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What will it mean to be human in the age of machines?


Humanity isn’t something to be taken for granted. It needs to be built.

As a species, humanity has gone through three important revolutions in its history: the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and the digital revolution, through which we’re living today. The way we organize the available workforce has allowed us to move from small semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer villages to vast cities in which live millions of people. According to various indications and research, we’re facing a new civilizational revolution, the fourth of its kind, and probably the most radical that we’ve faced: the revolution in automation.

It’s a frequent theme in science fiction movies and books: artificial intelligence is increasingly able to solve tasks and problems that humans used to solve over a much longer time and with less satisfactory results. In the long run, the trend towards the automation of the functions of labor is a reality determined by factors of technical and economic efficiency, the “natural” path, as it were, of capitalism. A machine doesn’t need to work shifts of eight hours and doesn’t rest periods. Machines don’t form unions nor demand that their rights be respected. They’re tireless workers who require little maintenance and can work non-stop until they become obsolete. What perspectives result from such a world for humans and their own dependence on that labor force for meeting their most basic necessities?

It’s estimated that automation will increasingly become a visible reality within a matter of years. Numerous companies, including Google, Amazon, Uber and Tesla, are investing in research into driverless vehicles and automated transport which will render millions of drivers and urban transport systems obsolete overnight. There are algorithms that can review legal paperwork more accurately than can their human counterparts, the lawyers, and in the medical field, nanomedicine and genetic editing promise extraordinary results in diagnosing, operating on, and caring for patients, being able even to give second opinions.

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Depending on how the transition to the automation of work is made, we’ll be speaking during the next century of either a utopian or a dystopian society.

Let’s look at it optimistically first. A society where work has been abolished through something like a universal income for all could signal the dawn of a new era in which manual labor and working to survive could cease to be a drag on millions of people. They’ll be freed from the yoke of the office, as modern, optimistic philosophers like HD Thoreau and Bertrand Russell predicted.

On the dystopian side, current inequities could be sharpened to levels unseen since feudalism. A war between algorithms using game theory could lead artificial intelligence to conclude that people are actually an unnecessary burden to technological development. Historically, great discoveries and scientific innovations occurred as a result of countries’ military needs. And so blind automation could mean the strengthening of militarily-sustained, nationalist policies, and then the impoverishment and unemployment of millions of people whose jobs directly depend on more developed economies. The gap between the elites and the poorest grows even wider.

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In this context, asking about what constitutes the human being is not a trifling or idle question, because it’s at precisely these moments of greatest tension when people become aware of their purpose as individuals and as a species. Until we realize that our freedom doesn’t depend on the available choices of consumer lifestyles, we can’t truly be free to transform the world and to seek better conditions for everyone by thinking as a species. The decision is as to whether we continue to nurture a system that will sooner or later judge us obsolete, or we fight so that human life is recognized as something valuable in itself and worth preserving. As the sociologist, Jean Baudrillard said promisingly, the challenge of generations and across centuries is to create the survival conditions for the human being as a species on the planet or to face its disappearance.

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