Human Machine Symbiosis
My personal bet, and the conclusion of the study carried out in 2018 by the IEEE-FDC Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative, is that by 2050 it will be difficult to separate living from non-living things.
Notice that today there is still a debate going on among those considering virus a living thing and those claiming that since a virus cannot replicate without infecting a living cell is not a living being but just an aggregation of molecules with some characteristics.
Some robots are showing an increasing level of empathy, they are not empathic it is us who are perceiving them as empathic!, seem intelligent, take autonomous decision, learn and in the near future they might also replicate themselves creating offspring inheriting part of their characteristics and improving on them. It may become, perceptually speaking, more and more difficult not to consider them as “alive”.
What, however, matters here is that there will be a continuum among us and autonomous systems, sometimes a continuum between my “self” and the cyberspace (and this latter is likely to happen sooner than the former). In a way, we are already seeing some social signs of this. Think about losing your photos because of a disk breakdown (a smartphone –that you forgot to back up- being stolen or falling into the swimming pool…). It feels like you are losing a part of your “self”.
Smart prosthetics are becoming so seamless that you no longer consider them as artificial parts, they become “you” and your brain includes them in the body map.
We are living in symbioses with bacteria, we take lactic ferments to restore the bacterial flora in our guts. In a few years we might take bacteria supplements to change (improve) the way our guts assimilate food, scientists might manufacture genetic variations of bacteria to improve our health. These can be seen as living prosthetics, that are actually artefacts made possible by technology. There are even some studies suggesting that a variation in the intestinal bacterial flora might relieve some symptoms of autism and other brain disturbances.
Medical implants to monitor our health are bound to become more and more common as medicine will become more and more customised and there is a need to monitor the effect and the possibility of dynamically change the release of some drug molecules. These implants will become a symbiotic presence in our body, to the point that it will be difficult to live without them.
Our cognitive space will extend into the cyberspace, in continuum where it will be difficult to place a boundary separating my cognitive “self” from the extended self taking advantage of the cyberspace. In a way it is already happening! Aren’t companies hiring people on the base of their capability to access distributed knowledge on the Internet? A person value is resulting from her personal knowledge (and experience) as well as the web of relations she has and can acquire. Nowadays this web of relation includes, as a crucial component, the familiarity with the cyberspace.
In the coming decades the relation with the cyberspace will become seamless, a sort of sixth sense. This will create a gap between those who have it and those who don’t. Having an implant seamlessly connecting you to the cyberspace may become a competitive advantage on those who don’t have it (as it was a competitive advantage having a driving license in the past, as it is now a competitive advantage knowing how to use a computer, having a smartphone…). In turns this will push people to have such implants, quickly leading to mass adoption.
Welcome to the individual and societal extension on the phenotype changing what it means to be human. Human augmentation and machine augmentation are converging creating a new symbiotic creature.
Notice how I did not, intentionally, considered more radical augmentation deriving from genomic/phenotype modification. Just limiting the analyses to the extended phenotype we can see the symbioses in the making.
If genome and phenotype modification are fraught with ethical and societal issues let’s not fool ourselves into believing that extended phenotype modification does not create significant ethical and societal issues. Quite the contrary and in a sense, being the transformation smoother and falling below most people perception it might even be raising bigger issues.
I already addressed a few of the ethical and societal issues deriving from augmentation (specifically the widening gap between those who can afford to be augmented and those who cannot – notice that it is not just about economic affordability, it can be cultural, technology access as well). Augmentation is a two side coin. Someone may complain because they do not have the opportunity of becoming augmented, others may complain because they are forcedto become augmented. This latter aspect shall not be brushed aside. A few companies may de facto hire only augmented people (they can choose to hire people with a PhD today, tomorrow they may insist that only people with augmented cognitive capability can apply…), others may require their current employees to take specific professional courses to remain current. What about those that will be requiring people to wear smart contact lenses to become seamlessly connected to the internet thus accessing augmented reality at any time on the job (it might become essential for certain companies that will be splitting their manufacturing processes between the physical workshop floor and the cyberspace…). What about firemen being required to have their sensory augmented to detect hot objects or the presence of dangerous substances? They are required today, for safety reasons to use certain devices to become alert of dangers. In the future those devices might be implanted and provide direct sensorial alert so there might be a case for a company to require employees to have those implants (safety first!). And yet, how will people be reacting. Even supposing you will have the option to opt in (and eventually opt out), will the social context be such that you will be forced to go along? There are plenty of situations where today we are forced to behave in a certain way, from dressing up according to an accepted “standard” to speak in a certain way. And that might seem natural to us, but it is not! Societal rules are mostly taken for granted and you may realise the imposition only when you find yourself in a different social context you are not used to.
Will a symbiosis between a human and a machine result in a symbiotic being that is legally recognised as such, where the two symbiont components (the human and the machine) lose their individuality? What kind of rights might a symbiotic being have, different from the ones of its parts? It is clearly premature to address these kinds of issues but it is not black and white. We will be evolving one tiny step at a time and our grandchildren may find themselves in a new world resulting from technology we are developing today.
I guess some thinking on the consequences and on how they should be addressed may be called for.