Blog, Philosophy + Systems, Religion + Spirituality

Redesigning People: Deciding Who and What Will Be Human in the Age of Cyborgs

There is no question whatsoever that we are well on the way to the total redesign of human beings. Within the next few years, we will possess the ability, if we do not already, to grow or to regenerate new organs, tissues, muscles, etc., for every part of the human body—and on demand to our specs. We will also be able to manufacture artificial, mechanical replacements as well. We will thus be able to replace and/or to augment every “part”—or “component”—of the human body. Grey’s Anatomy will look more like an issue of Popular Mechanics than a medical text!

We either currently possess, or we soon will, the ability to grow, to regenerate, and/or to manufacture artificial hearts, lungs, blood, joints, bones, eyes, and ears. What was once the stuff of science fiction is now the stuff of science fact.

This means that there is no longer any doubt that sooner rather than later, we will become Cyborgs, ungodly mixtures of flesh and machines. This raises life-altering questions that have received little serious attention, let alone the full attention they so richly deserve. In the not-so-distant future, who and what will be “human”? Indeed, what will the term “human” mean? ” (On an equally disconcerting note, we will be able to place computer chips within our bodies that, on the positive side, will constantly monitor the state of our health and administer corrective medical procedures in real-time. On the negative side, this potentially constitutes one of the most serious threats imaginable to our privacy.)

In talking with scores of medical and computer scientists, virtually none of them expressed any interest in the questions posed above. They are mainly interested only in the highly specialized issues of their particular branches of science. That is to say, they are interested mainly in the development of isolated living or mechanical parts. Thus, the lung doctors and scientists are only interested in growing new human lungs or developing artificial lungs. The same is true of the heart doctors and scientists, and so on.

None of the scientists I interviewed were interested in the potential interactions between multiple organ replacements or augmentations. They dismissed such concerns as premature. That is, it was taken as axiomatic that knowledge of the “parts” comes before knowledge of the “whole.” This is true in spite of the fact that humans are more than the mere sum of their individual parts. Indeed, humans are quintessentially the product of the interactions between all of their organs. If the scientists I interviewed weren’t even interested in parts other than those that they were working on, it therefore shouldn’t come as any surprise that none of them were interested in how people would feel about themselves and their bodies if they truly had total makeovers.

Turing’s Test
In the 1950s, the distinguished British computer scientist Alan Turing, who invented the concept of the modern computer, proposed a deceptively simple test to decide if machines, i.e., computers, could think. (The test is so deceptively simple that, as we soon shall see, it’s downright wrong.) The scientific community not only quickly grabbed onto the test, but it quickly expanded it to include any and all human abilities.

To understand Turing’s Test, consider the following: take any characteristic of a human being that you would like a machine or a computer to mimic (the technical term is “simulate”). Place the machine or computer in one room and the human being in another. Give the human and the machine the same problem to work on. When both are finished working on the problem, feed their separate responses to a judge situated in a third room. Naturally, the judge does not know beforehand in which rooms the computer and the human are located. If the judge cannot distinguish between the responses of the human and the machine, then the machine is said to have successfully passed Turing’s Test (TT). For example, if a computer program is written to play chess, and if the judge cannot distinguish between the play of humans and that of the computer, then the computer is said to have simulated human thought, at least as far as playing chess is concerned. In fact, using TT, one is supposedly entitled to assert that a machine can “think.”

According to its proponents, TT is thus an appropriate intellectual device to answer the momentous questions regarding who or what will be human in the not-so-distant future. If a judge cannot differentiate between a “normal” (that is, unaltered), human being and an “augmented” one, then both should be considered equal, and therefore the same. That is, TT would allows us to assert that a Cyborg and a human are the same. We therefore have crossed over the lines between humans and machines if we cannot differentiate between them!

(None of this is as farfetched as it sounds. Even when humans know that they are interacting with a computer, they have an extremely strong tendency to project human qualities onto the computer. For instance, if one displays on a computer screen the most minimal representation of a human being, say a simple curved line indicating either a smile or a look of distress, and if the line moves in response to what a person does, then people very quickly start interacting with the computer as if it were human. If Cyborgs are indicative of our in-built tendency to “robotize humans,” then we have an equally strong tendency to “humanize robots”!)

What’s wrong with this? An obvious objection, if not a fatal flaw, is that surely TT depends critically on who and what the “judge” is. Surely, we wouldn’t expect the same result if the judge were one’s parents, siblings, partner or spouse, boss, close friends, or even the family dog.

Why are scientists—who are supposedly so tough-minded, rigorous, and precise when it comes to most phenomena—so sloppy and tender-minded when it comes to the horrific question of who or what is human?

A quick, if not facile, answer is that the vast body of scientists has not been educated to ponder really big questions. (I found this true some 37 years ago when, over the course of the Apollo Moon missions, I studied 42 of the most prestigious scientists who studied the Moon rocks. The vast majority of the scientists I interviewed were not interested in the origin of the Moon since this was not the kind of question that could be settled in the lab. For the average scientist, cosmology, the origin of the Moon and solar system, was the equivalent of astrology!) They generally eschew issues that cannot be settled by following detailed, precise procedures. TT therefore is accepted because on its surface—pun intended!—it promises to offer a quick and easy way to answer a complex question.

We know from those who have received heart or other organ transplants that they often experience intense feelings of having alien parts in them or that they feel that they have become aliens in their own bodies. In other words, how we feel about our minds and bodies is a critical determinant of what we call “normal,” let alone “human.” And yet, it is precisely the role of feelings that scientists generally overlook.

If TT fails, then what can we use to tell when we have crossed over the line between humans and machines? What are the ethical and social implications—the very things that far too many scientists dismiss—of one of the most momentous revolutions in human history? If the answers to these and other important questions are profoundly philosophical, and not purely scientific, then to which philosophy can we turn?

Ultimately, it would take prolonged discussion of a philosophy to even begin to help answer our questions. Thus, I can only mention that it is a philosophy, Spiritual Pragmatism, that gives equal weight to human feelings and emotions as it does to reason and thought. In brief, the ultimate difference between humans and machines is spiritual, not scientific. After all, can a machine meditate or ever develop higher consciousness?

The Ultimate Boundary Warping?
The differences between humans and machines are more than spiritual. They are profoundly cultural as well. In fact, the differences may now be governed more by our culture’s obsession with unreality than by anything else.

If anything is characteristic of the phenomenon of unreality, especially in its current craze, it is the constant blurring of the lines, or boundary warping, between entertainment and education, news, and politics, or literally between everything in modern society.

In the end, the ultimate question may well be: is the “robotization” of humans the most prominent and terrifying example of boundary warping in history? Is it the ultimate blurring of the lines between humans and machines? Is it, in fact, the biggest blurring of the lines between reality and unreality?

I believe that it is. But if so, then what does the whole phenomenon of unreality (reality TV, American Idol, video games, etc.), in our culture inform us about the issue of Cyborgs?

Nearly 50 years ago, in The Magic Christian, the brilliant satirist Terry Southern wrote a hilarious and devastating critique of American culture. Southern foresaw, as perhaps only artists can, the pornographic nature, the utter tastelessness, the extreme rudeness and humiliation of today’s so-called reality shows. He predicted that people would do the vilest things for money and instant fame, such as bobbing for cash prizes in vats of excrement. In a hysterical game show entitled What’s My Disease?, if the members of a live studio audience could guess the disease of a contestant, then right then and there, he or she would receive a free operation on stage in front of a national TV audience!

Fast forward to the present. Suppose that the members of a studio audience can correctly guess what artificial parts a contestant has or does not have? And suppose, that if they guess correctly, the contestant is thereby entitled to new parts? Is the audience thereby fulfilling or playing the role of the judge in TT? Is this the fate of humankind? Have we become so numbed by unreality that, in effect, we have already become machines?

Conservatives have got it all wrong. Instead of obsessing over “Intelligent Design,” they should instead be worrying about “Dumb Redesigns” of humans.

Blog, Philosophy + Systems

Thinking Like an Intellectual Giant: A Tribute to West Churchman

In my office at USC, I have a Photostat copy of an 1896 letter written by William James, arguably America’s greatest philosopher and one of the principal founders of Pragmatism, to the Provost of the University of Pennsylvania. James’s letter recommends Edgar Arthur Singer Jr. for a position in Philosophy at Penn. James writes that in his 30 years of offering instruction in Philosophy at Harvard, Singer is the best all-around student he has had.

Singer was one of West Churchman’s most influential teachers at Penn, where West received his Ph.D. in Philosophy (in modal logic) in 1938, the year I was born. When I was studying for my Ph.D. in Engineering at UC Berkeley, I took a three-and-a-half-year minor in the Philosophy of Social Sciences from West. Thus, William James is my “intellectual great grandfather.”

Of all the philosophers I have studied, West and James have exerted the greatest influence on me. To study directly under a great philosopher, or to be deeply influenced through his or her writings, is an incredible experience. It is literally life altering. The ways in which one thinks are transformed drastically. To understand a great philosopher, it is not enough merely to know his or her works. One has to go beyond them.

Strangely enough, one of the best ways of doing this is to internalize their thought patterns, their modes, and their styles of thinking and writing so thoroughly that one is literally able to think as they do. Thoughts almost come directly from them. Let me illustrate this.

Some of James’s most important ideas are those concerning what today we would label as “spiritual.” In a famous passage, James proposes the following hypothetical conversation between humans and God, or the Creator of the Universe. I paraphrase:

“Suppose the Creator were to put to you the following choice at the moment of the creation of the Universe. ‘I can give you a Universe completely devoid of Evil. It will be completely fixed or determined so that your actions will not make a bit of difference in its outcome. Or, I can give you a Universe in which your actions will make a real difference. It will be a real heroic game of risk, the outcome of which is uncertain. There is no guarantee that it will win through. But your actions will make a real difference. Choose carefully.’ ”

Now, there is no doubt whatsoever what “choice” James or West would make. For both of them, we are not “passive passengers or spectators” in an already determined and completed Universe. Instead, we are active co-creators in an incomplete, unfinished Universe. Furthermore, we are, or we should be, ETHICAL co-designers. The idea of the ethical design of systems is the key to the understanding of West’s and James’s work.

The point is not that James’s hypothetical conversation proves the existence of God or establishes His or Her properties. Rather, it expresses James’s idea of the kind of Universe he wishes us to live in and to help bring into being. In effect, James presents us with one of the strongest ethical choices we could ever confront or contemplate, i.e., the design of an ethical Universe. Now surely this is a prime example of large-scale systems thinking if there ever was one!

Furthermore, the point is also not that James or West has a monopoly on what is “ethical.” Rather, they wish to engage us in a deep conversation regarding the nature of ethics. They wish to do this by having us engage with some of the greatest minds that have pondered the nature of ethics.

One of the things that puzzled West throughout his entire life was why more people were not curious about ethics. Academics use curiosity as a God-given right or justification to study almost anything they wish. But why aren’t more curious as to how to preserve, to enhance, and to guarantee the curiosity of future generations? Why isn’t this regarded as an important research question?

I was pondering these ideas about a year ago as I was walking the streets of London when I had a sudden epiphany. It suddenly came to me how James and West would react to, in their words, “some of the silly thinking” of today’s physicists. Modern physicists speculate that our Universe is just one of an infinite number. They also speculate that Universes are constantly and continually being created, and dying. They further contemplate that every time a new Universe is created, the fundamental constants of Nature, such as the ratio of the mass of the electron to the mass of the proton, are randomly “reset.” This affects whether stars and black holes will be formed, life created, etc. In this way, “God” is constantly conducting large-scale experiments! As I was walking around London and thinking about all of this, a thought flashed through my head: “What if every time a new Universe is created, the ratio of Good to Evil is altered fundamentally?”

Once again, the point is certainly not that this is a proof for the nature of the Universe. Rather, it is a challenge for us to think and to ask the most challenging questions about our existence.

Why do we leave speculation as to the nature of our world mainly to physical scientists? Why shouldn’t social scientists and social thinkers speculate as well on the grandest scale imaginable? Why leave speculations mainly to one group or type of specialists? Is it because we still put physical scientists at the “top of the academic prestige heap?” Is it because we still believe that some disciplines are “better” than others?

Let me bring these thoughts back to James and to West. I believe that James and West would respond to my speculation as follows: “Let’s suppose for the moment that every time a new Universe is created, the ratio of Good to Evil is altered. What follows from this? Why, no matter what Universe in which you find yourself, act as to do everything in your power to increase the ratio or the amount of Good as much as you can. Nothing more; nothing less! In the spirit of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant, this is the Supreme Categorical Imperative or ethical challenge that Nature places before us. Indeed, the lower the initial ratio, then the greater the heroic task, the call to ethical arms, the challenge that is placed before us.”

James and West challenge us to make the world a more ethical place than we found it. They also challenge us not to take ANY discipline as more basic or more fundamental than any other. All disciplines presuppose one another. All disciplines are on an equal footing.

The realization of this is the true beginning of systems thinking.