Friday, May 13, 2016

When Technology Can Take Over Who We Are

            One of the major themes of this column has been how the boundaries between people and machines are disappearing.  People are becoming more and more like machines, and machines are beginning to resemble people more and more.  One of the major aspects of technological change which is contributing to this is the Internet of Things.  The Internet of Things is the increasingly calibrated interaction of machines with machines, machines with people and machines with objects as a result of sensors.  Sensors pick up on data and determine the best course of action in conjunction with programmed goals. The sensors can turn machines on and off and can guide the response of machines as when an automated self-driving car receives signals of traffic jams involving other cars ahead and takes an alternate route.  Sensors can be put into objects to send signals to the Internet that the objects are deteriorating in some way.  An example of this is when sensors are put in bridges to warn of possible damage and even collapse.  Sensors even guide the response of pacemakers in hearts.  All of this is done to make life frictionless and safe, to prevent surprises, many of which can hurt people.  So people get to live life in frictionless safe comfort.  The sensors act like mini-nervous systems which bring the world of devices, objects, things in general into the equivalent of an enslaved machine life.  Except the devices, objects, things aren’t really living beings.

            Humans are recipients of the benefits of all this machine connectivity through sensors.  It is like there is a digital spider web of relationships among a growing percentage of phenomena in the external world and a growing percentage of phenomena in the screen world.  And apparently this digital spider web is there to serve humans and to serve only humans.

            There are now many new different embeddable implants that directly connect humans to this spider web.  In an article on from April 9, 2014 by Keiron Monks, “Forget wearable tech, embeddable implants are already here”, there is a discussion of some of the implants that are available or will soon be available.  An internal compass, a mini-computer to transmit heat as well as sound, implants to maximize sexual pleasure, implanted RFID tags that would give off information just like clothing tags, electronic tattoos that can gather information about vital signs including those applied to the head to measure brain-waves, brain implants including silicon chips for people as diverse as Alzheimer patients and soldiers (although brain implants if rejected can kill a patient). 

            Up until now these embedded implants have been used to enhance function and sensation and to gather information.  But it is really just a short step to creating implants that actively guide people, even control people.

            Let us suppose that at some point in the future, as people start to live longer and longer,  health care costs are no longer sustainable because of the increased susceptibility of people to illness as they grow older, and neither private citizens nor the government have the funds to pay for the growing amount of care required.  Someone comes up with the idea of planting chips in people’s brains that would guide them to make healthy life choices, in diet, exercise, and rest.  The embedded chip would tell the patient what to eat and what not to eat, what kinds of exercise to do and for how long, and how much sleep to get at night.  People would no longer feel an urge to eat sweets, fatty foods, and salty foods.  They would no longer feel a desire to live such a totally sedentary life style. So people could live healthy lives not only for their own good but for the greater good of society.  And then in order to prevent overcrowding on this planet, the health chip could be turned off after a certain age, and then a person could rapidly deteriorate and then be quietly put to sleep…..permanently.  And then for the greater good of society, people could start being controlled in other areas of their lives to avoid unnecessary social friction.  They could become like androids or robots.

            Once the boundary between human and machine is sufficiently torn down, through embedded implants and prostheses, then our conception of what it means to be a human is bound to change as well.  Embedded implants do represent a much closer relationship between humans and machines than do wearable computers.

            The modern technology that is supposed to represent a kind of sophisticated array of tools that humans can control for what they perceive as their benefits can nevertheless be turned into an array of tools for controlling and shaping humans.  And, in effect, humans can end up becoming the tools of their supposed tools.  Perhaps it sounds far-fetched, but who is going to stop it when technological changes are occurring so incrementally that people are not able to fully realize the significance of these changes, until the changes have been around for a while and established themselves.  And by then, it might be too late to undo them.  The Internet of Things as an established force could end up creating a system that is practically indestructible and that moves along evolving and shaping itself with little or no human participation.  And to the extent that humans increasingly come under the influence of embedded implants, their will could be so influenced and ultimately suppressed, that they would put up no resistance to the growing power of this evolving modern technology.  Eventually, it will no longer be the Internet of Things (IoT).  It will have evolved into the Internet of Humans (IoH).  The boundary between machines and humans will have been torn down, and humans will become one with the technology that has evolved all the way from the flint tools of prehistoric humans.  And this is why we have to start becoming more careful now about our uses of modern technology and start having discussions about how we can draw the line between humans and machines. If we allow the Internet of Things to penetrate and control are innermost human essence, we will lose both our self-definition and our self-coherence.  And at that point we will have lost those aspects of our human nature that make it worthwhile for us to be human beings.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

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