That is, they start with trust, and then reciprocate whatever the other person does.

      Second, you are right about school, and there is so much work to be done there. However, I am not entirely sure about the cocky kids coming out on top. In the schools’ closed ecosystems they do, but after school ends, its my contention that it’s often (though not always) the nerds and geeks who come out on top in real life.

      Third, the debate between high and low art is nothing new. This was already despaired over by the ancient Greeks, and to argue that high arts would be “dying” would imply then that they have been in their death throes at least for two millennia. Rather, I believe the question here is that “high” arts have a degree of complexity to them which requires those enjoying it to learn a few things, therefore limiting their target audience.

      None of this is to say, though, that people would not be selfish, that cocky people would not come out on top, or that popular culture would be without flaws. I agree to some degree with everything you said. I simply wish to point out that the two trends I mentioned before are in my opinion much more balanced than we tend to think.

  14. Hey, you can apply the prisoners dilemma to any relationship in which 2 people have a relationship and it shows clearly why without faith we end up failing. Life is all about choices, we can choose to accept or deny the consequences of our actions. Life is also all about learning, accepting new knowledge and moving forward in the way that maximises empathy and understanding (Important to also follow the Pareto Criterion)
    In any conflict, there are always 2 choices, accept or deny, so you can draw a nice little grid for any relationship e.g. teacher and student. If the student isn’t learning the teacher can accept responsibility and try a new way to teach, or simply blame the student for being thick. The student can choose to ask questions until they understand or just blame the teacher for being crap. Obviously a good student and a good teacher will lead to both accepting responsibility and learning taking place, in truth it is more likely that both will blame the other so they are both in denial and remain close minded.
    How about a Mum and child? The way parents manage conflict impacts upon a child’s ability to accept responsibility for their own actions for the rest of their lives.
    I am a Mum on the frontline observing real situations on a daily basis. I’m also a storyteller so I have a good understanding of cause and effect, action Vs reaction. We are programming our children to either ALWAYS accept responsibility, or NEVER accept responsibility.
    In adulthood, those who deny responsibility cause those who accept responsibility to take the blame for their failings. If you forget about possessions and technology and just look at us as human animals in relationships it is clear to see that without some sort of agreement to always have faith and trust in others we reach a position where it is accepted that we should deny and place blame before we are blamed.
    We are at that point now, trust me.
    Imagine a relationship between social worker (or any professional) and a Mum. Both believe they know what is best for children, but their views are conflicting. Does the social worker accept the Mum’s knowledge of her own situation? Or does the social worker use their own prejudices to judge the situation and then rescue the children from their Mum and place the blame for removing the children on the Mum? If the Mum goes to court, who will a judge believe? A Mum or a professional with supposedly superior judgement?

    Food for thought for you…

    Also when it comes to high art and entertainment for the masses you’ve hit the nail on the head – we don’t want to learn or think or it might make us believe our lives of over consumption are bad for the common good.
    Sex sells.
    Innocence doesn’t.
    It is easy to make people laugh and bond them in their common failings.
    Harder to make people think or lose themselves in the moment to bond them in their common humanity.
    We are in an age of corruption where we have swapped information for empathy and understanding.

  15. Reblogged this on ALLKNOL and commented:
    Being Human in a Post-Human World

    What happens when man and machine mix?

    In the 1960′s, I.J. Good proposed an upcoming intelligence explosion. Riffing on Good’s work, Vernor Vinge developed this notion further. In his famous paper on the technological singularity, Vinge proposed two alternative scenarios for intelligence explosion: the AI, or artificial intelligence, scenario, and the IA, or intelligence amplification scenario.

  16. Interesting post. I’ve been thinking a lot on this as well. One quote sums up my thinking:
    “Technology has a role that is biological in the strict sense of the word: it has every right to be included in the scheme of nature. From this point of view…there ceases to be be any distinction between the artificial and the natural, between technology and life, since all organisms are the result of invention; if there is any difference, the advantage is on the side of the artificial.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

  17. lapetitepumpkin says:

    nice read! it gave me some inspiring ideas 🙂 I love how your conclusion brings a positive look at AI, not how we often think of it

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    Thank you for the post.

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