What It Means to Be Superhuman Thoughts on our ambivalent relationship with technology

Every now and then, news surfaces in the press about the impending doom of mankind, cour­tesy of the “super­human” arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence we are about to unleash upon the world. This new gener­a­tion of AI, it is said, will soon make us puny humans irrel­e­vant. It will rob us of our jobs, take over the world, and usher in an age of domi­nance for our new robot over­lords.

Well, maybe not quite—but you catch my drift.

Ever since we mastered the use of fire, invented the wheel and hewed the first hand axe, mankind has had a trou­bled rela­tion­ship with tech­nology. Our concerns about super­human AI are just the latest in a long lineage of similar concerns. The fruits of our progress towards ever more advanced tech­nolo­gies have been—quite liter­ally, since the Bronze Age—a double-edged sword.

On the One Hand… Gimme More!

At its core, what we call “tech­nology” is just stuff our smart brains come up with that increases our chances of survival and repro­duc­tion. Physical stuff, to be precise, that we can use or make for some specific purpose. It makes life easier, safer, more comfort­able.

Consider the bow and arrow, a marked improve­ment over previous tools for hunting. The use of the bow and arrow began around 10,000 years ago (and possible much earlier), prob­ably in Africa. So popular was this new tech­nology that in just a few thou­sand years, it had spread to every single conti­nent except Australia.

Apollo and Artemis (with bow), on the tondo of an Attic red-figure cup (source)

As the bow and arrow can also be used as a tool for warfare, not embracing this inno­va­tion meant certain anni­hi­la­tion. Bows and arrows continued to be a main­stay of armed conflict until an even better tech­nology super­seded it. That newfan­gled high tech was gunpowder.

Or consider the field of commu­ni­ca­tion. From spoken language to clay tablets to papyri to books to the tele­graph to land-line tele­phones to personal computers to tricked-out smart­phones, it’s been a contin­uous relay race of tech­nolo­gies that have enabled us to share and spread our ideas faster and father with every next iter­a­tion.

So enam­ored are we of each next improve­ment that there are concerns today that hand­writing itself may become a dying art. The appli­ca­tion of tech­nology is merci­lessly effi­cient: when some­thing better comes along, we ditch what­ever worked before in the blink of an eye or resign it to the pastures of nostalgia.

Our love of tech­nology is FOMO on steroids.

On the Other Hand… Woe Is Me!

Right from the start, new tech­nolo­gies have also been seen—and rightly so—as disrup­tive of the present status quo. They offer promise, but also ambi­guity and uncer­tainty. (And, as I wrote here, we don’t like uncer­tainty.)

In one famous example, in Plato’s The Phaedrus, Socrates riles against a novel commu­ni­ca­tion tech­nology that was taking Athens by storm:

[This] discovery of yours will create forget­ful­ness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memo­ries; they will trust to the external written char­ac­ters and not remember of them­selves. The specific which you have discov­ered is an aid not to memory, but to remi­nis­cence, and you give your disci­ples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omni­scient and will gener­ally know nothing; they will be tire­some company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

What was this newfan­gled “discovery” that the great philoso­pher hated so? Writing.

Go figure.

Bust of Socrates at the Louvre (source)

Fast forward to our own age, and it’s not too hard to find exam­ples of tech­nolo­gies that many people have great (and often, as it was with Socrates, unjus­ti­fied) concerns over.

Are GMOs safe to eat? If a self-driving car causes an acci­dent, who is respon­sible? Should we limit the use of stem cells in medical research and treat­ments? How autonomous should mili­tary drones be? What restric­tions should we place on Big Data? And, of course, the example I opened this essay with: arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence.

Acceptance of new tech­nolo­gies is, initially, neither exten­sive or entirely whole-hearted, no matter how much of an improve­ment they offer. Everett Rogers has famously outlined the way in which inno­va­tions are assim­i­lated by society at large. The first to embrace a new tech­nology are the inno­va­tors and early adopters, then the early majority and late majority follow suit, and finally, always late to the party, are the laggards.

In other words, it takes time for any new tech­nology to be fully adopted and become wide­spread. We are suspi­cious of the unknown; we cling to what we know; we label inno­va­tions as threats; we fear upset­ting the balance that has, so far, worked for us.

Our reti­cence towards tech­nology is caution on steroids.

A Matter of Definition

So what about this so-called “super­human” AI? As always, I suspect, many of the spec­tac­ular predic­tions now being made with great confi­dence will come to naught. And many of the even­tual appli­ca­tions of next-gen AI will not have been fore­seen for some time to come.

But here’s the thing. All tech­nology is by defi­n­i­tion super­human. That’s the whole point.

The hand axe is a super­human way to open hard fruits or skin prey. Ships are a super­human way to travel across water. The internet is a super­human way to process and dissem­i­nate infor­ma­tion. So really, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence is just as “super­human” as a foun­tain pen.

There is, to my knowl­edge, to special tech­no­log­ical inno­va­tion for scratching your chin. That’s because your own hand will do just fine, thank you very much. No super­human solu­tions need apply. As for scratching your back, however… that is another story alto­gether.

Yay super­human tech­nology! (adapted from source)

Looking Ahead

In the end, an inno­va­tion like AI, machine learning or data­mining is just another tool. These tech­nolo­gies will be as bene­fi­cial or detri­mental as the people who develop and use them want them to be. The inven­tion that gave us fire­works also brought us guns. The advances that gave us poisons also brought us medi­cines.

We are not the only animals to use tools—not by a long stretch—but we are the one species that has devel­oped its tools the most (by far) and that has come to rely on tech­nology more than any other.

The ques­tion of “super­human” tech­nology is really a ques­tion that philos­ophy has been asking for millennia: how to live a good life? The prin­ci­ples that we adhere to, the values that we hold dear, the compas­sion we show others, our capacity for reason and restraint—these are the factors that will deter­mine whether advanced computing tech­nolo­gies will be a force for good or evil.

In all like­li­hood, if history is anything to go by, the answer will be: both.

• • •

Image credit: Salvador Dalí, La Invención de los Monstruos (1937) (adapted from source)

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