Understanding our humanity in a world of artificial intelligence

By Jake Shepherd, Synthesis Founder & Director

Adapted from his talk: What AI Teaches Us About Being Human

There are few books that alter the way you see the world after you’ve read them. Homo Deus is one of these books and in it the author Yuval Harari examines humanity’s future. In it he offers a vision of tomorrow that at first seems incomprehensible, but soon looks undeniable: humanity as we know it will lose its dominance.

We are in the process of creating a totally new form of life. Artificial life. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the potential future it may bring are easy to get lost in. Instead of focusing on AI directly, we would do well to first understand ourselves better. In doing so we might find the answers that we need to plot a way forward into the future. A future where our dominance can no longer be taken for granted.

To be human is to act in and be acted upon by the world; both the inner world of emotional states as well as the environment we inhabit.

To be human is to be vulnerable. It means to take risks that can often have a catastrophic impact on our lives.

To be human is to discover what inspires and holds your interest and then to explore and grow. Unlike artificial intelligence, you pilot your own ship into the uncharted waters of life. It requires you to look to the horizon to sense where you want to go. It is to commit years of precious unrecoverable life to attain a portion of your available potential.

You are the unlikely product of countless lives that were not only lucky, but made enough good decisions so that you happen to be here today. To be human is to trust our intuition born of this collective legacy of your ancestors encoded into our genes stretching back to the dawn of life.

To be human is to nurture and inspire others to attain their potential. It means to pour time and energy into relationships that form the basis of families, friends, colleagues, companies and countries. It means you need to come to terms with the disappointment, sadness and frustration of failed relationships so that the few truly great relationships can raise you up higher than you could ever achieve alone.

To be human also means that we possess God-like powers to create a totally new form of intelligent life. We are living at the point in time (maybe the only time in our universe) where

organic life has forged inorganic life and created it in our image. In many respects this new child of ours has the potential to become far greater than we ever were.

Ultimately to be human is to make decisions when you don’t have all the facts. Decide who will accompany us on our journey into the uncharted waters of our collective future. Decide, despite knowing our decision making is driven by emotions rather than rational thinking.

Decide if we will trust our intuition when our intuition may not be up to this task. Decide if the reward is worth the risk because we risk so much.

To be human is to decide and then step up and take responsibility for everything that unfolds afterwards.

Caution

If to be human is to decide, then giving up the ability and the desire to decide for ourselves is to give up on our humanity.

Social media that creates bubbles of same thinking and that reinforces one unchallenged narrative diminishes us by not forcing us to rethink what we “know” to be true. Attempting to fight misinformation by pushing only “approved narratives” also dumbs down complex topics to unidimensional and simplistic caricatures that lose their depth and nuance. Reality is not simple and good decisions take into account this complexity.

There is a trend to rely on machines to make more and more decisions for us, because it is easier not to take responsibility to make these decisions ourselves.

It is imperative for us to become aware of those algorithms and trends that ultimately rob us of our humanity.

My wish is that everyone here today embraces our ability to make the hard decisions and to take ultimate responsibility for them. Shoulder the burden that is your inheritance.

Dream

Lastly, to be human is to dream.

In one of the most iconic speeches of all time Rev Martin Luther King Jr declared “I have a dream that people (paraphrase) will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This dream was shared less than 60 years ago and it resonated with people across the globe – they too shared his dream. Looking around the room today and seeing people in academia from all walks of life is a physical fulfilment of this dream. A dream that continues to direct, uplift and inspire.

I too have a dream. I dream that our children, both biological and silicon, are allowed to grow up and fulfill their potential. That we nurture them and strive to establish mature relationships, not of parent and child, but of equals.

I have a dream that we all embrace our humanity to the fullest. That we recognize the potential in our peers and our children and that we allow them to be all that they can. And in the end we establish a community of peers with none being the master of the other.

This is a dream worth sharing. Let us dream together to shape the world that we want to live in.