Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Modifying Human Beings

It is quite possibly necessary to move the (more traditional) discussion about the 'field' at hand here towards that of our own the possible futures. One may of course not agree to making such a shift; one would have to agree though that the our future is intertwined with terminological development in what is meant at the intersection of "Machines, Communicaton and Thought".
In order to stimulate and draw on various definitions that might spring forth from such an amalgamation of terms, I submit a working paper below (tentatively titled "REDISIGNING MAN?" -if readers have any other ideas for a title...)

Please submit your views on the turn the aforemetioned 'field' could/should take.
-Colin Schmidt

As we churn out artefacts, our environment —rich with technical objects— turns us into artefacts; we sometimes think of ourselves as artefacts. Question: Should bio-diversity include the redesigning of Man? If one were to say it should not, the reasons put forth to support such a view would have to clearly state what this means in practice (i.e. not ideologically or politically). Given that ideological and political arguments have already been proposed by the politically-correct, specialists in Ethics and the religious, the practical dimension of their point of view has to be made explicit. This would be the key to strengthening the argument against modifying Man, and is quite simply necessary if one wishes to continue to withhold such a point of view as today, we are beginning to realise that redesigning Man could improve everyday life; no human is perfect and upgrading or augmenting some particular aspect of his life just might help. Therefore pointing out the merits of ethically-oriented practice as a reason why bio-diversity should not include the redesign of Man is of course likely to urge reactions from those supporting the view that bio-diversity should include redesigning humans. These latter protagonists are specialists at the practical level of argumentation, especially when it comes to the question at hand; they however lack strategy on the ideological and political levels in order to seriously further their cause, that of the artefactualisation of the human species within the evolutionary process. The author of this paper intends to explore the types of arguments put forth on both sides of the equation —determining their validity— in order to illustrate the incomprehension that exists, and is growing, between the protagonists responding opposingly to the question of whether or not we should be redesigning humans. In the process of constructing various angles of view on this preliminary question, the reader will be brought towards more familiar primitive philosophical enquiry about the future state of humanity and its consequences on the identity of the individual in society.
According to S.L. Esquith, we must attend to the cultural significance of particular technologies with ethics in mind. In other words, we must check the effect they are having on our everyday cultures, whether this be to take action against some of them or confirm their soundness. To support his view, he cites from S. Turkle's "Seeing Through Computers: Education in a Culture of Simulation": "We make our technologies, our objects, but then the objects of our lives shape us in turn. Our new objects have scintillating, pulsating surfaces; they invite playful exploration; they are dynamic, seductive, and elusive. They encourage us to move away from reductive analysis as a model of understanding. It is not clear what we are becoming when we look upon them – or that we yet know how to see through them".
I intend to relate questions on simulations and enhancements —both corporal and cognitive— to our very relation with technology and study it from a logical point of view, that which takes the relation to be separate dynamic entity at the helm of change. Though this topic cannot be fully treated here, such a relation exposed as such may provide sufficient grounds for the reader to apprehend what must necessarily be considered in deciding whether or not the concept of biodiversity —as it is meant by the media today— should be applied to Man.
1. Presuppositions to a Categorisation Problem
The advent of powerful computers is enabling society to formulate 'different' questions that concern the average person's life directly. These entail questions about the world in which we live and our perception of it. The appearance of highly intelligent machinery on the market, and to some extent in the public arena or right down into our homes has offered the humanities a whole new ballpark in which to play. Due to the exponential rise of calculation strength in machinery, the question in the title of this article is progressing from a mere yes/no type to a full-blown philosophical hot air balloon about the ambitions of intelligent robotics, evolutionary computation and medical acts on humans, a balloon that can be blown just about anywhere in the skies of enquiry; many musings and responses to this question are now available, for humanisation of fully non-human entities (computing machinery) has become commonplace as well as the personification of those entities. The same goes for enquiry that consider humans to be machines or brains to be computers.
It would seem that computers, the tool of everything computational, are in some sort of neutral area or "buffer zone" between Man and Thing. Some would say that computers are not just ordinary objects: one may help prosper emotion in them —A. Sloman; lend them desires and beliefs —D. Dennett; make them speak or translate —R. Schank, P. Bennett, H. Somers; increase their learning capabilities —J. Zlatev; give them bodily functions —D. Roy, C. Breazeal; make them play games with us —H. Simon et al, IBM; have them help us learn —P. Tchounikine, L. Steels; use them to help children or the ill to express themselves —S. Turkle, K. Dahtenhahn; and so the list goes on. But the average person would say they are non-persons nonetheless, as did philosopher HL Dreyfus. But can we really leave computers in the same category as the everyday chair, spoon or wooden block? Are computers simply still in the category of artefacts if they can do so much? The fact that the issues are not clear in the minds of most scientists —especially those working in Artificial Life and Intelligence— points out that a definitional problem has grown out of research in these highly related fields, and that the title of this article represents in fact a mere preliminary question to a more in-depth inquiry into the nature of the relation between humans and machines.
Let's look back at the two original entities (man and object) in existence before computers came to be some sixty years ago. The notion of buffer zone is a vertical slice and that of continuum speaks of a horizontal system. If one juxtaposes Man and Object together and express them in a linear way as we do in English (i.e. manobject), one obtains more interesting things to say of such a system as time goes on. For instance, could one say they are being merged? Is there an answer to such a question?
Let me sum up the difficulty I am having with the initial question set forth. The growing relationship between two entities, Man and technical object, raises many further questions, especially about computers. The following are amongst those presupposed. 1./Are computers humans or objects? 2./If one says that computers are non-persons, does this mean they are just ordinary objects? If so, the observer would have to modify his definition of what an ordinary object is, especially in the light of the "living character" computers display in the explosive multimedia and robotics contexts (it could be said that, due to the rate of change in technology today, computers look much more alive than their creators!). 3./If a computer then is not just an ordinary object, what is it? 4./And what if we cannot clearly answer question n° 3 (seems to be the case)? If not, what should we do? 5./Splitting the Man-Object continuum into three categories Man-Computer-Object could be a solution, but this would mean that a computer is not an object. Is it entirely plausible to state that? Some machines —due to their form and behaviour— look more human than others. How many categories do we need here?
In this context, one could even say that computers are object and human, but this would entail the existence or creation of an overriding ontological category to Man which we as humans may not be willing to accept; it could also be interpreted as introducing foreign elements into Man's own category. Some might say that computers 'create' modern Man as they give those that were not previously particularly efficient or creative the power to do so. If one were to accept this last line of thought, one may have difficulty explaining why modern computers are not God or at least superior to Man. All in all, the new phenomena observed in our information society force cognitive values to change. It is therefore time to equip oneself for addressing these issues.
2. Computers, Continuums and the New
The five questions above rise out of a practical problem that concerns the public at large in the new Communication Era, Knowledge Community or the Information Age to bring us to the question of why it is not possible to establish steadfast boundaries for ordinary objects or things, and why it is necessary for human thought to renew essential categories from time to time. So if we were to split the Man-Object continuum into three categories Man-Computer-Object —even though this would not respond to question n° 3 above—, it would create definitional working space for those working on the notion of computer, thus keeping the human and object definitions "safe" from this enquiry. Or would it? The very fact that we here consider establishing a 'central category' would imply that we consider reducing the manoeuvring space within both the categories of Man and Object. In order to create the category, one would have to accept such a reduction to the human category. But then again, some of those who would go about isolating intelligent machinery into its own category take such a reduction for granted as their main goal is the preserve the essential qualities and character of the present definition of Man. This would not of course impede our enquiring into to the width the central category should have.
If we were to take an example of a very sophisticated computer that was able to see what its user was doing, sense when he is in difficulty, intuitively understand the intentions he has, hold similar beliefs to man and be able to speak, this would help the reader see that it is very difficult nowadays to reduce the notions of machines and robots down to nothing, especially if one is projecting into the future. I believe that man will be able build a human-like machine that will have many fooled into thinking it was human; I also firmly believe that man will be (or is) able to modify himself enough to a point that some would say he is no longer human. I am speaking both about advanced Humanoid robotics and transhumanism without wishing to put forth a decision why we should or should not accept new forms of life similar to our present state or those that deviate from it. All I wish to do is firmly ground the question "should we redesign Man?" by, hopefully, providing the key elements essential to discussing these increasingly important matters. Besides, rules, maxims or other rigid devices of Science have never simultaneously made final decisions a congenial experience to live with for everyone. Contrary to this, proper terminological foundations help decisions make sense, whether one accepts them or not.
3. Two Techniques for Human Modification
What this means is that there are basically two approaches to going about the artefactualisation of the human species. In fact, the evolutionary process itself has changed and possibly further diversification of it may come about especially if humans play a role in guiding evolution. The current two approaches are separate in that their starting points are not the same. On the one hand, the robotics-based approach generally uses many components that are mechanical in nature (traditional hardware) though there is a growing tendency to accept organic elements into these constructions. The reasons for using organic stuffs in the robotics sphere of intervention in society are various: either they are less costly, increase functionality, render the resulting "machine" more lifelike, are less harmful to the environment or they provide jobs to the local workforce. On the other hand, the transhumanist approach begins rebuilding man with one single very familiar component, the human body —just like yours or mine— assuming it is fully natural. The idea is to use technological advances to modify the body or brain in hopes of creating a desired effect. This could entail introducing various entities into the body for a variety of reasons: molecules (i.e. using metabolic control for 'slimming', anti-ageing medicine to stay young or live long); electronic chips (i.e. in the brain to help one understand better or remember more, in the eyes to improve sight, etc.); bionics for increased power, or all other implants.
Perhaps a minor detail would be the difference between implants and transplants. The former generally take the currently-used-to state of the individual to one s/he does not know in order to experience it —picture the average person having Steve Austin's bionic ability to lift and throw heavy objects!— whereas the latter aims at bringing one back to a state s/he has always been used to but has recently lost —an elderly person having a hip replacement. The only similarity between the two is that they both augment the person's present state.
Let us get back to the robotics versus transhumanism distinction. Although different, it is important to point out that there are similarities: for both approaches, it is the desired effect that leads to the design of a new or even novel being, which means there is a certain wilfulness driving towards a new world. I do not think this drive is new; it is just the techniques used that may surprise people. Change is a concept that the notion of Man has always integrated, this is the reason we are part of the world's evolutionary cycle.
But it would seem that this short-term aspect of evolution is mainly behaviour-based, thus there is limited change to the identity of what it means to be human. The concept of being human does entail a highly social element to it, as well as a cultural one: it is not in individually modifying the bodies of the members of society that one can change the relationships they enjoy or detest. This said, sustained corporal change over time could well have an effect on relations in society.
3.1 Difference and the concept of Man
The concept of Man would of course become different, but to what extent? Perhaps the thing that society is calling out for here is a concept of humans that is more material in nature when compared to the current idea of what it is to be human. The belief that we could/should/must modify our very own physical existence may mean that the immaterial —social, psychological, cultural and spiritual— aspects of our lives have become less important to us. Would such a statement be too simplistic or is it part of our new reality? Those working in advanced Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Robotics, Neuro-evolution, and transhumanistic type technologies generally do not delve into the intricate questions of love, faith or the respect of the Other in society, all of which directly concern the human immaterial sphere. They are not supposed to be intimately concerned with such matters, nor are other scientific fields. One could nevertheless be very mistaken in saying that these matters are not on scientists' agendas (cf. infra my mention of the advances towards this in 1. Presuppositions); how could they ever hope to do better than man if they cannot even copy these facettes of the human race? We could indeed conclude for the time being that the concept of being human today means being more physically human than 100 years ago.
3.2 Relation and the concept of Man
So the concept of Man has evolved. Does this operate on the relations this concept has with other concepts in its vicinity? The concepts of Nature and Artefact would be pertinent to explore here. The fact that we today accept to tamper with mother nature's "products" is not new but the acceptance to direct this action on our physical and cognitive existences has increased exponentially. The place of nature —highly recognised as essential— in traditional cultures would have diminished. However, one is entitled to disagree with strong statements, in which case it could only be said that our relation to nature would have been altered only slightly. The important matter is in asking why this change suddenly became necessary and what our new relation with nature, however close it is to the last version, means to us in the future.
As for the link to the concept of artefact, the shift does seem more radical, although Man has always accepted to handle his own destiny; hence the expression "he is a self-made man". The tie between Man and being man-made has been strengthened in the consciousness of members of society, perhaps paradoxically. A "self-made man" always referred to the self-assurance, aspirations, intellectual stamina and other paraphernalia of the purely psychological composition of the individual whereas now, we are able to apply it to his physical composition. The imminence of the merger between robotic products and the physically-oriented propositions of transhumanism can now be addressed as more than just an eye-opening thought. If one prefers lesser-alarming realities for measuring one's consciousness of the conceptual relation between men and artefacts, one could examine the simple layman's example of the use of steroids: first they were used practically joyfully, then considered cheating, now they are amalgamated to deadliness —and this shift happened over a relatively short period of time whilst the effects of their use remained stable. Will our judgement on what can and what cannot be considered an artefact be this rapidly affected too?
3.3 Identity and the concept of Man
If the relations amongst the adjacent concepts in the system are modified because of human modification becoming abundant, what does this bring forth for the identity of man in the ecosystem? Imagine that we welcome this slide toward the increased physical definition of Man: some serious interrogations suddenly become visible. The fact that man would have the opportunity to change the very concept of himself in this manner, and that this would have a real effect on his surroundings proves that homo sapiens would control his own "conceptual environment" and that the techniques discussed here would be a mere side effect of his existence (i.e. other techniques could be used to sustain the developments sought). This would mean that individuals really would have obtained an overwhelming level of power vis-à-vis their past and vis-à-vis their counterparts.
4. Shouldn't We Be Against Greater Human Diversity?
In the hypothetical system just described, the weaker are bound to suffer more. Is this the type of homo sapiens we wish to become?
The identity of others (and thus Selfhood too) would be heavily affected in such a world. The identity of the Self would be equated to a very heady position —practically Godhood. But today, we do have the "magnificent opportunity" to actually apply this ill-formed logic to our lives ourselves.
So should biodiversity include the redesign of man? As I said, the key to strengthening the argument against modifying Man has to put forth practical ideas on how and why not to modify man in such an era —many are doing it (eugenics, implants...), though perhaps not to the point of becoming cyborgs. The undemocratic nature of such practice is not stopping people because such an argument remains quite ideological for most or at least irrelevant to down-to-earth daily concerns.
The way in which they —the artificial or modified beings— would seem (too) different from the average human today is in the values they would, perceivably, be able to share and apply. Because of the hypothetical differences in the importance of (traditional) human values and their application between original men and the non-organic originating persons, one may not wish to see these latter caring for one's children or for the elderly. One may have difficulty trusting the moral judgements of a non-natural neighbour or artificial person. Imagine one's multiply-implanted neighbour is the judge in a widely mediated homicide case; this could be a real media "scoop", which would help picture the situation here. The same would go for our discovering the judge was a machine.
The practical measures necessary to supporting the view that bio-diversity should not include the redesign of Man would entail, among other things, avoiding simulation in all its forms. This measure on simulation could be presented as just general advice, negotiations for special cases determined by a set of criteria, or out-right prohibition, according to the adopted political stance. The important aspect here is the urgency of the question as, in light of citations like that of Turkle's above, simulations are changing our vision of ourselves and our world.
5. Some Reasons for Considering Greater Human Diversity
If we take up the judge example once again, the fact that a human judge with silicon chip implants in the brain or a purely robotic judge can be hooked up to all the sources of jurisprudence possible in a continuous manner may one day comfort the average citizen in the decision he/it makes. It goes without saying that the sources the 'judge' has access to will have to be limited to a select official set. If accepted, this would be a very practical solution.
Those supporting the view that bio-diversity should include redesigning humans have to develop strategies on the ideological and political levels in order to seriously further their cause, that of artefactualising humans, because after all, Man would be an 'artefactual object' if he was remodelled in the ways spoken of above. Furthermore, our judge example is simply that: an example. One cannot change society's strategies on a political level based on a mere practical example. Those that wish to promote the vision of a widened biodiversity in which homo sapiens would be one of the species implicated would have to either directly modify the moral position of humans in the world equilibrium (difficult?) or show the strategic advantages to becoming robotic individuals (acceptable?), transhuman or posthuman (meaningless?) which may help people re-examine their traditional stances. It may help here if I make things explicit; the judge example would be a very practical solution, if accepted by all, by the majority or otherwise, as long as average citizens are consulted.
Looking at the transhumanist movement will reveal that the values put forth, whether one sees them to be acceptable or not, are done so within the framework of specific basic conditions according to N. Bostrom of Oxford University: "Global Security, Technological Progress, Wide Access". Any sensible being shares these conditions and would like to have them protected, which means that in getting a start in changing society the way they see fit, the movement is not so off-tilt as some might say it to be. The problem of course is the fact that they say there is nothing wrong with tampering with nature, using technology to extend lives and promoting libertarianism. But it would seem that all of their values the use to these ends (i.e. open-mindedness, peace, critical thinking, etc. — those not involved in modifying the body?) are acceptable so there are things that most can accept. But have we not collectively been tampering with nature for a long time already (controlling animal numbers, abortion, exterminating unwanted entities)? Although this does not justify wanting greater human diversity, it shows that Man has always had the tendency to "diversify" in one way or another.
Accepting to go along with such change would be a strategic move if it were to be used to unite people, communities, etc. Allowing only weaker members of society to better themselves would enable them to gain back their dignity. But would creating laws prohibiting naturally endowed persons access to changes be unfair? It is clear that if the biodiversity of man is to be accepted by the average citizen, any discourse on the matter would have to be situated at the level of this type of proposition.
When one considers the argumentation necessary to change things, it is tempting to just say that the physical aspects of human life are quite malleable in comparison to its non-manifest "components". But N. Bostrom gives us an indication of the little our considering transforming human beings entails and where to look for inspiration for changing mindsets. In his own words, he mentions that the necessary ideals are found outside of our bios. We must therefore act on our logos to better fathom the advent of change, to better "calculate" it. It is only if we focus on human reason that we will be able to accept our own redesign.
And to relate this last comment to the machine-based approach, it could be said that the machine may have another type of corporal existence than Man does, but the logos is the same: Man's. If and when the intelligent robotics approach obtains its own reason in the human sense, the categorisation problem (cf. infra sections 1 and 2) will have to be treated more thoroughly.
* *
The reader may find that I fail to correctly transcend the practical aspects of modifying man to develop sound arguments on the ideological and political levels of why to expand human diversity. However, pulling one way or another was not the goal here. This discussion reminds me of P. Ricœur's stance on the impossible adjustment between our finite body and our reason being infinitely open: although the two levels of discourse are complementary to one another, their refusal to blend is what leads to our mistakes, our miscalculations, etc. and renders the whole process of decision-making fallible. But I do hope to have provided the elements essential to engaging dialogue on these matters.
Bostrom N. (2005), "Transhumanist Values", Journal of Philosophical Research, Special Supplement on 'Ethical Issues for the Twenty-First Century', Charlottesville VA: The Philosophy Documentation Centre.
Brooks R. (2002), Robot: The Future of Flesh and Machines, London: The Penguin Press.
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Changeux J.-P. & Ricœur P. (1998) La nature et le règle. Ce qui nous fait penser, Paris: Odile Jacob.
Droit R.-P. (2005), "Dialoguer avec tous, et d'abord avec soi", dossier 'Disparition: Paul Ricœur, Philosophe de tous les dialogues', Le Monde, 22-23 mai [Paul Ricœur died on the 20th of May].
Esquith S. (2005), "Technology and Democratic Political Education: Simulation vs. Re-enactment", Society for Philosophy and Technology, The American Philosophical Association, Central Division Meeting, April 27-30, 2005 Chicago, Illinois.
Quine W.V.O. (1960) Word & Object, Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.
Schmidt C.T.A. (2005) "Of Robots and Believing", Minds and Machines. Journal for Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy and Cognitive Science, Kluwer: Abstract
Schmidt C.T.A. (2005), "Machinery, Our Intelligence and Desires", The European Conference on Computing and Philosophy (E-CAP 2005), 2-4 June, Mälardalen University, Västerås Sweden.
Schmidt C.T.A. (1997), "Pragmatically Pristine, the Dialogical Cause", 'Open Peer Community Invited Commentary' on A. Mele’s text "Self-deception", Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 20:1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 126.
Schmidt C.T.A. & Kraemer F. (2006), "Robots, Dennett and the Autonomous. A Terminological Investigation", Minds and Machines. Journal for Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy and Cognitive Science, Vol. 20 N° 1, Kluwer/Springer.
Turing A. (1950), "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", Mind, vol. LIX n° 236.


Blogger alienboy said...

I love the subject you write of but your apparent lack of the dna that codes for paragraphs has rendered your words painfully illegible so I remain unaware of your perspective...

1:37 PM  

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