- - Thursday, March 19, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Barack Obama promised that his presidency would be a time of “hope and change,” and he made good on half of it. Hope is still missing, but there’s plenty of change. Mr. Obama might say that Americans are still clinging to the God and guns of the past and do not appreciate the whirlwind we’re reaping. The unfolding trends are stretching the boundaries of human identity in ways Mr. Obama and his “progressives” (as liberals want to be called now) could not have imagined. Yogi Berra warned us that “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

Humans have always been comforted by the notion that even with the cosmos in disarray we’re the kings of the hill. But thinking big thoughts is not enough to satisfy some of us. Big thinkers are gravitating toward “transhumanism,” defined as “an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” That’s according to the Journal of Evolution and Technology.

Martine Rothblatt, the founder of Sirius Satellite Radio who describes herself as a transhumanist philosopher, expounded on the future of the humans at SXSW Interactive, a technology and innovation talkfest this week in Texas. She says humans had better get ready to share that top spot on the hill with cyber beings: “Every company will try to out-Siri Siri until we have consciousness,” she says of the Apple iPhone’s navigator app. “It will be like water that rises and rises and rises and, before we know it, we’re in an ocean of cyber consciousness.”

The question before the house is whether humans can keep heads above water. Some deep thinkers are betting that apps can outperform their designers. Elon Musk, the CEO of the company that makes the Tesla electric car, suggests that eventually self-driving cars will be so safe and convenient that cars driven by mere man will be illegal. Some time after that, smart machines will even have feelings. “I, Robot,” the 2004 sci-fi film, raises uncomfortable questions about what it means to be human when “Sonny,” a cutting-edge robot, jumps the gap between machine and man and expresses emotions. Ray Kurweil, the futurist writer, places “singularity” — the moment when artificial intelligence surpasses the human capacity to control it — around 2045.

When this happens, the meaning of personhood will require an overhaul. For example, would saying a sentient robot has “artificial” intelligence hurt its feelings and constitute hate speech? Could such a smart gizmo be entitled to vote? To make a machine-to-machine marriage? Would unplugging a self-aware machine be akin to murder? Would a robot be eligible for rights under the U.S. Constitution?

Such possibilities prompt jealousy and paranoia over sharing the top of the heap with machines, or worse, losing to them. Outside the SXSW Interactive session this week in Texas, two-dozen protesters chanted anti-technology slogans and waved signs, “Stop the robots” and “Humans are the future.”

Lawyers, always on the make for clients, are already stretching the meaning of “person” to include animals and artificial intelligence, and in theory even extraterrestrial life forms. A court in Argentina has granted basic human rights to an orangutan named Sandra, which (who?) had lived for 20 years in a Buenos Aires zoo. Her lawyers argued successfully that Sandra should be considered a “nonhuman person.” A judge agreed, and ordered the female ape freed and transferred to a sanctuary in Brazil.

Mere humans have to step on it (or hitch a ride in a really smart car) if we’re to stay relevant on the planet of the apps. Yogi got it right.


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