The Irreducibility of Man
The following was written in response to Bill Joy's 2005 essay Why the future doesn't need us. Our most powerful 21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech - are threatening to make humans an endangered species..
For me, the counter to arguments supporting the possibility of a mechanistic replacement of humans relies on a belief in the ineffable. Part of the essence of what makes us human exists at a higher level than physical survival, striving for power, or conflict: the realm of religion and art. But one can not bring that into such a discussion with people who do not believe in any form of reality higher than human thinking, engineering and empiricism.
I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of technology and advances in the development of tools - which is all technology is - but technology is only one realm in which humans affect their world and their own experience in the world.
We can and probably will develop machines and technologies that have the capability to operate outside of our control, and are thus dangerous. But can oppression by robot overlords be any worse than what humans have visited upon each other? Is enslavement or elimination by machine somehow worse than torture or genocide? By definition, technology involves humans constantly designing more sophisticated tools that endanger our existence - individually, corporately, and as a species - from hand-held chips of obsidian to AK-47s to nuclear bombs to sentient, killer nanobots.
The difference between no humans having control over a technological destructive force, and only a small number of humans having control over advanced technological weaponry is really not that significant, and we are aware of the implications of the latter situation already. Agency of technological destruction is important in terms of the individual creators and decision-makers involved and their relationships to ethics and morality, but on a more global scale the source of the destructive force is less important than what its effects are and what our responses to it should be.
Even if one of the unintended consequences of technological advancement is the enslavement or endangerment of humanity, the core essence of what makes us human will remain intact as long as there are humans to experience and express it. History has shown this to be true, as evidenced by works like Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, composed in a German prison camp in 1941, inspired by the Book of Revelation. The spirit of our desire to seek the Divine, and our desire to create, or to describe beauty outside of ourselves--none of which has any direct bearing on our ability to stay alive--is not an insignificant element of the human experience. It is also not something that can be artificially produced. There are people who would dispute this, saying that it's possible to simulate the creative process through programming what our concepts of beauty are. This would be mere shadow of the artistic process, and would ultimately fall short of what is possible to actual humans, because any such programming would only be able to use our current understanding, and the result would be no more than a tragic dehumanization of creative expression. Ironically, artistic concepts like John Cage's aleatory works based on the I-Ching conceptually remove human will from artistic expression, but the generation of the marvelous idea is still from the mind of a human, something completely outside of anything a machine could ever do.
I also believe that a core, irreplaceable element of the human experience lies within our religious belief systems and practices of them. It's not difficult to imagine mandates and persecutions aimed at the elimination of all religious practice on a global scale, but it is not possible to completely destroy the desire of humanity to connect with forces larger than we are, and to find ways of praise and practice. A world devoid of accepted religious practice is horrifying to contemplate, since so much beauty and joy and sublime humility exists in these realms of experience. The desire for religious experience, and that experience itself, is an unkillable thing in and outside of us as humans, and as such takes on many different forms, some of which are disparate and in conflict with each other. The most obvious example of the indestructibility of faith is Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet, but that situation is not unique. For that matter, there have been individual religious martyrs who retained commitment to their faith despite torture and impending death throughout much of recorded history. A mechanistic, machine-driven world in which religion was banned would not be without religion, although it would most certainly mutate and evolve quite dramatically, in response to underground, illicit conditions as it has in innumerable situations under hostile regimes like the former Soviet Union. But again, this is not a topic that can be discussed rationally with secular humanists or scientifically-inclined dystopian doomsayers.
I am well aware of all of the suffering and oppression that people have experienced as a result of other people's motivations under the banners of various religions. I do not in any way condone such actions. But it is too simplistic--even illogical--to toss all belief systems into one big generalized source of human injustice. That people use the banner of religion to oppress and hate other people is something I can not reconcile, and I think it is always sadly misguided. But humans are weak, selfish and fearful. Religion can either bolster those qualities or help ameliorate them. Of course, injustice and horror have been unloosed upon the world in the name of scientific progress as well. If people will do evil, they will find a justification.
Basically, I'm not afraid of the future. As I stated in a much briefer comment elsewhere, I would hope for a greater level of ethical literacy to guide our developments and our technological advancements (and, of course, all choices made by any humans). The fields of technology need to formulate branches of inquiry analogous to bio-ethics. That we have minds creative enough to envision our own destruction by processes that we ourselves set into motion says a great deal about the essence of what we are and our ability to navigate the future, even if it is one that those of us in the present might brand dystopian. But this is nothing new.