What Does it Mean to be Human?

What does it exactly mean to be human? Right now we have a clear cut and exact definition based on biological evidence. You take a tissue sample, you test the DNA and you can tell with a good degree of accuracy whether or not it came from a human being. This works well for now, but I’m thinking that we will need to revise and expand this definition in the near future. It is really hard to say where we will be as a species in few hundred years (especially if we hit singularity at some point in that period). But we can theorize about our future, based on the body of ideas dreamed up by Science Fiction writers.

In this post, I want to talk about interesting edge-cases where humanity cannot be defined by a simple DNA test – or when that test would be inconclusive. As our technology improves, the line between man and machine will become blurred and we will need to invent a new litmus test for humanity. Please consider the cases below and then try to answer the question “what does it mean to be human?” in the comments.

Some time ago we talked at length about digitizing human minds and the implications of doing it. This topic fascinates me, and that’s why I keep bringing it up time after time. So let’s for a minute assume that it will one day be possible to digitize human mind. Let’s also assume that you can one day decide to “shed” your physical body, scan your mind into a machine and upload yourself to a massive global virtual network gaining functional immortality.

Considering the fact that you now exist solely in silico and you no longer posses a biological body, you no longer pass our DNA test. Are you still human? You could argue this two ways. On one hand you could say that since you were born as a human you still are a human even though you no longer are flesh and bone. On the other hand one could argue that you transcended the human condition and you are too far removed from it to still understand or have any say in the affairs of people of the flesh.

It is really an interesting question – should virtual citizens have the same rights and privileges as regular humans? Should a thousand year old electronic ghost be able to hold a real world office and make decisions that impact real living people or should it be restrained from meddling in their affairs?

How about a reconstructed personality like Keats from the Hyperion novels. In the above example, the virtual personality is created by “copying” a mind of a biological original. Therefore you can clearly trace your electronic being to a biological brain it was created from – and prove the relationship with proper documentation. Keats was pure AI that was created without a biological original (one was simply not available) but it was made to act, feel and think like an existing person – namely John Keats. It’s behavioral patterns were derived from the poets writings, memoirs and historical accounts. He is an artificial construct, that is undeniable but when you read Hyperion novels Keats strikes you as very human. Is he really that different from someone who has been digitized? Both are disembodied minds. Both were created basing on a human template. It’s just that one was made by direct mapping and the other via advanced neural heuristics.

What if we reverse this process? I’m talking about a logical opposite of the consciousness upload process. Let’s say we take a self aware artificial intelligence that was born somewhere in the virtual data sphere and “download it” to a biological body? Let’s say the body is a vat grown but human at the genetic level. The AI is not just skinriding this body while it’s consciousness is residing in some data center. It’s mind is carefully mapped into biological media. Essentially, we use some nano-machinery to connect the neurons in the brain in such a way, to reflect the AI’s personality and memories. Once the transfer is complete, the AI’s consciousness is deleted from the system and from that point on it resides solely in the biological body it assumed, and it can die just like any other mortal.

This transition is nearly perfect and there is no biological or chemical way of testing whether you are dealing with someone who was born a human or a downloaded AI. You could probably tell the body was vat grown, but if we have this technology exists, then people probably use it all the time to swap bodies, or reverse the upload process.

Can such a being be considered a true human? If yes, does it mean humanity is defined by biology only? What does that say about the people who decided to migrate to a virtual world and left their biological bodies behind? Are they no longer human?

You see, it is not as clear cut anymore. It gets dicier with every step. I have one more scenario, but it involves a massive spoiler for Battle Angel Alita manga series so if you are planning to read it one day, be warned that I will give away a pretty big twist here. Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.

You see, the aforementioned manga, has an interesting twist that falls right into our discussion here. It depicts a post apocalyptic cyberpunk world populated mostly by cyborgs. Due to harsh living conditions, most people’s bodies have been replaced by machine parts to some degree. It is just cheaper and faster to get a low end cyber-body than to get proper medical care. The only people who retain 100% biological bodies are the pampered ruling caste that lives in a gigantic floating city in the sky. They are the beautiful, educated, cultured elite of that world.

The twist is that despite their outward appearance the inhabitants of the hanging city are also cyborgs – but in reverse. The caretaker singularity that governs their city has their brains secretly removed and replaces with bio powered microchips during a mandatory citizen induction ceremony. So they look, feel and consider themselves to be 100% pure, non-augmented humans, their brains are cold, hard silicon based hardware. What does it make them? Are they men or machines? What makes a man? Is it the flesh (they have it), is it the biological brain (they don’t have it) or something else. How is this condition different from a disembodied resident of a virtual world?

These are just some things to ponder with regards to human nature. Right now we think we have a pretty good grasp on the human condition. However, development of artificial intelligence, direct neural interfaces and virtual worlds will surely shake things up. We might as well start pondering these issues right now. This way we will be better prepared when the singularity turns our world upside down.

I know someone will bring up a human soul in the comments. Let’s try to avoid this line of reasoning, because a soul is by definition intangible. There is no way to measure, weigh or detect it. Furthermore, we do not know if an AI would have a soul or not. Or what would happen to ones soul after he is uploaded to a virtual world. We can surely discuss these things, but that will probably turn into a theological discourse since different religions and denominations are bound to define the soul differently. So let’s try to avoid that. Let’s tackle this subject from scientific point of view – after all we are talking about Science fiction here.

This entry was posted in futuristic musings. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What Does it Mean to be Human?

  1. kts UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Nice piece. There certainly is a powerful system driving cell design and reproduction, no reason to think that such a powerful system is also driving most human actions. Whether or not we are conscious of this larger system, is another question. It does not surprise me in the least that our technology is starting to look like biotechnology, which is moving closer to biology. Over time, the distinctions you talk about will become more and more arbitrary. Our current view of technology “separateness” is only a manifestation of how primitative our efforts are at this incredibly early stage of whatever we as a species, are building. Sure would be nice to know what it is that we appear to be so busy building, kind of like looking at the ants working so hard. :-)

    Reply  |  Quote
  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Yeah, the theory is that our next major evolutionary leap as a species will not be driven by Darwinistic natural selection bot by technology. Homo Sapiens will likely be replaced by something bigger and better at some stage of this process.

    Interesting question is whether or not we will ascend to this new state as a whole species, or will the new post-singularity breed branch off from Homo Sapiens and co-exist with it at least for the time being.

    Are we going to be replaced by super-intelligent machines we create or will we become these machines via digitization and electronic augmentation?

    Reply  |  Quote
  3. copperfish Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I’m going to take the Turing Test approach here – I don’t believe we have souls and I think “human” is as much a cultural construct as it is a biological one. We’ll change – evolution, cybernetics, culture – it will happen.

    The only way to judge what is human is if other humans consider it to be.

    That said, I think the drivers of change (again evolution, cybernetics, culture) will cause massive cultural and biological splits. What is now human will become many things. I don’t see a “whole species” future.

    Reply  |  Quote
  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Hey, I like the Turing test approach. Then again, the Turing test is fairly subjective and difficult to administer to real wold systems.

    I really do suspect that there will be edge cases where AI’s and long time virtual personas might have different responses from baseline humans. So a skilled tester could possibly pin down a machine – kinda like in Blade Runner.

    On the other hand, there could be cases where a cuttrnt level chat bots can often fool one into thinking they represent a real person. It all depends on context and the questions asked during the evaluation.

    Reply  |  Quote
  5. Matthew UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Interesting topic. You said: “I know someone will bring up a human soul in the comments.” So, let me be that person, as much as you want to avoid that topic, I think what you believe about a soul is central to what it means to be human.

    Those who believe human beings have an immaterial aspect, a non-material part that maintains identity and probably survives death will say that what it means to be human is to have a human body (i.e. human DNA) with a human soul. And if that’s the case, it’s hard to see how one would ever “transfer” the soul – just transferring physical neural connections wouldn’t be enough.

    On the other hand, those who believe that humans are 100% physical should have no problem with the idea that eventually the physical mind will be able to be copied. In that case, you’d probably need to define humanity on behavior, certain kinds of thoughts, or a Humanity Turing test, as mentioned before.

    Reply  |  Quote
  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Matthew: It is interesting to contemplate this. For example, how will religions of the world treat uploaded people? Could you for example be an virtual personality and a member of a church?

    It would be interesting to see what would Vatican say about this. Would they admit that virtual upload is actually the essence of the soul, (or possess thereof) or would believe that you actually die at the moment of upload and the digitized copy is some sort of artificially generated echo, and an abomination.

    It would also be interesting to see what would they do about devoutly religious AI’s.

    Reply  |  Quote

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *