Published on May 10, 2020

Man and Machine


Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

Charlie Chapin, Dictator Speech 1940

There is something troubling about the predicament we find ourselves in today but for the obvious reasons. Today, what is indeed obvious is that man-made systems are fragile and imperfect. We only need to look at our most important institutions and realize that they are operating largely on old world conventions and norms.

If we look at health care for instance, there is no robust preventative approach in place for broad disruptions like pandemics. Education is still modeled after a taylorist approach and is not personalized to the individual student. Elections of government officials have become popularity contests leaving little room for deep debating of the issues; and the list goes on. Without trying to moan too much, the point I want to raise is that there is ample room for improvement.

If we can avoid stagnation, I’m fairly confident that there will be significant advancement in all human domains over the next few decades. It seems inevitable that these institutions will change for the better- such is human ingenuity.

Worshipping data

Dataism (the worship of data) is quite evidently the path forward. We will implement measurement systems across many aspects of society. This will lead to longer life spans, better education and a stronger economy. If we look at the rapid progression of intelligent algorithms, the cost to implement recursive systems will drop drastically leading to important improvements. This should be all good right? Well, that’s what I find troubling. What if it’s not? What if we lose something along the way? Is there an agreed upon definition of what makes people human?

We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us

The coming symbiosis with machines seems inevitable today and will most likely be widely accepted – because it will make life better! Who wants decision making to be informed by imperfect systems rather than objective facts and data. We will surely start ceding control over to algorithms and machines all in the name in advancement. It has already started with biohacking. Would we want to have kids with a risk of Alzheimer’s disease? I know I wouldn’t. So let’s modify their generic code to avoid this nasty possibility. Now draw the reasoning out further and you can imagine where it’s headed.

Is there anything to do?

My concern is partially fueled by the fear of the unknown. I surely don’t want to be the one arguing that buggy whips are a better mode of transportation. Yet, deep down I know this isn’t such a fear of technological progress but of what it means to be human.

There are tantalizing new possibilities over the coming decades. We’ve moved beyond the probable and entered the realm of possible. Genetically engineered humans and connecting our brains with sensors are just a few examples. Shouldn’t we be a bit more worried? Why aren’t there more people talking about this?

I have no idea what is going to happen and I’m not offering any visions of utopia or dystopia. I just hope that this topic becomes much more important now rather than later. We need to think deeply about how these new systems will be built and what the potential impact will be. The future is not predestined and the choices we make will shape that future. I hope we figure it out before it’s too late.

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