“We are probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens. In a century or two we’ll either destroy ourselves or, far more likely is that we’ll use technology to upgrade ourselves into something different”
Yuval Noah Harari
Humans are born worriers; and really it’s not surprising given that for most of history the majority suffered routine exploitation and lack of political power.
But for the historian and professor Yuval Noah Harari current human anxieties are less about these historical roots of anxiety and more about human irrelevance in a world dominated by Artificial Intelligence. We’re worried that we’re on the road to obsolescence.
Humanity has prided itself for millennia on our unique imagination and creativity. We tell stories, create beautiful objects, write poetry, and music; we have the ability to manifest the imaginary and yet the fear of becoming obsolete, or simply irrelevant has plagued us since the birth of the industrial revolution.
Now however we have a new fear. We’re in competition not only with the machines that do our manual labour but also those that can do our thinking for us.
Or, to be precise, machines that can think BETTER than us.
AlphaZero is a World Champion computer chess programme that learnt to play chess, not from humans, but by teaching itself. The lack of human input means it’s moves are unconventional – quite literally the work of a self taught creative genius.
Humans have been developing chess strategies for over a thousand years but AlphaZero learnt how to be an unbeatable, elegant and creative world class champion in just FOUR HOURS without any help from a human.
So I guess the best response to this is; if you can’t beat them join them and as Harari says “ use technology to upgrade ourselves into something different”
It’s pretty much a given that eventually we’ll upgrade ourself from organic to wholly or partially non-organic life forms. So we might as well surrender ourselves to this prospect and acknowledge that we’re living through an unpresidented moment in time. We’re on the cusp of a new age and for my generation, who grew up before computers were a thing – our lives quite literally span two epochs.
We are the digital immigrants and ‘the last of the innocents.’
We can remember what it was like to be human in a pre-digital world. I learnt to design in the art schools of the 1980’s before it was computer aided, and that’s where I developed my fascination with Stuff. Real stuff. The kind of stuff that you can hold in your hands, manipulate, fold, bend, pierce, stretch, construct, deconstruct, and make into things. Actual things.
Realia ruled, and it was slow, messy, laborious and completely absorbing. This was the world where I learned how materials perform. How colours change in different environments, how a fabric drapes when it’s cut on the bias and how to transform flat planes into 3 dimensional structures. I love the certainty of realia; it’s solid and existential. It shapes the environment and provides instruments for navigating a route through real life.
And I learnt how to tune into my emotional responses to these things; responses which aren’t logically linked to an objects’ function or appearance.
Things can trigger irrational thoughts, ideas, concepts, dreams and other emotional ephemera and I love that emotions can’t be reverse engineered or reduced to a string of zeros and ones.
This is the realm of Phenomenology, the one thing that Artificial Intelligence really struggles to understand.
Emotions are messy and irrational. They’re joyful and heart breaking. They can inspire and destroy us, shaping myths and changing the course of history. Wars, revolutions and religions have all been driven by passion, revenge, love and jealousy – usually triggered by an interaction with an equally passionate human.
There is, however, a fictional tradition where the protagonist falls in love with a hybrid non human object. In the Gothic horror story The Sandman Nathanial becomes fatally obsessed with a mechanical doll- Olympia, and the seductive uncanny un-human female has persisted into 21st century literature and reality.
Artificial Intelligence may be able to write an acceptable love song- but could it ever really inspire one?
If a computer programme wrote you a love poem would it move you to tears?
When you can play chess with a computer that lets you win occasionally, why choose to be thrashed by your bestie?
When your child brings home their first painting from school; an ink blot with some smudgy finger prints – why do you treasure it so much? And why does the lumpencraft made for a loved one feel like a more generous gift than an elegant department store option?
Over the next few decades as the digital immigrants hand the future over to the digital natives we might want to think about the role of realia and the hand made objects in our lives- not what it is– but what it represents.
And as Homo Sapiens upgrade into something different what are the things that we’ll keep and treasure from the generations on the verge of extinction?
It’s not about who we are, but what we represent – so what will be the legacy that The Last of the Innocents leave behind?
Footnote: If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy this additional reading.