The Big Questions – Two – What Are We?

The following is an excerpt from futurist Byron Reese’s new book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity. You can purchase the book here.

The Fourth Age explores the implications of automation and AI on humanity, and has been described by Ethernet inventor and 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe as framing “the deepest questions of our time in clear language that invites the reader to make their own choices. Using 100,000 years of human history as his guide, he explores the issues around artificial general intelligence, robots, consciousness, automation, the end of work, abundance, and immortality.”

In The Fourth Age, Byron Reese argues that most of the big questions around technology like AI and automation are not about what technological breakthroughs will happen, but center around foundational questions about life, humanity, and reality. He distills them down to three key questions. Below is the second one: What Are We? And check out the first and third questions: ” What Is the Composition of the Universe?” and “What is Your Self?”

What Are We?

Next question: What exactly are we? Again, a multiple-choice question, with three possible answers: machines, animals, or humans.

The first possible answer is that we are machines. This is the simplest, most straightforward answer. We are a bunch of parts that work together to achieve an end. We have a power source and an exhaust system. We self-repair and can reprogram ourselves to do a variety of different tasks.

Those who hold this viewpoint are quick to caution against thinking of the term “machine” as pejorative. We may “just” be machines, but we are the most amazing and powerful machine on the planet. Maybe in the universe. Your basic essence may be the same as a clock radio, but your form is so much more wondrous as to make the comparison ridiculous except in a purely academic sense.

Those who hold this belief maintain that everything that happens in your body is mechanistic. That is true almost by definition. It is neither miracle nor magic that keeps your heart pumping. We are simply self-sustaining chemical reactions. Your brain, while not fully understood, gives up more of its secrets every day. In a lab, an imaging device can already read some of your thoughts. If someone built an atom-by-atom copy of you, it would show up at your office tomorrow with a packed lunch, ready to work. You could easily get away with sneaking out the back door and going fishing, because that copy of you would do exactly the same job you would. Come to think of it, it would probably take the day off and go fishing, knowing that you were going into the office.

This viewpoint calls to mind a thought experiment articulated best by the philosopher Derek Parfit. You have probably considered something like it before. In the future there is a teleportation device. You step in. It takes you apart, painlessly, cell by cell, scanning each cell. The data about that cell is beamed to Mars, where a similar device does the opposite: it builds someone cell by cell who is identical to you in every way. That person steps out and says, “Man, that was easy.”

Would you step into such a device? The majority of people probably would not consider that “person” on Mars to be themselves. They would probably consider it a creepy doppelganger of themselves. And yet it is incumbent on them to explain just exactly what attribute they have that a high-enough resolution 3-D scanner can’t capture. But to people who believe they are machines, there is nothing philosophically troubling about such a device. Why would you ever want to wait in traffic when you can just step into the teleporter?

With regards to life, this view holds that it too is simply a mechanistic process. Consciousness as well. To those who hold this view, all this is painfully apparent, and they do not wince when they read Kurt Vonnegut’s thoughts on this question:

I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or any human being, that we were all machines. . . . I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a mousetrap, or a South Bend Lathe.

Your second choice is that we are animals. Often this view sees an inorganic, mechanical world that is a completely different thing from the biological, living world. Life makes us different from machines. Maybe our bodies are machines, but “we” are animals that inhabit those machines.

This position maintains that there is something to life that is more than electrochemical, for if it were solely that, we could build a living thing with a couple of batteries and a sufficiently advanced chemistry set. Life has some animating force, some mysterious quality that perhaps is not beyond science, but is beyond machines. New stars are born, crystals grow, and volcanoes die. But although these objects exhibit these characteristics of life, we don’t think they are alive. Machines, in this view, are the same sort of thing, lifelike but lifeless.

This distinction between living animals and nonliving machines seems a natural and obvious one. While we anthropomorphize our machines, and talk about “the car not wanting to start because the battery is dead,” we use those words without contemplating therapy for the car or mourning the loss of the battery whose life was cruelly cut short.

Life is something we don’t fully understand. We don’t even have a consensus definition of what it is. If you do believe that we are animals, and that we are different from machines because we are alive, then our big question is going to be if computers can become alive. Can something that is purely mechanical get the spark of life? We will get to that in part four.

The final choice is that we are humans. Everyone agrees that we are called humans; I mean something more here. This position says that of course our bodies are machines, and yes, of course we are alive like animals. But there is something about us that separates us from the other machines and animals, and makes us a completely different thing. We aren’t just the ultimate apex predator, the preeminent animal on the planet. We are something fundamentally different. What makes us different? Many would say that it is either that we have consciousness or that we have a soul. Others say it is that we make and use complex tools or that we have mastered complex language or can reason abstractly. Maybe humanity is something emergent, some byproduct of the complexity of our brains. Aristotle suggested that what makes us human is that we laugh. The Dalai Lama expressed it as such: “Humans are not machines. We are something more. We have feeling and experience. Material comforts are not sufficient to satisfy us. We need something deeper—human affection.”

We share a huge amount of DNA with every living thing on the planet, including plants. This notion is profound, and it is one best expressed by the author Matt Ridley in just four words: “All life is one.” Beyond this idea of unity, we share as much as 99 percent of our genome with a single species: chimpanzees. So as machines and animals, we are strikingly similar to chimps, with only a rounding error of difference. But viewed through another lens, we are absolutely nothing like chimps. And whatever that lens is, that is what makes us human. However, just having some difference from animals doesn’t make us not an animal. The distinguishing factor has to be something that changes our essential selves. For instance, humans are the only creatures that cook their food. But that distinction alone doesn’t make something more than an animal. If we suddenly discover a magpie in Borneo that drops crabs into fires and retrieves them later to eat, we wouldn’t grant “humanness” to magpies. But if that same magpie developed a written language and began writing limericks, well, we would have to consider it. So that is the question: Is there something about us that makes us no longer only an animal?

Interestingly, some of the Greeks divided the living world into those three similar categories as well. Plants, the reasoning went, have one soul, because they are clearly alive, and eat, grow, reproduce, and die. Animals have two souls. That same one the plants have, but another one as well: they are purposeful. Finally, there are humans, who have three souls. The plant soul, the animal soul, and a third one, a reasoning soul, because only we can reason.

So, it is decision time: Are we machines, animals, or humans?

To read more of GigaOm publisher Byron Reese’s new book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity, you can purchase it here.