As The Line Between Humans and Machines Begins to Blur, One Question Remains: What Will It Mean to Be Human? Here’s What We Know.

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Our imagination often gives us cues to how the future may look.

Everyone remembers the future of the human race in the Terminator series. Robots, nearly indistinguishable from humans, roaming the world and destroying all human life they can find. Besides indicating what may be the case, science fiction has also shaped the narrative that robots will eventually replace humans.

In an alternate ending, we may end up dune-pilled: AI becomes an artifact of the past, a cautionary tale told to generations of human ancestors of how autonomous machines attempted to take over the universe but were thwarted by humankind and became banned altogether.

But amid all the confusion, an essential question remains: How will emerging technology change our understanding of what it means to be human?

From ancient times to contemporary thinkers, the definition of what makes humanity unique has varied. But as AI, biocomputing and web3 advance, boundaries between machines and humans are becoming more blurred. Many experts, optimists or not, are concerned that these tools will change essential elements of being human.

What does it mean to be human in the age of hybrid intelligence, blockchain and machine learning? Let’s dig deeper into recent technological advancements and what moving towards hybrid intelligence means for traditional concepts of humanity.

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The intersection of biocomputing and AI

Biocomputing is a field of study that uses biologically-based molecules, such as DNA or proteins, to perform computational tasks. Imitating the genius of nature can completely shift the paradigm of understanding when it comes to the computation and storage of data. The field has shown promise in cryptography and drug discovery. However, biocomputers are still limited compared to non-bio computers since they aren’t good at cooling themselves and doing more than two things simultaneously.

Advancements in AI, however, have been booming. Since 2012, interest in AI, especially in machine learning, has been renewed, leading to a dramatic increase in funding and investment. Machine learning models ingest large amounts of data and infer patterns.

More recently, generative AI has become extremely popular with the release of large AI models such as MidJourney, ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion. Generative AI is a class of AI algorithms that generate new data or content extremely similar to existing data, nearly identical to human-made data.

But AI has its limitations. Most generative models can only process one data type — text, images or sounds. Although the multi-modal GPT-4 was released in mid-March, much more work is needed to combine AI with multiple modalities.

AI has given biocomputing the potential to unlock new insights into complex biological systems and accelerate scientific discovery. For instance, AI can analyze large genomic data sets to identify genetic variations associated with specific diseases. AI can also be used in drug discovery by predicting the properties of new molecules or optimizing already existing ones.

Heading toward augmented reality

Another field that has been benefiting from advancements is augmented reality (AR). AR systems incorporate three basic features: A combination of real and virtual worlds, real-time interaction and accurate 3D registration of virtual and real objects.

AR often requires virtual reality (VR) tooling, such as large headsets. The headsets, although advancing in software, are limited by their hardware. Users have problems with experiencing nausea and wearing the headsets for too long. It’s far from the reality envisioned with Skynet as a ruler.

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The emergence of web3

The rise of Web 3.0 is also likely to play a significant role in the convergence of these technologies. Web3 is the next evolution of the internet, based on a different way of architecting the internet using blockchain, which provides an open, transparent and decentralized way of interacting online.

Web3 has the potential to remove the power from large tech corporations by giving the ownership of data back to the individual users of the internet. This could defang big data and solve data privacy issues.

Web3 also allows for new interactions between humans and machines. For instance, Web3 could enable secure, decentralized marketplaces for AI networks owned and controlled by those using it.

All these technologies are developing in isolation at the moment. Eventually, some combination of human and machine hybrid intelligence will emerge.

The concept of humanity in an artificial age

Hybrid intelligence combines human and machine intelligence, resulting in more capable operations than the two alone, effectively dissolving the boundaries between biology and technology.

But what does the fading distinction mean for humanity?

In ancient philosophy, the concept of humanity was centered around the idea of a soul. Plato, a Greek philosopher, student of Socrates and one of the most important figures in Western philosophy, created a myth to describe the structure of the human soul in the dialogue Phaedrus.

According to the myth, the human soul resembles a chariot pulled by two horses — one is white, representing spiritedness, and the other black, representing desire. The horses are connected to a chariot, on top of which sits a rider. The rider represents reason. Humans are often pulled in opposite directions by our spiritedness (courage, pride and honor) and our desire or appetite (lust, hunger or thirst.) The task of the charioteer is to guide the whole ensemble through reason, which creates internal conflict.

The human soul is made up of desire and spirit being led by our reason. But machines already reason much better than most humans. If machines start to experience emotions, desires and empathy, what makes them different from us?

AI, the sun and electric sheep

Kazuo Ishiguro writes from both sides of man and machine in Klara and the Sun. Klara is an AI-powered robot purchased by Josie, a young girl experiencing the potentially lethal side effects of being genetically altered to improve her academic performance.

Although Klara is composed of artificial materials, she paradoxically gains nourishment from nature, the sun. At one point, Josie’s mother pays for a “portrait” of Josie, a robotic replica of Josie. If Josie dies, she plans to transfer Klara’s consciousness to the robotic replica of Josie. Effectively, Klara would live on as Josie.

Philip K. Dick explores similar themes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. In this post-apocalyptic world, androids are nearly indistinguishable from humans. Rick Deckard is tasked with hunting down and “retiring” rogue androids. As he carries out his mission, Deckard begins questioning the morality of his actions and whether or not the androids are truly “alive.”

Although human-like androids are far from the current state of technology, these stories highlight a struggle we are approaching in the age of hybrid intelligence.

Some philosophers argue that even now, we should consider electronic devices, such as smartphones, an extension of our minds. Technology’s momentum drives us toward internal conflict and confusion about what is human and what merely seems human.

Related: Artificial Intelligence And Its Role In Healthcare

To infinity and beyond

Collaboration between humans and machines can greatly enhance our quality of life. We are already approaching a world where we can work alongside intelligent machines to solve complex problems, create new works of art, and explore uncharted territories. Imagine personalized medical treatments tailored to an individual’s unique genetic makeup.

The emergence of hybrid intelligence is a testament to our ability as humans to push the boundaries of what is possible. As we explore the possibilities of biocomputing, AI and augmented reality, we must be open to the idea that humanity may soon not be confined to the merely biological. And this is the promise of hybrid intelligence, a future that is exhilarating and frightening all at once.

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