In the classic 1980s dystopian sci-fi movie RoboCop, mortally wounded Detroit police officer Alex Murphy is reborn as a cyborg when his brain is implanted in a fully mechanical body. He comes back better and stronger than ever, so good at his job that later in the film, his fellow human officers go on strike to protest robots taking their jobs.
RoboCop presents that classic image of a cyborg as a machine-augmented human. Being part man and part machine, Murphy melds the street smarts and instincts of a human officer with the strength, stamina, and durability of a machine to become a more effective cop.
We’re not particularly close to having the technology that would make that kind of robot-human hybrid possible, but what if I told you we’re already cyborgs? It’s true. Humans have been using technology to augment our biology for millennia, and AI is going to accelerate this trend. It’s also going to make us more human.
Humans have been relying on technology to squeeze better performance out of our meat suits for as long as we’ve been around. What, other than technological augmentation, are eyeglasses? Hearing aids? Wheel chairs? Steroids to increase strength or caffeine to improve focus? Even less obvious technologies like industrial agriculture and modern medicine have a certain “cyborgness” to them. (A person riding a tractor can do the work of a dozen farmhands—sounds pretty cyborg to me.)
We’re not all sporting super-strength granting exoskeletons or downloading new skills into our brains just yet, but we fully assimilated to the cyborg age years ago. We actively construct ourselves using technology. It is, perhaps, the key feature of being human.
Some experts think we’re on the verge of something altogether new. Whereas in the past, human enhancement has fixed deficiencies or provided only modest improvements, there are hints that we’re about to turn a corner that kicks human augmentation into overdrive. Rapid advancements in areas like gene editing, bioengineering, and machine learning mean we may be able to start improving ourselves in ways that have until now only existed in science fiction.
One of the most controversial technologies in our cyborg toolkit is artificial intelligence, which has the potential to vastly improve the human experience or make us irrelevant (depending on whose vision of the future you want to believe).
The debate between artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligence augmentation (IA) has been raging for decades. Will computer systems replace humans with a faster, smarter form of intelligence (AI) or will they augment our existing human intelligence and work alongside us (IA)?
The current trajectory of AI suggests that while some jobs will undoubtedly be taken by machines, the advances we’re making in AI will, by and large, augment us, not replace us. We aren’t about to become obsolete. On the contrary, AI is making us even more complete cyborgs. In effect, the AI we see coming online today is actually IA.
One place we’re beginning to feel this acutely is at work, where intelligent assistants (like x.ai’s Amy and Andrew) can now take over mundane work tasks. By handing things like scheduling meetings, booking travel, finding trends in large data sets, and reviewing legal documents over to autonomous agents, we’re freeing up massive amounts of time for humans to focus on the things we’re best at. As AI-augmented cyborgs at work, we’ll be more creative, build stronger relationships, and become better leaders, because we won’t be wasting our time and attention on tracking down emailed receipts to file expense reports or playing email ping pong to reschedule a meeting.
AI will also allow us to make better decisions. Medical AI assistants will help doctors make split-second life or death choices by parsing massive amounts of data in near real-time. AI agriculture agents will help farmers make more accurate decisions about planting times, irrigation, and pest control by comparing real-time crop information against historical data and real-time weather reports. AI assistants in the enterprise will guide marketers to deploy ad dollars more effectively by running thousands of targeting tests and analyzing the results at lightning speed. These are a just a few examples of how AI-augmentation will help us become super humans, capable of performing our jobs at a higher level than we could without our machine helpers.
And we’re ready to become work cyborgs. A recent survey by Adobe found that 72% of US workers want to use AI at work. They think AI will have a liberating effect by removing monotonous tasks (like scheduling or remembering appointments) and improve their decision-making and creativity.
The shape of our tools
“We are not in competition with our creations. They are the stuff we are made of,” wrote author Tom Chatfield in a 2016 editorial in The Guardian. Our culture and our very sense of self is constructed by the things we make, whether that’s art or autonomous AI agents. This gets back to the idea that humans have been augmenting ourselves with technology since the dawn of civilization. We are our tools.
But if we’re a product of our creations, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they are just that: our creations. It’s important to remember that machines learn from us. We tell them what’s important and they feast on data that we feed them—data often created by human activity. Negative biases and harmful ideas that exist in that data might be transmitted to the AI unless we proactively shape our tools to reflect the qualities we want to see.
AI offers an opportunity for us to program a better form of humanity. One that is both more productive and also develops better behavior. By making sure at this embryonic stage that we don’t transmit things like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. into our AI assistants and instead design for qualities we want to perpetuate—kindness, fairness, humor, equity—we can reinforce our own humanity at the same time.
As Marshall McLuhan said (by way of Winston Churchill), “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.” We have the ability, and perhaps the responsibility, to design our tools thoughtfully with the knowledge that they’ll be shaping our humanity thereafter.
They learn from us before we learn from them. So let’s teach them well.
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