Tech news: Does a tech future need humans?

By Louis Fourie Time of article published Mar 6, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - In Business Report last week I alluded to the immense advances made in genetic engineering, neuroscience, robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnologies and how the confluence of these technologies could possibly change our lives, society, and the very essence of being human in future.

It is in the nature of human beings to constantly attempt improving their capabilities, to eliminate illnesses, to delay old age, and ultimately to strive for immortality. This pursuance of the mental and physical enhancement of human beings has led to prodigious progress over the past few years in bio-medical engineering solutions and in particular in the field of human-machine integration.

The integration of human and technology started out with orthopaedic implants such as hip and knee replacements, artificial heart valves, 3D printed cochlear implants, and many more. This initial human improvement research eventually led to many innovative technologies such as broadband brain-computer interfaces (eg research by Elon Musk’s Neuralink company) and microchip implants in the brain.

Today, ever-smaller, more complex and sophisticated devices are being implanted and integrated within the human body. One of the more advanced methods being researched is the use of microscopic, wireless, implantable devices linking neural activity directly to electronic circuitry with the aim of producing a virtual image directly in the person's field of vision.

Everything will be controlled by our thoughts and will enable us to finally get rid of screens, monitors and our large television sets.

In future these implanted devices will increasingly combat disease, enhance the senses and provide communication and entertainment in ways that were not possible before.

Eventually, the average human being will become heavily reliant on brain-computer interfaces and other implantable devices.

The ultimate aim of this human-machine technological development is to create a “posthuman” species in the future that might be able to live eternally due to sophisticated innovations in the fields of biotechnology, medical science, computer science, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence.

“Posthuman” refers to a stage beyond Homo sapiens that will be characterised by almost infinite human augmentation and modification, age and disease resistance, as well as immortality.

The comparative early phase of Homo sapiens in the overall development of “humankind” will be replaced by the much more advanced phase of Homo technicus or Techno sapiens.

This dramatic progress will be made possible through advanced technology.

Among the researchers working on the posthuman stage are a group who propose that the human brain be transplanted into a robot body or that the mind be uploaded to a super computer. This would finally bring about the union of human and intelligent machine. Humans will eventually be free from physical, biological and time constraints.

With no ageing body, no risk of illness or disease, humans could technically become immortal.

The proponents of advanced integration between human and machine is also of opinion that the only way humans would be able to handle the flood of communication and amount of data being exchanged on the Internet and elsewhere in the future, is technological integration.

Technological notorieties such as Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec favour the idea of mind uploading. Currently, Dmitri Itskov, the Russian entrepreneur and billionaire, is investing much money and effort in his 2045 Initiative to transplant persons’ consciousness from their physical bodies to powerful computer equipment. Itskov’s aim is to free humanity from the physical, biological and cognitive restraints, as well as mortality.

Once the human mind is uploaded to a computer, it would be unshackled from the relatively slow speed of neurons and the limited memory capacity of human beings. Then humans would become truly posthuman.

The idea of the future posthuman as a greatly advanced and immortal super-intelligent being introducing a new era in history rests on a few basic assumptions:

Technology is intrinsically good and is the only solution to every human problem or inadequacy.

Technology offers humans the independence to infinitely alter the human body with nothing more than mere software.

Immortality depends on frequent backups of this software.

Transcendent immortality is highly desirable and therefore the ultimate aim of humankind.

The personal independence and technological ability of humans have no limits and therefore humans are entitled to plan their life as they wish. Each individual can choose which technologies should be applied in life and death depending only on their financial means.

There is no accountability to anyone; the pursuit of happiness is individual.

From the above it is clear that the posthumanists’ effort to escape the fatalities and limitations of humanity by realising a prolonged life in an altered form - a life free from disease and pain, and with augmented cognitive abilities - are built on some assumptions that are ethically (and theologically) very questionable.

The whole posthumanist idea of person and society raises serious disquietudes. Their interpretation of human life, health, well-being and independence from a technological perspective is very mechanistic and deterministic.

But the most important question would be if these posthumans would still be “human” after all the cybernetic enhancements. No wonder that current debates include the important topic of what makes us uniquely human.

In contrast to the posthumanist theories, are the people who support technological singularity that proposes a hypothetical time in the future when technological progress becomes irrepressible and irreversible, bringing about unanticipated changes to human society.

Until now the exponential growth in technology has been limited by the intelligence of the human being, which according to the American biologist Paul Ehrlich has not changed significantly over the past millennia. But this may soon change as computers become more powerful and artificial intelligence (AI) is able to display greater problem solving and inventive skills than current humans are capable of.

The danger lies in the machine and deep learning capabilities of AI machines that could lead to recursive self-improvement of their software and hardware or even the total redesign of a more powerful machine that could totally surpass human intelligence and cognitive abilities. This would inevitably lead to an “intelligence explosion” leaving humankind far behind.

The invention of the ultra-intelligent machine would be the biggest event in human history, but unfortunately it might very well be the last invention by humankind. It may just be too much to expect that future superintelligent machines would be docile enough to tell humans how to keep them under control.

According to Ray Kurzweil, futurist, inventor and currently director of engineering at Google, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for human beings of today to grasp what human life would be like in a post-singularity world. This is perhaps why the theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking and engineer, industrial designer and technology entrepreneur Musk expressed serious concerns that full artificial intelligence could eventually lead to the extinction of Homo sapiens or at least mean that Homo sapiens will no longer be the dominant species on planet Earth.

In the event of singularity, ultra-fast, ultra-powerful and ultra-intelligent machines, robots and virtual entities will handle much of the day-to-day running of world affairs and will take all major decisions.

Many renowned technologists and academics dispute the likelihood of a technological singularity. However, there is little doubt that the scale, complexity and impact of intelligence in machines are unlike anything humankind has ever experienced before.

The speed at which AI ideas and inventions are materialising has no historical precedent and is essentially disrupting everything in the human environment. The technology-triggered evolution of machines has brought the human species to the proverbial doorstep of technological singularity.

Powerful modern computers are approaching the capability of the human brain. Regardless whether we believe that the singularity will happen according to Ray Kurzweil around 2045 or not, the very thought raises many concerns regarding the future of humankind. Does the technological future really need humans?

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist. [email protected]


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