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The benefits and risks of AI and post-human life

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The future is unpredictable, but it'll likely introduce new technologies that confound our current ideas of humanity (image by Web Summit via Flickr).

Philosophers involved in the theories of post-humanism and transhumanism are captivated by the possibilities, or dangers, that the future poses to our understanding of human life.

According to Wikipedia, the idea of the post-human originates in the fields of science fiction, futurology, contemporary art and philosophy that literally refers to a person or entity that exists in a state beyond being human. In other words, a human so advanced that he or she is more or less distinct from our current conception of the ordinary person. This will mostly be facilitated by technological developments.

Steps towards post-humanism are already set in motion: they are not simply dystopian fantasies. Despite some of the hype around AI and robots might lead us to believe, none of these massive changes are happening soon. These developments will be made in incrementally; often two steps forwards and three steps back. This is more linked to the way we humans are, rather than to the state of technology.

Philosophers such as Francesca Ferrando argue that transhumanism understands the meaning of humanity, in relation to technology and ecology. We should start to see humans not as the pinnacle of evolution and the rulers of the world, but as an integral part of the biosphere equal to other organisms. No longer can it be "them and us", with uncontrolled exploitation. 

Humans are tribalistic in nature. There is discrimination between gender, race, nationality, ability. We will need to overcome this, yet progress here isn't linear. It is questionable if humanity can overcome tribalism. We might solve some form of these issues. At the same time, humans in their current form will rapidly find new ones to fight over (technology, robots, AI and so on).

In order to overcome some of these deeply ingrained human obstacles, post-humanism points to technologies that can be of assistance to manage humanity and our planet earth in a more sustainable way. A prerequisite for this is open societies.

Key issues that humanity will have to surmount are corruption, despotism and roadblocks to human development, whether it be socially, culturally or economically. None of this will be easy and in the political reality of today, it could be seen as pure fantasy. But over decennia and centuries, things will change.

It is also interesting to contemplate what drives humans to develop these new technologies. 

From a philosophical and scientific point of view, we can think of scenarios that could take us further. Even if we see a global crisis creating massive havoc among our global population, we have already developed technologies that can assist us beyond such a situation, and with the coronavirus, we are seeing a spur of internationally collaborative developments that will greatly enhance this situation further.

In small ways, we are already seeing that "post-humans" will be far more intertwined with technology.

Look at pacemakers, bionic ears and eyes, artificial limbs and so on. We already have smart pills. Cybernetics has seen many breakthroughs in recent years, including the development of advanced prosthetics, used to provide amputees with a better quality of life.

The latest developments here are linking these prostheses direct to our brain and nervous system, making it increasingly more seamless. Soon individuals, other than disabled persons, may want similar functionalities. Think here for example about athletes the military and people that are already experimenting themselves with these technologies.

The MIT Media Lab is one of many organisations looking into cyborg developments. This is a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts.

Going one step further, we are seeing the technology of humanoids. They are something that has an appearance resembling a human without being one. The current attempts still look underdeveloped, but compare them with the robots from a few decades ago.

Away from the hardware, now on to the software. Digital technology is already having an enormous impact on how we see ourselves. We already have some primitive forms of ‘digital twins’: our persona in digital formats, such as on social media. But there are other developments underway that would go far beyond that, if they ever get off the ground.

Neurotechnology is also a growth area. Utilising nanotechnologies, these technologies are progressing well with developments such as Neuralink: an optogenetic technology that will allow a human brain to download directly from a computer.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies will soon be able to assist humans with the most complex and difficult problems. Through mind-uploading such as the Nectome program and mind-merging, the best brains of the world can work together, creating the Brainternet.

A technology known as neural-lace will see the implanting tiny of electrodes into the brain. The result would be the enhancement of memory and cognitive powers by effectively merging humans and AI. Could this lead to a universal consciousness? Is this what we need to overcome current tribal human problems?  Is it consciousness, rather than physical appearance, that makes us human? 

Obviously, we would need to redefine what human means in such a situation. Who knows what lays ahead in the centuries, let alone the millennia (hopefully) in front of us? Planet earth perhaps has another billion years to go and it's highly unlikely that humans remain the same as humans we know today. Will we be able to travel to distant galaxies and in what form will we travel? 

Most likely, it will be in some form of software that could emulate our mind. It would require highly integrated computer technologies that could instantly process zettabytes of information, something that is extremely hard to fathom.

A huge question will be how are we going to manage these developments? There will, of course, be many ethical issues that we as a society need to address. We also know that looking at the current unwanted digital technology developments that are happening, we must start planning for the future before technologies like AI make the decisions for us.

Many industry leaders and scientists have urged governments to start this process now. But like taking preventative measures in relation to the current pandemic, governments equally have been procrastinating in this area.

Rather than trying to preempt developments in the decades or centuries ahead, we should follow and, wherever necessary, regulate these developments as we go. However, it is critical to take this post-human concept into account and have a holistic discussion about these topics between scientists, technologists, politicians and indeed the broader community.

Though, it is impossible to make transhuman predictions from our current position. On the positive side, in order to overcome the current political, cultural, social and economic problems, we will need technology to ensure that all global citizens will have a viable and sustainable place to live with a good quality lifestyle.

Scientists and engineers are certainly making progress.

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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