The Common Good
March-April 2001

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

by David Batstone | March-April 2001

Within the next 20 years, we'll see the evolving convergence of humans and machines.

That question will be the impetus for endless debate and consternation for the next few generations. We stumbled through the last century searching for ways to distinguish ourselves from apes. And we did pretty well until "reality TV" came along and exposed our penchant for fit survivors and puffy chest mating games.

Today, with accelerated advances in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics, the quest for essential humanity shifts to a new front. We concern ourselves less with the puzzle of how we gained our humanity and worry more about losing it.

Within the next 10 to 20 years, we can anticipate the evolving convergence of humans and machines. Computing will disappear as we know it. Data will flow directly to our retinas from implanted eye screens, making laptops, cell phones, and palm devices wholly redundant. We will have wireless access to high bandwidth all the time. Web sites will morph into real-time environments, allowing us to share experiences with invited others. Jump ahead another two decades and we'll flood our brains with nanobots that will serve as even more sophisticated communicators and memory banks.

Nonbiological thinking will be billions of times more powerful than biological thinking. Children today receive inoculation shots before entering kindergarten; by 2035 they may be required to receive an infusion of intelligent nanobots giving them all the information they will need to know, making school books a vestige of the past. Though my prognoses may be off, the integration of human and machine intelligence will be intimate. Count on it.

Genetics will progress at the same rapid pace, of course. Don't be surprised if in your lifetime the majority of your peers will consider you loony (if not irresponsible) for leaving impregnation up to pure chance-that quaint practice of sexual reproduction. Surely you want to have some say in the make-up of your child! Early on we will be motivated to use genetic engineering to ensure the health of the child; later, by aesthetics and increased chance for a successful life.

Once again, the onus will fall on "soul" to bear the great human mark. Try as we might to program humans and breathe life into machines, we cannot create a soul.

But even that belief will not go untested.

Star Trek fans will be familiar with this quandary as, "Does Data have a soul?" For the uninitiated who have squandered the educational opportunity Star Trek (The Next Generation) affords, Data is an android-a robot modeled as closely as possible after human behavior and reason. In one memorable episode, the question is raised how Data is different than any other member of Star Fleet. There's a lot at stake, for if Data is shown to lack "sentience," he and other androids may be used for slave labor within Star Fleet without regard for their "humanity."

Hmm, we've heard that argument before. But let's get real: We're just talking about machines, right? Well, let's stick to robotics for the moment. Could you imagine the machines in an auto factory organizing a union? Of course not. But what happens when machines become programmed with sophisticated software equipping them not only to implement commands but to make independent decisions as well? How "free" do machines need to become in order to reach sentience? At some point, I imagine, we will hold them responsible for their moral choices.

Turning the coin, how far will the convergence of human and machine have to evolve before an individual loses one's humanity? It is arguable that a human could become so mechanized as to lose his or her essential identity (itself a concept the geneticists will place under great scrutiny).

There are no trite solutions to the challenges we will face in the years ahead. Yet people who walk spiritual paths do have a clear vision of human potential: love, joy, peace, compassion, goodness. To live that way-that's what it means to have real "soul." Nanobots and genetic enhancements surely will boost performance, but our destiny still lies with choices of the heart.

David Batstone, a founding editor of Business 2.0 magazine, is executive editor of Sojourners.

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