Posted on August 6, 2019 at 8:43 AM
Written by Stephen Rainey
Human beings are sometimes seen as uniquely capable of enacting life plans and controlling our environment. Take technology, for instance; with it we make the world around us yield to our desires in various ways. Communication technologies, and global transport, for example, have the effect of practically shrinking a vast world, making hitherto impossible coordination possible among a global population. This contributes to a view of human-as-maker, or ‘homo faber‘. But taking such a view can risk minimising human interests that ought not to be ignored.
Homo faber is a future-oriented, adaptable, rational animal, whose efforts are aligned with her interests when she creates technology that enables a stable counteraction of natural circumstance. Whereas animals are typically seen to have well adapted responses to their environment, honed through generations of adaptation, human beings appear to have instead a general and adaptable skill that can emancipate them from material, external circumstances. We are bad at running away from danger, for instance, but good at building barriers to obviate the need to run. The protections this general, adaptable skill offer are inherently future-facing: humans seem to seek not to react to, but to control the environment.
There is a sense of utopianism built in to this worldview. Control of the environment, rather than reaction to it, along with a strong duality between human and nature implies that it is in homo faber‘s interests to produce an enduring conditioning of nature such that future shocks can be minimised or eliminated. When this perspective turns to the human body itself, this complicates matters because the world of facts to be instrumentalised according to will includes the physical body that produces the instrumentalising will.
In brain-tech endeavours appearing recently, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, there can be seen this kind of homo faber utopianism. Musk tells us he wants to merge the human brain with AI, but for no particular aim. The idea appears to be that AI will simply improve the human brain, presumably to aid humans in overcoming intrinsic weaknesses and external obstacles. Here, the utopian endstate appears to be an ideal brain.
With a technological boost, on this account, human brains seem to be able to deliver some kind of liberation. In concentrating on the brain and connecting it to technology, Neuralink taps into long-standing sci-fi narratives. It might also resonate with religious, or spiritual, notions of interconnectedness among people. There are audiences ready to hear the message Neuralink delivers: that the brain is the seat of something specially human, vastly flexible, and hitherto underexploited. Are enthusiasts for the endeavour looking forward to reasonable things, for good reasons?
In science as it is conventionally understood, approaches to problems (not to mention problems themselves) crystallise out of a broad context of scientific endeavour. In neurotechnological development, for example, concentration upon types of probes arises for reasons including data acquisition, invasiveness, biocompatibility, and spatio-temporal resolution. There is a vast array of academic knowledge and experience to draw upon, which helps direct the path of research.
When a private scientific research organisation announces it will use a ‘sewing machine’ device to implant thousands of ‘flexible probes’ in the brain it isn’t clear where this fits in that unfolding path. What is the sewing machine, what are the probes, from what flexible material are they made, and what context does all of this arise from? Are the thousands of probes part of one device, or sets of smaller devices? How are the electronic properties of the device(s) or their implantability to be understood? Such questions would be essential in a conventional scientific research context. Outside that context, they are likely matters of intellectual property. Things may appear murky.
This represents a very practical set of concerns. More symbolically too, there are potential knock-ons in being unconstrained by conventional context.
Privileging the brain in somehow trying to explain human beings in a fundamental way risks reducing human beings to one dimensional things. As important in understanding human experience is the body, common interests, and how human beings get along (or fail to). This amounts to a political dimension left out of a perhaps over-egged thesis of humanity as brainhood.
What if the utopian endstate of an ideal brain, Neuralinked and AI-enabled, is not a good target? Can we really assume AI is a general purpose technology that simply upgrades thought-full matter by dint of convergence? Moreover, facts about the brain don’t straightforwardly deliver facts about minds. Presumably it’s minds that are the ultimate target of upgrade from Musk’s point of view. It’s the mind after all that correlates with the will, reason, and desire. If upgrading the brain doesn’t upgrade the mind, what’s the point?
Of course, minds don’t run on neuronal activity alone. The stuff we think about, process, mull, and ponder includes a variety of contents. Experience – a very general term – includes interpersonal relations, cultural inheritance, political weightiness, and much more besides. This sort of material goes toward determining the significance of experience for us. This can’t be accounted for well in a worldview emphasising facts as instruments, and the overcoming of nature.
It won’t matter how AI-enabled my brain is, in terms of realising plans, if I am politically subjugated and can make no meaningful plans. It won’t matter how AI-upgradeable my brain is if I am precluded from enjoying the joyful tech-utopia through socio-economic privation. More generally, maybe no-one ought to be upgrading their brain with AI as long as the investment leading to such technology could be otherwise deployed to provide for the basic needs of those with nothing. Does anyone need AI-baubles, the way many are in mortal need of bread and water?
These are political preconditions that suggest the homo faber worldview is contingent upon a richer account of human being than it can offer by itself. The stability and free time it presupposes as part of human nature is actually the practical result of political decision. And for many, owing to inequalities of various types, it does not exist at all. The liberty required to account for human-as-maker ought to be seen as this political contingency. Any idealistic techno-utopianism like that of homo faberought to be tempered by the realisation that the vision of ‘human’ it offers is an interpretation, and every such interpretation is a political act.