Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind stated that we find ourselves on the cusp of a cyborg revolution. A Cyborg is a human whose physiological functioning, whether internal or external, is aided by or dependent upon mechanical or electronic devices. Today, that could just about include everyone connected to the world through computers and cell phones. These devices are actually extension of our intellectual self. However, most people think of the Terminator as an image of a cyborg.
“Throughout history there were many economic, political and technological revolutions, but one thing remained constant: humanity itself. We still have the same body and mind as our ancestors in the Roman Empire or in ancient Egypt. Yet in the coming decades, for the first time in history, humanity itself will undergo a radical revolution. Our bodies and minds will be transformed by genetic engineering, nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces. Bodies and minds will be the main products of the 21st century economy.”, according to Mr. Harari.
People are afraid of change and of the unknown. But change is inevitable. We need to confront the change rather than run away from it. Humans have already evolved a great deal from the first time they stood up. We are talking about millions of years so this change has been very gradual. We now live twice as long. We’re able to avoid many disease conditions that used to be commonplace and we are more able bodied and taller. There’s even an argument that IQ has been rising (except in DC). Man has actually taken what God gave us and improved upon it.
What is it we really fear when we contemplate the evolving cyborg prospect? First, there is the biological human body, then there are the biological improvements, and when that body becomes disabled there is prosthesis or bionic body parts both mechanical and electrical to supplement the disabled body functions, and finally when more than 50% of the biological body is bionic internally or externally and augmented by AI, you probably have a cyborg. At this point, are we human or are we machine?
Historically, intelligence always went hand in hand with consciousness. But intelligence is now decoupling from consciousness. We are developing non-conscious algorithms that can play chess, drive vehicles, fight wars and diagnose diseases better than us. Once AI outperforms human drivers, doctors and others, millions of people around the world will have to find other compensation opportunities.
The cyborg future could result in enormous new opportunities or insurmountable unemployment. We don’t have any economic model for such a situation. This may well be the greatest economic and political question of the twenty-first century. There is no point being optimistic or pessimistic about it. We need to be realist. We need to understand that this is really happening – it is science rather than science fiction.
My personal concern of the potential of cyborgism is the same as my concerns about the potential of nuclear energy – to much government regulation. History already dictates that over regulation causes stagnation and bad regulation has had unanticipated consequences (Got whole milk?). However, there does need to be some controls to make sure the military or some rouge nation doesn’t take the wrong path with this technology. Hopefully, this technology will help us overcome our tribal mentally.
I started this column talking about the nuclear biosphere. Nuclear will eventually be the energy source of the future, robotics will replace the labor force and AI will augment human intelligence. Is there still a place for us humans? – You bet, but it won’t be the same as the past.