Let’s put it out there: if technology continues to accelerate exponentially, then man and machine will likely merge.
And that’s OK.
It’s both simultaneously a controversial statement and a cliche. But one that not only is highly plausible, but when viewed correctly, is simply the apex of a natural process that has been unfurling across millions of years.
Hang on though. In the era of organic produce and home remedies, how can a union between tissue and tech ever be considered natural?
This is why:
Across the span of history, three survival skills have kept the human race alive:
First, energy capture and consumption (or fire and food).
Second, evolution via competing and cooperating over resource (or fighting and friendship).
Third, extracting meaning from information and reusing it (or facts and fictions).
You are alive today because your ancestors mastered these three disciplines.
None of those skills could have been realised if not for one thing: tools. Humankind’s use of tools has been fundamental to its existence. From stone-age axes to space stations, tools are not just enablers and enhancers of humanity, they are an extension of humanity.
Not just figuratively, but also literally: an axe is an extension of the arm; a bicycle is an extension of the legs; a camera is an extension of the eyes; a telephone is an extension of the voice. The history of tools has been one of improvement - bigger, faster, deeper, cheaper, smaller, further - enabling an ever-more sophisticated extension of the human body, thus guaranteeing its survival.
Crucially, it is improvements in the tools enabling that third survival skill - extracting meaning from information - that will typify our relationship with technology over the next century.
Why? Because for millennia, only humankind had the biological software to understand data inputs - sight, speech, sound, shape. Or, more important, to extract meaning from those inputs to create outputs to share with others. Thoughts, ideas, truths, actions.
From telling fellow tribesmen to beware of tigers, to compressing the laws of physics into E=MC2 our ability to extract meaning from - and reversion - information is what separates man from animals.
But now, in 2019, humans are not the only ‘info-masters’ in town. Machine learning is here. It too has this skill, and it will change everything.
Moore’s Law states that computing power doubles every 18 months. Significantly, that means our devices can now draw profound meaning from sight, sound, touch, speech - and play those back to mimic and elevate human capabilities. You don’t have to look far for examples: voice-recognition, wearables, augmented reality.
When this machine-mastery of data is embedded in modern tools, and when those tools evolve to become as sophisticated as we are, they become so much more than just an extension of our body - like the axe or the bicycle - this time they become our bodies. The destiny of tools and humans are inextricably linked, and that to be blind to their continual dual contribution to our evolution is pointless.
Don’t believe me? Take the computer. In the 1960s, they were giant humming towers housed in mysterious locked rooms. In the 80s, they were perched on your desk with a keyboard at arm’s length. In the 90s, they were on your lap and carried on your back. In the 2000s with the advent of smartphones, they were in your palm. Looking forward, Elon Musk’s Neuralink hints at the next waypoint on this journey.
Over time, the distance between human and tech always shrinks. It is not a huge leap to assume the endgame is the merger of man and machine.
On hearing about our transformation into cyborgs, the usual pushback from commentators is: ‘Where is the humanity in all of this? I don’t want to be a tool. Or a robot. Or a robot tool’.
But the opposite is true: the relentless and inevitable merge of man and machine actually magnifies the role of humanity - or more accurately humanism - like never before.
Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence over acceptance of dogma or superstition. On the role of humanism in our past, present and future, Professor Steven Pinker in his mind-expanding tome Enlightenment Now spends 450 pages flying the flag for the unsung achievements of the human race, and attributes our [mostly] plague free, famine-free, tech-infused world to the innate qualities of humanity and its humanism.
For him, humanism - and its bedfellows reason and science - is an evolutionary biological and social algorithm that is silently and constantly optimising towards longer, healthier, happier life over hundreds of thousands of years. And the fact that we’re still here, living longer than ever before, are more sophisticated than ever before is testament to the fact this bio-algorithm is working.
Why mention this? The key point here is that whilst technology is an extension of humanity, it is not a replacement for humanity. Humanism is the ‘biological software’ humans should run on their new augmented bodies.
This is nothing new. Tools and technology have always helped deliver the humanity we already possess - whether it be texting a joke or words of encouragement to a friend, or using the satnav to drive our pregnant friend to the hospital. And, conversely, technology can equally magnify our lack of humanity, particularly when used to displace ethnic communities, face-track political dissidents or influence foreign elections.
But the reaction to technology encroachment on the physical form is not to shy away from it. We did not shy away from the wheel, the car, or the shuttle. Rather, our job is to ensure we make choices that allow most humane application of this technology.
This man-machine hybridisation, then, may be inevitable as a sequel to our history of extending bodies beyond their natural capabilities. But it was never intended to extend morality. That has to happen separately.
We must also therefore always parallel path our continued moral innovation. Because that’s what makes us human.
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