TRANSCENDING THE HUMAN: moving across, though, and beyond human computing
Imagine a world where humanity and technology merge seamlessly into a single entity. Does this invoke fear or hope? If you imagine a world where technology replaces people in spaces of work or even rises up against humans in an apocalyptic display – you would no doubt, feel a sense of fear. However, if you imagine a world where technology enhances human ability and extends our lifespans, you might feel a sense of hope.
In a critical reflection of transhumanism at the IFR’s 7th colloquium, Morgen Mutsau, from the Centre for Applied Social Sciences (CASS) at the University of Zimbabwe, shared a decade’s worth of research into a human-based information system. Central to Mutsau’s argument is that a limited knowledge of computing results in a restricted understanding of and preparation for transhumanism. In other words: we don’t know what we don’t know, and we cannot effectively prepare for the unknown.
Another area of focus in Mutsau’s argument is the idea that the human being has the same data processing architecture and behaviour as that of a computer. In drawing parallels between humans and computers, it is important to note that they have shared capability, but are still distinguishable from one another. “On the issue of intelligence, who is really intelligent?” Asked Billy Matsitse, an a participant at the colloquium, “The human being that creates the computer? Or the computer that takes what the creator has done and advances it?” On a similar note, Nyambura Mwagiru added: “The autonomous nature of this creation of the mind depends in my view on its ability to perceive, to discern, and to learn. As learning systems, computational creations of the human mind can become learning systems.”
So, in the end, the enhancement of human ability by technology does not mean a replacement of human essence and importance, and the learning or self-generating nature of intelligent technologies might at times surpass human intelligence, but it does not ever fully sever itself from its human creator. Perhaps it comes down to the computer as mediator of knowledge, and the human as generator of knowledge. For now, at least.
On a human level
With technology infiltrating into every aspect of our lives, how do we define what makes us human; distinguishable from our digital selves and mechanical tools? “From computing to competing: from a species competitiveness perspective, the best way for humans to compete with computers (apart from collaboration) is to behave like a human”, offers Dr Morne Mostert, director of the IFR. Both the human being and the machine computer have the capacity to remember; to encode, to store, and to retrieve memory. So, are we all that different? In short, yes.
Since the 1970s, organisations have been understood largely in terms of the machine metaphor; a closed system of hierarchy, control, authority, networks, and commands. Essentially, understanding human beings and human institutions as a type of computer based on efficient algorithms, we would be able to solve problems, make improvements, and create change in the human world, in the same way we would in the digital and mechanical worlds. However, there is risk of oversimplifying in reducing everything to its core algorithm. This thinking is now being applied to humanity in the form of a transhumanist movement. Transhumanism, says Mutsau, is a transcendent process of moving from one state to the next. Post-humanism, he explains, is the society that exists in the aftermath or era after transcendence.
On a cultural level
Macro-computing, according to Mutsau, has the potential for programmability, corruptibility, and correctability. In the human world, this idea of acquiring and adjusting skills, information, and interactions takes the form of ‘culture’; loosely defined as shared values, beliefs, experiences, communications, and behaviours. Corruptibility often takes the form of conflict, or results in such. Arguably, central to all conflict, is power. Computers, like humans, operate on power – in the literal sense of needing a power supply to function, but also in a metaphorical sense where, for example, you find the problematic use of ‘master/slave’ narratives to describe an asymmetric communication or control between devices or processes. As Doris Viljoen, senior futurist at the IFR, noted: “Computers were, and still are, designed to mimic human information”. We should then be more considerate of the information and behaviour on which we model these systems. We should also question and anticipate the cultural implications computing might have on humanity in return. This raises ethical concerns for rights, obligations, accountability, responsibility, risk, prioritisation, choice, and so much more.
On an individual level
Endo-processing micro-computing, Mutsau explains, makes use of an internal, localised processor; for the human being it is their brain, and for the machine computer it is their CPU. Modelling the human being as a computer organism reveals that both entities are capable of executing data input, processing, and output functions. This I-P-O algorithm (input, processing, output) is considered to be universal and translatable into different contexts or scenarios. The problem, however, is that this linear perception of the relationships between cause and effect – reducing a problem to an issue of function – places this discussion firmly in the ‘simplicity’ realm of the cynefin framework. It reduces the complexity of what it means to be human – our personhood, our agency, our individuality, our choice – and further reduces our understanding of or preparedness for technological advancement.
Instead of human-centred design, this colloquium skewed towards a computational focus – mechanising the human, rather than humanising the machine. Computers operate in binary – it is either true (1) or false (0). We cannot limit humanity to binaries. We exist in flux and fall on spectrums. Comparing men and women and their assumed black-and-white computational capacities, “in a non-binary world where we have trans and intersex individuals too, I wonder what the computational capacity is for these persons?” asks Dr Njeri Mwagiru, senior futurist at the IFR. “We now know that human bias is being programmed into the algorithms, and replicating societal ills in the artificial intelligence realms”, says Dr Nyambura Mwagiru, a participant at the colloquium. Whose wisdom, intelligence, and knowledge systems are we drawing on when developing technology?
Mutsau places environmental computing capabilities on a spectrum: from low, to middle, to high, and from exogenous (intelligence has an external origin) to endogenous (intelligence comes from within an organism or system). We could apply this same thinking to the development of human computing. If technology is intended to improve processes and enhance capabilities, we need to avoid entrenching divides further between the Haves and Have-nots; those who are included and those who are excluded. In addition to this, what might human computing look like if we were to draw on natural systems and harness the power of nature? Imagine if we could create a regenerative, interconnected, mutually-beneficial human-centred technological system! Imagine a world where that is possible!