About technology and the human species or, are we afraid of the Future? Hawking versus Haraway?
This is an extended version of a post I did recently. In the future I hope to add some pictures.
Stephan Hawking and Donna Haraway are two scientists who have outspoken ideas about what the merge of technology and humans actually means to us. Hawking, who has recently joined a Cambridge University think tank that deals with issues of possible take-overs of the human species by apparatus (computers) with sufficient artificial intelligence, is concerned about the evolution of our species. For him, the Darwinian phase of evolution has ended as the human species is nearly done from a natural selection perspective. New evolution comes from incorporating technology and, more important to him, genetic manipulation (brain manipulation) with the purpose of being more intelligent and smarter than our computers that become more and more intelligent, resulting in self-learning and for humans unmanageable apparatus. Haraway on the other hand is not afraid of this kind of aberrant relationships as she poses in her ‘Companion Species Manifesto’; she sees the development of protean relationships with other species as a natural, nearly biological evolution. In this perspective, the merge of human organism and cybernetics, say technology, is a natural process that eventually creates a new species, with its own genetic coding; it is like the ooloi from Octavia Butler’s novel ‘Lilith’s Brood’. In this paper I elaborate on the two apparently different approaches towards the evolution of the human species without alluding to any science fiction-like depiction of a dreamt new universe; no extraterrestrial creatures captivating our planet, no amorphous powers slandering aggravated humans. In this paper I make no emotional choice of future approach, I merely question to pertain the debate of how to cope with the perhaps inevitable absorbance of technology that is in fact becoming more and more sophisticated.
A Fastcompany.com article on January 8, 2013 announced that the Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking had joined the board of the international think tank called ‘The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk’ that is devoted to “defending humanity from futuristic threats” (Ungerleider, 2013). The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk was founded in 2002, and, to cite its website text, is “concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole. Such dangers have been suggested from progress in Artificial Intelligence (AI), from developments in biotechnology and artificial life, from nanotechnology, and from possible extreme effects of anthropogenic climate change. The seriousness of these risks is difficult to assess but that in itself seems a cause for concern, given how much is at stake” (Price et al., 2012). This rather dystopically phrased prognosis of human’s not-so-far-away future refers to a broad global debate, not only fueled by academics but also popularized by interested laypersons and, so be it, politicians and public policy makers.
Stephen Hawking’s coupling with the think tank founders Dr. Huw Price, Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge, Dr. Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics, Cambridge and Mr. Jaan Tallinn, co-founder of Skype, is somewhat a dazzle as he shared his ideas of the evolution of the human species with David Stonehouse by stating that he (Hawking) believed that the cyborg evolution was inevitable and vital for the survival of the human species. That was in the year 2003. Hawking claimed in that year that: “In contrast with our intellect, computers double their performance every 18 months”, Hawking told the German news magazine Focus in 2001. “So the danger is real that they [computers] could develop intelligence and take over the world. We must develop as quickly as possible technologies that make possible a direct connection between brain and computer, so that artificial brains contribute to human intelligence rather than opposing it” (Stonehouse, 2003).
According to Hawking, the evolution of Homo sapiens has taken millions of years so far and our DNA, the useful information, has only changed a few million bits. According to the scientist, human species has entered a new phase of evolution. Human evolution started out in a darwinistic sense, eliminating deficiencies, generation after generation, engendering the human species by natural selection. According to Hawking, language was developed as a means to communicate and exchange information. And furthermore, the distinction with earlier species of the human kind is that evolution has not been a matter of natural selection but has included externally transmitted information. Hawking calls this phenomenon “an external transmission phase” (Kazan, 2010). In this current phase of human development, human DNA has not changed significantly over generations. Externally transmitted information has grown to fast extents. Books, broadcasting (radio and television) and other media have all transmitted information that has been absorbed by humans. Hawking speaks of a ‘self designed evolution’, a non-Darwinian evolution in which humans will change their own DNA in their own way; change that does not derive from repairing genetic ’inconvenience’, defects that will be filtered out over generations to come, absorbing thousands of years. Hawking visions that biological defects of the human body can be corrected rapidly in the near future as they only involve single genes. Other human qualities like intelligence are most likely affected by complex structures of genes that make the process of finding the defects more complex as well. Hawking though is confident in the future development of DNA generation and human evolution in the external transmission phase: “I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression” (Kazan, 2010).
Hawking’s idea of genetic engineering seems an obvious strategy. Computers are evolving fast, it is said that computers double their performance per month. Yet the human species cannot keep up with the digital tempo of its own inventions. Hawking warns that humans must change their DNA rapidly or stay behind the development of computers and actually be left behind in this progress. According to him, the danger is real that computer intelligence will develop and as a fact will take over the world.
In this sense, Hawking claims that mankind must alter its genetic information in order to be able to rule the ever-evolving Artificial Intelligence of computers. “He also advocates cyber-technology – direct links between human brains and computers. ‘We must develop as quickly as possible technologies that make possible a direct connection between brain and computer, so that artificial brains contribute to human intelligence rather than opposing it” (Walsh, 2001). The idea is interesting but also meets critique, for instance from Sue Mayer, former director of policy research group Genewatch[i] who states that Hawkin’s ideas are straight forward naïve. In a biography about Hawking, Kristine Larsen recalls Mayer’s citation about Hawking’s alleged naivety. Unlike Hawking, Mayer believes that genetically engineering the human brain, as Hawking advocates, will not pay off in staying ahead of the, one may suggest, species of developing and self-learning computers.
There appears to be a certain discrepancy in the thinking of Hawking. On the one hand the scientist advocates cyber-technology as he spoke of developing direct links between computers and the human brain in order to have the artificial (computer) brains “contribute to human intelligence rather than oppose it.” (Walsh, 2001). Twelve years later Hawking then joins the Cambridge think tank with the mission to develop insights and ways of how to control existential risk; risk for the human species caused ever-evolving computers.
Other scientists also stress the idea that computers may eventually take over human existence. One of them is Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics professor at Reading University, involved in experiments in which ‘Man & Machine’ are merged. Warwick believes in the cyborg evolution that, according to him, is inevitable and even ‘vital’ to the advancement of the human species through cybernetics of the brain, through, as Sidney Morning Herald reporter David Stonehouse cites Warwick, “brain implants connecting them to the vastly superior intellectual powers of computers. If we don’t, the alternative is to have intelligent machines running everything. I don’t really fancy that, the scientist says in a phone interview from his home near London. But this alternative, I see as quite a positive alternative: humans staying in control of what is going on, even though we have to become cyborgs to do it” (Stonehouse, 2003).
According to Anne Balsamo however, “Cyborgs are alternately labeled ‘androids,’ ‘replicants,’ or ‘bionic humans.’ Whatever label they attract, the cyborg serves not only as the focal figure of the mass-mediated popular culture of American techno-science, but also as the figuration of posthuman/identity in postmodernity. From children’s plastic action figures to cyberpunk mirror shades, cyborgian artifacts will endure as relics of an age obsessed with the limits of human mortality and the possibilities of technological replication” (Balsamo 1996).
This citation shows that ‘Cyborgism’ is not just a matter of redefining the ethical issue regarding the manipulation of the human brain by humans themselves, as part of a human-designed alteration program, a survival scheme if one whishes, to conquer an alleged rise of supremacy of artificially intelligent apparatus (a propos designed, developed and produced by humans) as Hawking suggests. In Balsamo’s opinion Cyborg is an artifact of today. It is depiction such as Max Headroom, Elektra, or Fritz Lang’s Maria. It may even be Octavia Butler’s Lilith helping an alien people to reinvent a non-gendered species with no background, no common DNA that, as Hawking suggests, is still part of human heritage on a genetic level; we have a past and remain to keep it.
Before we focus on Donna Haraway’s approach of the evolution of the human species, let us question whether we should or should not be afraid of the future as depicted by academics like Hawking, Price, Russell and Reese. If Balsamo states that Cyborg is already in our lives, then can we learn from how people deal with it currently? And should we not look at historical developments in the acceptance and usage of technology intertwining with human life? Can we, for instance, conclude lessons learned from the incubation phase of the mobile telephone that has taken an odd thirty years from the day that the first commercial ‘mobile’ was brought to market? That was in 1969. The incubation phase, the time it takes to become mainstream artifact showed a progressive curve of acceptance and the evolution of functionality of the device and marketed services rocketed sky high when mobile telephony technology merged with another massive technology, the Internet. Obviously the emergence of mobile Internet may be regarded to operate on a different level or in a different sphere of incorporation in every day’s life yet there is resemblance in the way different discourses read regarding Cyborgism and human brain engineering.
The issue of the merge of technology and (human) organism has a scope from fully accepted to future development that, as I believe, has through the ages been colored by popular mass cultural distribution of science fictional depiction.
On the accepted side of the scope there is for instance the pacemaker that helps millions of people lead a fairly normal and regular life. The pacemaker and its virtues has been accepted long before the word Cyborg was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960 in their article ‘Cyborgs and Space[ii]’. The pacemaker is not the only technology people put in their bodies in order to improve their lives. The list of life-improving technology dates back to the first signs of registration by humans. Even in Mythology, the gods used prosthetic devices, i.e. the Irish god New Hah hand a silver hand replacing his missing left hand[iii].
On the opposite side of the scope, there are doomsday scenario’s prognosticating coupes d’état by ogre creatures that may even have human look and feel but are in fact striving to overpower if not destroy Homo sapiens. Perhaps the 1982 film ‘Blade Runner’ may be regarded as a typical example of ‘Dystopia A Priori’; advanced and sophisticated self-learning AI will lead to slavery and even worse, destruction of the human kind. That is not a promising thought. In the film four so-called ‘replicants’ have hijacked a spaceship to return to earth. Main character Rick Deckard has been commissioned to detect the devilish replicants who seek to do the world evil[iv]. Is the given fact of this film representative for the Cambridge academics?
With Hawking as an advocate, the engineering of the human brain appears to be argued as relevant to develop into a super human species serving the mere purpose of staying ahead of our own inventions. Brain engineering at this moment, is a complicated field of science and experiences skepticism and critique, focuses on assumed typical human issues like identity, empathy and environments as prerequisites for ‘remaining human’. Illustrative for this trend is an article in the Dutch magazine ‘De Groene Amsterdammer’, journalist and writer Sanne Bloemink explores the current state of affair in the world of what she described as the ‘Brain culture’. Bloemink focuses on the Cartesian enigma of brain and soul and attempts to unravel the obstinate myths and misbelieves about the human brain. One of the prominent neuro-criticasters Bloemink cites is Paul Verhaege, professor of clinical psychology and psychoanalysis at the university of Gent who states that new insights in epigenetics[v] show that “human identity is integrally tied to our environment” (Bloemink, 2013). Bloemink attempts to landscape the complexities that blur more or less objective thinking about the human brain, its capacities and the role of technology.
How differently then does biologist and philosopher Donna Haraway approach the sheer inevitable development of the merger of human beings with their own inventions of technology? Before we will discuss more on Hawking’s public exclamation of fear for, as put rather naively, robots, meaning the envisioned take-over of human life by artificially intelligent apparatus, the computer, we will focus on Donna Haraway’s approach over the years, from her Cyborg Manifesto to her more recent Companion Species Manifesto.
In December 2012, Helen Stuhr-Rommerein and Meagan Day, editors with Full-Stop.net, interviewed biologist and philosopher Donna Haraway on issues she is concerned with. As the writer of the Cyborg Manifesto, published in 1985, Haraway has taken the issue of ‘symbiogenesis’ as one of her (current) concerns. In symbiogenesis, ‘competition is the key word. Competition is an idea, a blueprint perhaps straight from Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’. Darwin’s doctrine explains the phenomenon as the ‘utter fight for survival’ and any form of biological hierarchy is a result of this struggle for existence. But Donna Haraway (and with her other writers such as Lynn Margulis who wrote ‘Acquiring Genomes: A theory of the Origins of Species’, criticize the cooperative role in evolution. Symbiogenesis is really about organisms teaming up and enduring threats. As Meagen Day puts it: “it becomes untenable to track the progress of an individual species the way Darwinian evolution does. Seen in the light of infection, evolution is always co-evolution” (Stuhr-Rommerein & Day, 2012).
This co-evolution appears to be somewhat of a vague conception. Is it that evolutionary objects such as human species, trees, monkey, birds or Labrador Retrievers needed other evolutionary developments to evolve? And, taken from a rather deterministic or better, teleological point of view, evolve to what? According to Haraway in her second manifesto, ‘The Companion Species Manifesto’, the world is a knot; it is, as she calls it, ‘prehensions’ in which both biological and cultural determinism is ‘misplaced’ concreteness. And this appears to be the most relevant revelation from Mrs. Haraway: “a bestiary of agencies, kinds of relatings, and scores of time trump the imaginings of even the most baroque cosmologists. For me, that is what ‘companion species’ signifies” (Haraway, 2003).
How should we understand the routing of our species into the future? Do we really believe that our existence is, or will be, influenced by our technological advancements? Personally, I do not consider the humane species evolution a matter of abstract debate; we live in a world that changes so rapidly that it is hard to construe where we, as a species are heading. On the other hand, Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto has stirred up dust. Was it not Mrs. Haraway’s illuminated vision that technology would certainly merge with biology; ‘Man & Machine’ or rather and better ‘Cyborg’
Sherry Turkle wrote that today’s computers are what beasts were to Darwin and dreams were to Freud. Turkle believes they are ‘test objects’ (Turkle, 1997), they challenge people, the views they have and they force to gain new insights, new perspectives. Computers challenge people to think about what human life is. The issue is not strictly reserved for philosophers and scientists; everybody is involved in the dynamics of this change. Turkle observes young children who have adopted the computer as a natural extension to their senses, as Marshall McLuhan would have said. When Turkle published ‘Life on the Screen’ in 1997, there were no tablets or smartphones yet – at least adopted as mainstream consumer technology – still penetration of the (desk top) computer, game consoles and other digital apparatus had become common property to a certain extend. Young people, children specifically, show that they have different distinctions between subject and object, between human and things than older people. A specific anecdote in Turkle’s book is about an electronic toy that can be shaped in different objects, robot, tank, and human-like puppet. The toy can also be the three at the same time. A boy tells his playmates that they should play with only one configuration, the tank, the puppet or the robot. The friends however ignore the owner of the hybrid and don’t follow his orders. Then, eight-year-old girl advices him to take it easy as the toy is nothing more than a ‘yucky computer cy-dough-plasm’.
There is a truth in the words of that young girl; the toy is but a mere thing, nothing to be afraid of. But on the other hand, the boy had a totally different perception of the ‘thing’. In the anecdote to the boy the toy appears to have a life of its own, a paradox of believe, a perceived reality. But then, is there e truth, a common reality of what this phenomenon is about? In ‘Civilization and its discontents’, Sigmund Freud sketches the process of ruling and regulating the world, in what we may call civilization, leads to a certain discontent of that same civilized world; discontent arrays as a constant feeling. And this ‘peculiar feeling, which never leaves him [human beings] personally, which he finds shared by many others, and which he may suppose millions more also experience. It is a feeling that he would like to call a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded, something ‘oceanic’ (Freud, 1929). Perhaps that is why man invented religion as religion tends to sooth man’s mind and inexplicable experiences.
Let us now contemplate on Haraway’s ‘Companion Species Manifesto’ and attempt to understand what the meaning of this particular text is in the context of the basic question of this paper: ‘Should we be afraid of the future’ and also question whether Haraway’s vision is really different from Hawkin’s?
Haraway states: “The Companion Species Manifesto is, thus, about the implosion of nature and culture in the relentlessly historically specific, joint lives of dogs and people, who are bonded in significant otherness” (Haraway, 2003). To Haraway, Cyborgs are part of a greater family of different species, all being unique species and all being each other’s companion. The human species is, thus, one of the companion species.
This thought bears a certain democratic approach to the world’s population and opposes the idea that the human species is the Über-species as it is, contrary to other companion species like dogs, a projection, the realization of intention, the “telos of anything” as Haraway states. According to Hawking, the human species is uniquely the leader of a bio-hierarchy because of its competence to use the abstractness of language to communicate. For Haraway, this is not relevant as companion species are about relationships between different, at lest two, companion species.
This relationship does not necessarily need to be a friendly one or have historical bonds. Companion species form universes and act in the same sphere, place and space. Cyborgs as such, fit within the taxon of companion species as they actually raise the same issues of relationships than, say, dogs. To Haraway, not just her 2003 manifesto but actually life as it is, is about ‘significant otherness’; understanding the uniqueness of the other species and accepting them as partners.
Now this idea may cause certain resistance, even dissent perhaps, with people. After all, generations of people in the western cultural hemisphere were educated in the Darwinian and Christian doctrines in which Homo sapiens is the sole leader in a strict hierarchy of species. To these people, a dog can be a respecting ‘buddy’, in that sense, a friend, but never on the same level as ‘the boss’, the owner of the dog. Not to mention granting any form of equality to ‘lower’ species and resulting in what not even is considered to be a species: a computer.
Haraway elaborates on this issue by explaining the role of the dog the way humanist techno-philiacs explain: the dog was domesticated from the free wolf to being servant, making civilization possible. Let us understand that this is not Haraway’s believe but the thought fits seamlessly in the believe that the human species is the world’s leading species, the ‘boss’.
Following the same logics of arguing, all other species can be regarded to be a serving partner of humans, including man-made species like cyborgs, robots and computers. For Haraway however, there are no boundaries in terms of skin or other organics therefor species that incorporate organics and technology, culture and nature, are as much companions as are dogs.
Being a biologist, Haraway refers to animal species, dogs in particular but not necessarily, as she speaks of companion species. In her 2003 manifesto she thus elaborates her thoughts on relationships between people and their dogs. To her, the two species bond lives in ‘significant otherness’, a conception that needs thinking: how different am I from my dog or, how the same am I? Being a dog owner, I take care of my four-footed friend. I take him to the doctor to spend a fortune on his health, drive to special shops for special food, walk with him three times a day, every day of the year, play with him, talk to him, hug him and stroke him, all in gentle and admiring passion of his grandeur. This may sound somewhat over the edge but for many people, including Haraway, this is the reality of having a relationship with a dog. Could this also be the case in relationships with a cat, a horse, an indoor rabbit or any given domesticated mammal species? One would presume. But would the protean relationship also apply to crocodiles, frogs, jellyfish or sharks? Is there a distinction between types of species? To mention yet a third relationship-plausible category: cars, smartphones and other ‘objets des désire’.
But let us return to the basic question if we should be afraid of the future or more precise, the question whether we should be afraid of the increasing number and role of robots and their increasing ability of evaluating through self-learning.
Hawking has joined the Cambridge think tank for reasons of fear. He truly believes that if we keep on the pace of producing robots – robotics that have artificial intelligence and competence of learning that evolves in self-coding – these apparatus will ‘take over’ the world, sooner or later. As a contradiction, one may argue however that it is precisely the human species that produces these apparatus as we both have the necessary technology and the purpose for inventing things. Already in 1991, Haraway had foreseen the consequences of the merger of biological organisms and technology; the merger of cybernetics and organisms: Cyborg.
Obviously Hawking has joined the think tank to develop and deliver ideas on how to make proper use of what we have in terms of bio-merging technology. Suffering from ALS, a debilitating illness that affects the muscle system of a person, he may very well be a Cyborg himself. He strongly depends on technology to be mobile and to express himself. Not being able to produce sound anymore the natural way, Hawking uses a voice-computer to speak and he uses an electronic wheelchair to move around. Making good use of these technologies, Hawking surely understands and appreciates the virtues of technology. But the technology he uses is not very (artificially) intelligent; it does not code itself in order to evolve as it is meant only to do what it was created for in the first place: move a body and produce sound. Hawking himself believes to be in full control of his axillary technology; he is telling it what to do, when to do it and how to do it. Haraway on her turn, even back in the early nineties of last century, described – envisioned – a new species, not human nor machine, an ‘ooloi’ perhaps, to use Octavia Butler’s depiction of the ‘third gender’. Haraway has “come to see cyborgs as junior siblings in the much bigger, queer family of companion species, in which reproductive biotechnopolitics are generally a surprise” (Haraway, 2003).
Companionship of other species is not exactly Hawking’s idea of what happens when electronic technology becomes intelligent. Hawking’s ideas about technology are strictly limited to social constructive aids, most likely replaceable machines with not even the tiniest bit of affection to offer, let alone emotion, of any sort; the machines are objects to be disposed of when done with or broken. To Haraway thoughts like these are out of the question. To her, cyborgs are companion species like her beloved dogs: different but meaningful, having ‘obligatory, constitutive, protean relationships with human beings’. For Hawking, there is no relationship with technology other than that it has the purpose of serving human beings, not even as slaves as that would imply a rather negative protean relationship (slaves are human or cyborg).
Perhaps it is as Jean Baudrillard states in his ‘Clone Story’: “Human cutting ad infinitum, each individual cell of an organism capable of again becoming the matrix of an identical individual” (Baudrillard, 1994). But cloning has not been in the limelight since Dolly became a singlet in journals of agriculture. But then, according to Baudrillard, cloning does not retain anything; it is useless, according to him. There is no live and death in cloning: ‘none of this occurs in cloning. No more medium, no more image – any more than an industrial object is the mirror of the identical one that succeeds it in the series. One is never the ideal or mortal mirage of the other, they can only be added to each other, and if they can only be added, it means that they are not sexually engendered and know nothing of death” (Baudrillard, 1994). If this is the case, than there is no need to be afraid of the future as human species will not be cloned, thus eliminating the grand questions of live and death.
So, if at all we are afraid of the future then what is it? Baudrillard suggests we revisit Walter Benjamin’s ‘Art in the age of reproducibility’. If we are capable of reproducing life, Benjamin sees “an ineluctable destiny of reproduction, a political form” (Baudrillard, 1994). And this political form, intangible as it seems to me currently, may well guide the human species into an era of currently unforeseen change. The question rises whether it is politics that must be directive in these dynamics yet a political form of the dynamics, to my concern not the processes, appears to be a sensible thing to do; at the end it is about protocol, accordance over what we not know now what will be not far from now.
Thus remains the question whether we, the people who shape the future for our siblings through acting today, are truly capable of anticipating our future. Is there sufficient and adequate protocol to shape society in such way that all people live in harmony with each other and with their environment?
Thinking about how to construct the future remains operating on thin ice, as there are many paradoxes, many different opinions, believes, even radicalized dogmas evangelized by imposing preachers or forced upon by ‘divine warriors’. It has always been like this and there is a fair chance that it will always remain; nothing really changes.
Technology is truly an object to think with, an imaginary. For some it is utopia, a brave new world where people are served by forms of technology to be invented, perhaps depicted in a sheer endless stream of science fiction displays. To others it is dystopia, a worst nightmare scenario in which machines have reached such levels of intelligence that they overrule all people, invert the roles in hierarchy and slave them. It is just like H.A.L.9000’s intention in Kubrick’s[vi] 1968 classic epos ‘2001, a space odyssey’; had astronauts Bowman and Poole only known that Hal could read lips, the universe might have been a better place.
Let us return to the basic question one more time: Are we afraid of the future? One may answer with a firm yes or no and any answer in between will be a ‘maybe’ in some connotation of strength. It is obvious that there are technological developments on which people have lost grip and in which only a small group of developers and funders are involved. In fact, one may argue that getting ideas and conceptualizing them is nearly always limited to a small group. Let us call them the ‘initiators’. And let us, for the sake of argument polarize Hawking in relative dystopic mode and Haraway in a utopic mode. Apart from answering the question whether this segregation can be justified, we also must ask ourselves whether we do right by it.
Perhaps that such deliberate segregation causes fundamental disruption and, undoubtedly reduction to nothing else than oversimplified popular discourse. Perhaps it is not about what everybody thinks. One may ask if there is wisdom of the crowds. Perhaps Hawking and Haraway as two – most likely unwillingly forced into a role they would not accredit themselves – opponents in technological imaginary have more in common than against each other. In any case, I now believe that the question if we should be afraid of the future in by all means not relevant. What is relevant is the question how we imagine the future and what role Homo sapiens will act. Therefor I propose to question what the human role will be in the future. The answer will perhaps lie somewhere between a human and a humanoid. Perhaps.
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[ii] ‘Cyborgs and Space’ in Astronautics (September 1960), by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline.