The Nature of Humans and Machines: Individual and Societal Impacts

Sunday, February 14, 2016
Larry Medsker, The George Washington University, Washington, DC
Background: The recent launch of the BRAIN Initiative, ongoing interest and investment in “Big Science” and its “Grand Challenges”, and dedication of the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, are addressing Big Questions related to developments in AI and neuro-engineering. The development of human-computer interfaces to augment human capabilities, introduction of technological products that replace the need for some human activities, and creation of machines that exhibit increasingly complex cognitive capabilities (potentially with some form of sentience) are prompting questions about both what it means to be human and how intelligent machine systems should be regarded. In our poster, we report recent findings about the ways that discovery and innovation in this field may influence the human condition. Methods: We investigated key issues about the impact of relevant AI and neural technologies on humans by gathering data on (1) state of the art technologies and applications, (2) projections on likely advances and impacts in the 3-5 year horizon, and (3) projections of impacts in the 10-year horizon. Our two research vehicles were our AAAI Fall 2014 Symposium comprising multidisciplinary scholars and scientists addressing the impact of AI on society and our HuMac Universe blogsite that engages scholars on technical, social, philosophical, ethical, and theological aspects of current and near-future progress in AI. Results: our research yields data on the inherent possibilities and limitations of AI technologies; the potential for brain-mapping data for reverse-engineering neural networks; potential forms of consciousness; lists of moral, social, and legal status aspects that might be conferred upon machines; technology-aware perspectives on consciousness; social and political impacts; and philosophical, theological and legal definitions of humans, non-humans, and personhood in light of neuro- and AI-technologically-based developments. Conclusions: our project fosters discourse among AI researchers, other scientists, humanities scholars, and policy makers through (1) identification of “big questions” related to the growth of AI technology with particular focus upon the varied impacts of cognitively capable machines on individuals, communities, and society at-large; (2) AI areas most relevant to realistic forecasts about scientific and technical development; philosophical, ethical, and theological perspectives on human nature; the human being and “personhood”; and current definitions and concepts on trans-humanism. We posit that such discourse should not be confined to the academic sphere and that discussion of this sort is equally important for informing the public, media, and policy-makers, leading to an enlightened and empowered citizenry that will be prepared for and responsive to near-term and future issues related to the nature of humans and machines.