The Great Merge
It’s been a while. Thank you for your patience.
I’m usually introspective when the year ends and a new year begins. It’s a good time to take stock and examine where I am in regard to my relationships. We, humans, are both blessed and cursed in that ability… Trees and animals don’t compare themselves to other members of their species, but we do.
We’re unique in that way and it’s an essential part of what makes me human. So I embrace it. Especially at this time of the year, because my yearly review also includes my relationship with and - in some cases - dependency on technology.
Over the past 35 years, I’ve gone from being a technology novice to a hobbyist, to an enthusiast and evangelist, to a paid technology professional at a Fortune 100 company, to becoming an advocate for privacy & security, to now writing columns and newsletters about technology so that as many people as possible can educate themselves.
This past year, I finally made peace with the understanding that our species is determined and well on its way to merging our humanity with our technology.
That’s kind of a big statement, so let me unpack it a bit.
Same Goals, New Tools
Let me start by eliminating what is not a part of my newfound understanding:
Augmented reality, also called “AR”
Virtual reality, also called “VR”
Digital human clones, or “deep fakes” (Although, if I did, this one here would be my absolute fave):
To me, these technologies are natural extensions of our species’ longstanding fascination with and adoption of technology over many thousands of years.
Don’t believe me? See for yourselves…
Early in our evolution, we depended not only on each other but on help from the animals around us to get things done. Dogs helped guard us at night. Donkeys helped us drag plows to til our land and grow food. Horses provided transportation. Bees provided honey and valuable pollination to help secure our crops. The development of largescale farming led to our using tractors and, eventually, computers attached to those tractors. We now have all kinds of helpers in our lives, from robotic vacuums to automated coffee-makers, from voice-activated lighting systems to auto-sensing thermostats which can sense when we’re around and then keep our living environments comfortable. Robots that can stand, talk, emote, and eventually help us physically and emotionally are merely extensions of our original desire to find tools to help us to lead easier lives.
Before art, there was light and shadow. Early humans danced around the fire and took delight in their shadows from a central source of light. Painting and drawing emerged and became the original methods to record and capture the light and shadows that we saw in the world around us. Later, came light-sensitive film and still cameras to capture even more lifelike moments of people and locations. Then came motion picture cameras, which captured moment, flow, and helped create an even more immersive experience. Now, every one of you reading these words has a video camera in your pocket to use at a moment’s notice to record anything you like. AR and VR are merely extensions of our original desire to explore the world in newer and ever-more realistic and fantastical ways.
Humans originally used other animals to help us move things from one place to another. Mules helped transport goods and belongings. Horses helped us to transport ourselves from one place to another. Suddenly our ability to roam expanded exponentially. The wheel was refined, placed on carriages, and then hitched to those horses. Now we could carry ourselves, our families, and some of our supplies with us over much longer distances. Next came trains and steam-powered locomotion. Once the internal combustion engine was created and refined, early cars were born and, with them, roads on which to drive. Self-driving cars and trucks are merely extensions of that original desire to travel as far as possible with as little energy expended as possible. Automated flights and space travel are no different.
Hopefully, you can see it now:
Our desire to use tools to help us live our lives hasn’t changed in millenium. However, the tools that we’ve used to accomplish that goal have.
The Machines Within
Starting in the late 1950s, we passed the intersection where the tools we used were located only on the outside of our human bodies. The humble pacemaker, placed inside its first patient, back in 1958, is now estimated to have saved millions of lives.
In 1982, the first artificial heart, called the Jarvik-7, was implanted in Dr. Barney Clark to help extend or save his life. He survived for another 112 days. With a machine. In his body. Pumping his blood for him.
Today, these technologies are far more commonplace. But what about the tech that’s just arriving…? Here are a few real world examples that, honestly, blow my mind:
A dear friend with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease underwent surgery in November of 2021 and had a device embedded IN his brain. That device, called a deep brain implant or (DBI), includes a series of wires that provide electrical current directly to his brain to help with his tremors. The DBI connects to another surgically implanted device just under his clavicle which, in turn - #JawDrop - interacts with his phone via Bluetooth, allowing him to change the types, time cycles, and intensity of the electrical charge that the DBI’s wires provide to his brain.
In 2017, researchers enbedded a computer chip at the end of a patient’s partially amputated arm. That chip connected to a particular region of patient’s brain using a series of wires. Now, the insane part: the patient - who hasn’t had hands in 25 years is now able to “feel” textures and surfaces in his brain as he moves his virtual reality hands on a computer screen over those kinds of virtual textures. I know. RiDONKulous. And humans made that happen.
Or how about a computer chip - placed IN the brain - that in December of 2021 allowed a paralyzed man to send a tweet using… his thoughts?!? No. I’m not kidding. THAT shit just happened. How? This link explains a bunch of it. But I didn’t read it all, because I was too shocked by what they’d achieved and need to pick my jaw up off the floor instead.
Computerized implants for your eyes to help the blind see? Done.
Computerized implanted to help the deaf hear? Done.
Implanted, subcutaneous microchips to help store critical info or interact with the physical world around us. You guessed it: done.
And this list is - pardon the pun - just scratching the surface. It doesn’t include technologies like lab-grown organs, bio-engineered skin, artificial limbs, and more. All of which is to say: not only is this trend of merging our bodies with our technology not going away, but it’s also accelerating.
More quickly, in fact, than you or I probably realize. Ray Kurzweil, the noted inventor, and futurist, insists that 2029 is the year in which computers will possess “human-level intelligence” and that 2045 is the year when we’ll permanently merge with the interconnected, computerized superintelligence that we’ve created. Whoa.
All of which begs a very important question…
Is This Good or Bad?!?
Good/Bad, Kind/Evil, On/Off… these are over-simplified, binary states of thinking. Reality, of course, is always far richer than just two states of being.
Like reality, tools are neither good nor bad: they’re just tools. In most cases, I’m of the belief that it’s how we use our tools that truly matters. We can use a hammer to build a house or hit someone’s hand. The salient point:
Merging our humanity with computers isn’t the issue; HOW we’re doing it and for what ultimate purposes is.
Personally, I’m excited about the possibility of having the entirety of the Internet, accessible immediately by our brains. Cool! There is a very good chance that having this kind of immediate access to vast troves of information about humanity will help us become a super-intelligent, collaborative species. Instead of only having personal experience, some education, and emotions to guide us, we’ll also have immediate access to thousands of years of accumulated and recorded data.
That combination of interconnectedness with one another and with all of recorded history will - I believe - transform society in powerfully positive ways. I think that a human mind connected to the Internet will, of course, choose what’s best for most sentient life because it deeply understands the interconnectedness of all things.
But that’s an assumption. That assumption might be massively flawed because of my privilege and standing in society.
So what if I’m wrong? What if early adopters - most of whom will surely be wealthy and powerful - use their newfound “singularity” to corrupt and control the world around them? It’s not that far-fetched: humanity has a very long track record of the wealthy and powerful doing whatever it took to stay wealthy and powerful.
I don’t have an answer to that question. Currently, I don’t know if anyone else does either. This is why we’ll need a deep examination of our cultural, national, and species-wide morals, ethics, and principles.
Then, we’ll need guidelines, oversight, and accountability.
Positive Futures Require Definite Roadmaps
Some of us might fondly recall the writings of the great Isaac Asimov and suggest that his Three Laws of Robotics might be a possible roadmap:
First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Sounds great, doesn’t it?!? Well… some scientists and roboticists don’t believe that Asimov’s laws are enough to protect humans because today’s robots don’t function on laws. Therefore, they are promoting concepts like Empowerment and Adaptability. It’s a fascinating conversation, but it’s missing something critical:
By only focusing on the behavior of robots, both Asimov and the current crop of futurists are ignoring how to help govern the behavior of humans who will have technology embedded in or connected to them.
Having read all of Asimov’s Robot and Foundation novels, I cannot recall any characters that were partiallly human and partially robots. It was either robots OR humans, not both. Again, binary thinking. This is curious given that during Asimov’s life technology was and continues to be inserted into millions of human bodies.
We need a different, more varied approach.
Back in 2009, Peter Singer pointed out that “we need to start wrestling with the ethics of the people behind the machines”. He asked some powerful questions in his article:
Where is the code of ethics in the robotics field for what gets built and what doesn’t?
Who gets to use the sophisticated systems we build and who doesn’t?
Are there technologies that should only be limited to the military?
Singer wasn’t discussing the possible or actual merging of humans and technology, but I think his questions are an important first step in the conversation. Still: other questions and deeper conversations are required.
I’ll humbly discussing the following questions as a community, nation, and species:
What groups of people should be allowed to create the code of ethics in the robotics field? How will we ensure that these people represent enough cultures, languages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds to better serve all of humanity?
What global and national oversight organizations will be established to assure that the code of ethics is being implemented, safeguarded, and improved over time? What power will they have to punish those who violate our code of ethics?
What fail-safes should be built into any technology designed for implantation into a human body?
What set of checks and balances must be established to ensure that any technology surgically inserted can be proven successful by the patient, not just the surgeon?
What credentials, training, or certifications will be required for anyone who implants technology into a human body?
What repair and update capabilities will be required in the technology which we place in our bodies?
What kinds of security protocols must be in place to help ensure that no implant can be used to track, record, or otherwise violate the privacy of the human into which it is inserted. And what kinds of checks must be available for the patient to be certain of this?
How will we share the cost of the technologies and the surgeries as a species to ensure that those without funds are not be left behind?
What Happens Now
Given our current trajectory, we will most certainly merging both our lives and our bodies with technology. Therefore, have a choice: do we start having the crucial conversations required for this huge leap now or wait for the technology to advance?
Some notable people have begun to ask questions and provide possible alternatives and solutions now. Tristan Harris is one of the respected thinkers in this space. If he looks or sounds familiar, it might be because you saw him in the documentary “The Social Dilemma”.
As a result of his working within the bowels of Big Tech, Mr. Harris made the decision to step away from the business side of technology and migrate t the human side of it. He founded The Center for Humane Technology, an organization focused on creating world where humans can interact with technology in safe and sane ways.
His organization has already begun asking good questions and proposing good initiatives. More are needed, of course, and not just from Mr. Harris: but from all of us as well.
And so, dear friends: now is the time for all good humans to come to the aid of their species. Yes, we’re all busier than ever. Yes, we’re more distracted than ever. Yes, we all seek to escape more than ever.
But we’d be wise to remember: the future doesn’t create itself; we create tomorrow by what we do today.
Happy New Year.
And that’s a wrap for today’s episode, everyone. Thanks again for subscribing and supporting independent technology journalism. Thank you, in advance, for using the link below to share Tech Talk with your friends, family, and colleagues.
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