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Humanity Is the Best Technology We’ll Ever Create

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It took millions of years and millions of iterations, all tested in multiple real-world environments to create this device. And it turned out to be a world-beater.

It can think, it can reason, it can deduce, calculate and communicate quickly and efficiently. It’s an elastic multi-functional tool that can move with comparative speed, and with great precision. It can solve problems, it can learn from its mistakes, it can absorb and process billions of bytes of information every second in text, visual or aural form, and make concurrent decisions on a number levels. It can also process by touch and smell, and in a combination of media. It can store, sort and retrieve information at lightning speed. It can also take a lot of punishment before it begins to malfunction either at the physical or processor level.

Described like that, a human being is a pretty awesome carbon-based hardware/software combo. In fact, it’s likely to remain the device that dominates the planet for a good long while to come, for as long, in fact, as we want it to. But, here’s the funny thing, the device known as the human being is also imbued with thoroughly non-mechanical traits, such as creativity, artistic potential, the ability to love, and a moral compass. Unlike a mere machine, we have a soul that can soar. The human device is far more complex and compelling than any other. Nothing will ever match it.  And its precisely those non-mechanical parts of who we are that make us human. Because over time we learn. Maybe there’s another way. A better way to be human.

As a result of our capacity for free thinking, we humans do stupid things because we want to, and almost always because the immediate goal overwhelms us and we fail or decide not to consider the consequences. Take war, or global warming, or the curse of religious righteousness. We flatten cities, we change the mix in the atmosphere so Earth warms up to unacceptable levels, and triggers an unstoppable feedback. And you know what, we did it all with machines that we created. We’re kinda silly like that.

To this long list we should perhaps add another more recent stupidity. A failure to understand the preciousness of our own inherent, and evolutionary, technology.

Only we humans have the power to enable the machines we build to compete and ultimately lord it over their creators.  And why would we do that? Because we incorrectly consider that too many elements of our own feature set can be replaced and improved upon by devices and features designed by us – to make our lives more convenient and that much smarter, cleaner, neater and more efficient. Many of them are blessings, but some may truly harm the human side of us, because unfortunately, redundancy for a machine and for the human device are completely different concepts. People atrophy if we’re not used or used incorrectly. We get into grooves we shouldn’t through addiction, laziness (physical and intellectual), peer-pressure, and fear.

Instead of celebrating our foibles, our uniqueness, and the fusion of our soul with our inherent technological functionality, we’re obsessed as individuals and groups with the idea of aggregating and outsourcing our skill sets, both mechanical and moral to lesser technologies than ourselves, as if we are mere machines to be replaced and improved. Chief among the tools we use to undermine ourselves is the computer, usually merely a one-way processor that could do nothing without being programmed by the higher being known as us. Of course, with machine learning, and complex algorithms combined with ever growing processing power, the potential of these once dumb waiters to learn and adapt is getting stronger every day. Their pull on us becomes ever more pervasive because they’re just so much better at doing what they do than they used to be, and in a smaller box than ever before. They can do so much for us we forget what we can do and decide for ourselves.

And with its magnetic, mesmerizing power the computer heralds a greater temptation than ever to express the human capacity for self-destructive atrophy and redundancy in smarter and subtler ways than ever. More importantly, we lose sight of the human, the organic, the soul, the beauty, the ability to learn from our mistakes and adjust our moral compass. “Being there” is no longer just about smelling the wildflowers, it’s about improving the human project as a whole.

In other words, we start believing our own distortions and group think about the leveling power of machines, and start belittling our own greater power, because that power is messy and hard to manage. We slavishly start thinking that technological innovation and ‘progress’ of the machines that we build is an end in itself which can supersede the cacophony that is being human.  Sadly, it’s a set of convictions now so widespread that it can’t really be seriously questioned without appearing like a dumb Luddite with a sledgehammer.  And if it truly takes hold, it will set up a battle royal between the quotidian amorality of the purely mechanical and the nuanced and unpredictable blend that is the evolutionary technology of us.

Like all popular cults, the cult of purity in mechanical progress is built on compelling foundations. Surely, there’s little harm in making our computers so talented they can do all the stuff we used to do so laboriously with more speed and precision, like reading, communicating, deliberating, researching, even relaxing? Why wouldn’t you want to digitize your every memory? And have it mined and aggregated with a flick of a switch? Can it be wrong to regurgitate our text so it comes out in bite-sized chunks? Or to be able to gamify the water supply? Can it be anything but a good idea to turn our eyes into cameras that help decide if someone’s telling us a lie?

Uhh, no.

Being more human, not less. That’s a goal worth celebrating. Over time we might convince ourselves that the obsessive fusion of machines with who we are might well have more negative consequences than we think. It might start to color and distort our souls and moral selves in ways that truly turn us into slaves to the very machines we created.

We can only hope our inferiority complex isn’t terminal.

With thanks to Evgeny Morozov and his excellent book “To Save Everything, Click here”.

Written by coolrebel

June 6, 2013 at 9:07 am

Posted in Washington