Environment & Sciences / Society

Will technology save or end humanity?

A discussion on the hazards of technological progress

by Marion Bouvier

Ava, the artificial intelligence is given human shape in Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

Ava, the artificial intelligence is given human shape in Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

Pilot-free drones fly throughout the Middle-East and kill specific targets as well as civilians (a.k.a collateral damage); your computer, mobile phone and tablet know everything about you and can be used to transmit all of your life’s data to third parties; 20 to 30 week-old premature babies are born and grow to be adults thanks to sustained medical assistance, when without technology almost none of them would survive; vacuum cleaners can clean your flat’s floor without you having to do anything. This is our world, and we’ve become so used to technology in our lives that we don’t even think about its presence anymore.

Technological progress has changed a lot of things for the better. From therapeutic innovations that can cure most deadly diseases to washing machines, from planes that have largely contributed to making the world more globalized than ever before to water-cleaning stations, there are tons of examples that show how technological innovations can have positive effects. But what we forget to ask is: how much of this progress is really a necessity, and how much of it is an unending urge to make human lives easier, longer, and more productive? Are we soon going to become the machines we’ve dreamt of creating, designed to produce more, consume more, and in turn produce even more?

Will the technological rush drive the human race to extinction?

Through our human quest for technological progress, we have also massively destroyed the planet our species arose from, and greatly contributed to bringing other species to extinction. Is that a progress? Have we not also destroyed part of our souls when we started trying to extend our physical possibilities further and further?

And indeed, our human condition does not seem very promising at the moment, with escalating environmental issues and the slow pace of human adaptation to changes. Our use of technologies fuels an ever growing need for energy; extracting fossil energy, producing and using energy have had dramatic consequences on our environment.

According to recent scientific estimations (including the IPCC’s 2013 report), the sea level will rise from 0.3 meter up to 2m by 2100 (estimations vary because of the difficulty to predict how much the polar caps will melt). That means that cities like Miami, New York, Guangzhou, and Osaka could be massively flooded before the end of the century.Entire countries like Bangladesh, the Netherlands or Vietnam are also exposed to seeing a large part of their territories sink under water, which could mean ten thousands of people forced to move to safe land. That would result in large numbers of environmental refugees seeking new homes, and lead in turn to intense pressure on the resources available in already crowded urban areas.

Trends_in_sea_level

This is just one example of the colossal changes that technological progress has entailed. And in fact, we can trace back the intimate relationship between technologies and socio-environmental changes to the sedentariness of early humans during the Neolithic period.

Indeed, since the beginnings of agriculture, the face of the world started to change dramatically, as humans began altering the environment to suit their needs. Yet, the greatest danger could be said to have arisen recently, when people started to mine non-renewable resources at an unprecedented pace and scale. As Ornstein and Ehrlich[1] (respectively a psychologist and a biologist) remind us, for most of Humanity’s history, humans were living on their “income”, which is the solar energy retained in plants that humans were consuming directly or indirectly by eating various wild animals, as well as making use of their fur, bones etc. People were exploiting only those natural resources that were available on the earth’s surface.

But in modern days humans are largely relying on their “capital”, which are the resources that took billions of years to accumulate under the surface of the earth. While humans faced no problems when making use of the “income”, making use of the “capital” should be approached with careful planning, as it could be used up quickly. Eventually, humans could be left without any alternative means to sustaining their new lifestyles. Ornstein and Ehrlich, while recognizing the success of humans in modifying the world around them, are warning against such outcomes: “Unfortunately, it is not yet clear how enduring our unprecedented triumph will be, because it has created an unprecedented paradox: our triumphs can destroy us. As people strive to increase their dominance even further, they are now changing the earth into a planet that is inhospitable to civilization.”[2]

Ornstein and Ehrlich argue that the failure to recognize the new pace of change and, therefore, the inability to adapt to it, can wreak havoc on humanity, like it did in the past with the civilization of Mesopotamia. At its apogee (around 2350 BC), the “cradle of civilizations” stretched from what is now Syria to the Gulf of Persia; but by 2200 BC the many wars it was continuously waging to obtain more resources were taking their toll on the Akkadian Empire. Another factor seems to have precipitated the downfall of the technologically advanced civilization: its increasing use of irrigation, which led to fields’ erosion and eventually to a brutal decline of the agricultural productivity.

The impact of technology on our lifestyles

Beyond the obvious connection between technological progress and environmental destruction, our exponential use of technology begs the question of what being human means for the modern world, and what it will mean in future centuries.

Scientists have already highlighted the many vicissitudes that go hand in hand with the advent of technology-dominated societies. For instance, Robert Wright in his article “The Evolution of Despair” argues that people in developed countries are becoming more and more isolated. This isolation leads to various mental health problems, such as depression and clinical anxiety to name only a few. These kinds of problems are inherent to modern societies, as people do no longer communicate directly with as many people as they used to when living in communities and lineages. Yes you may have 500 friends on Facebook, but how many of those do you cook with, how many of those will lend a shoulder to cry on, and how many of those know more than the façade of perfection that you are trying to maintain on social media?

To further highlight the link between modern life and mental diseases, Wright puts forward the example of the Kaluli people of New Guinea, amongst whose population scholars could not spot the slightest sign of depressive tendencies. Scientists believe that this is largely because Kaluli still live far from modern technologies, in a large community where everyone regularly interacts with each other. While Kaluli are not given the choice of whether to spend time interacting with people around them or to spend time watching television or being on a computer, in modern societies, people may favor the latter over the former.

Wright also talks about the fact that American people spend a lot of time in front of their TVs, but this problem is not specific only to the US. A good example would be the author’s own former neighbors in Hong Kong. This couple of retirees had the TV on at all times of the day, from early morning until the time they went off to bed. I bet that everyone knows a friend who spends more time watching TV or videos on their computers than actually talking to people.

The fact that technology tends to alienate people is nothing short of paradoxical, since technological items such as mobile phones or the Internet were in great part designed to bring people closer to one another, despite the geographical distances that may separate them. In fact, what technology often does is create distance between people who live close to each other geographically, to the extent that even the relationships between members of the same household may be affected.

The isolation, loneliness and loss of meaning that accompany modern life also transpire in suicide rates. Although suicidal occurrences cannot be quantified in the Neolithic period, what can help measuring the evolution in suicide numbers is the study of nomadic tribes who have become sedentary in recent decades. Such studies have indicated that the transition to a ‘modern’ lifestyle dominated by money and technologies is correlated to a higher rate in suicides. D.H. Rubinstein[3] also describes an epidemic of suicide in Micronesian teenagers as local communities moved from relying on small fishing and agriculture groups to a cash economy.

The over-crowded and apocalyptic Earth in Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013). Image ©Sony Pictures

The over-crowded and apocalyptic Earth in Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013). Image ©Sony Pictures

The rise of the machine

On top of the current challenges that our modern existences entail, the future of humanity may very well be dominated by androids and other scientifically engineered beings.

Francis Fukuyama, the infamous author of the controversial The End of History and the Last Man, discussed the outcome that biotechnologies could bring about in his book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Evolution[4]. According to all probabilities, in the near future people are going to be able to alter their physical and mental well-being, and parents-to-be are going to be able to decide on the genes inherited by their future children. Fukuyama is warning against the problems that technology may give rise to, such as the unpredictable side effects that modifications in human physiology may engender. Fukuyama therefore argues that in future centuries “our human condition” would become “our posthuman condition”, as we are going to cease to conform to the definition of “human beings.” And if humans do not think twice about the changes that our use of technology involves, the world of post-humans may turn out to be a perilous place to be in.

Pop culture has largely taken up the trope of a technology-driven world. In the recent commercial success Her (Spike Jonze, 2014), Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an O.S. and starts a relationship with the man-created software. This year’s Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) envisions a world in which AI becomes reality, and reflects on the consequences of blurring the line between man and machine. The theme of artificial intelligence had already been the topic of the 2001 movie hit, A.I. (directed by Steven Spielberg), which highlighted that our search for the perfect machine –or the perfect human?- has much more complex social and emotional consequences that one could expect.

In the 2003 remake of Battlestar Galactica, former machine slaves wage a war against their human owners, while in The Matrix trilogy (Andy and Lana Wachowski, 1999 and 2003) humans are programmed to feed a race of machines with their life energy.

These representations of a dystopian future when the machine has supplanted humanity may not be so unrealistic, considering that our thirst for eternal life and external perfection has already driven a surge in plastic surgery, and that research on cloning and eugenics is already at an advanced stage.

Technology is what we make of it. It is not inherently bad, and as mentioned before it has in fact fueled positive progress in many ways throughout the history of humanity. But what is mainly dangerous in humanity’s relationship with technology is the lack of awareness of its potential to irreversibly modify our lives. We need more public discussions about how technology affects our lives, what the future can hold when it comes to technological advances, and about our frenetic urge to use technologies. We need to take technological innovations for what they are, i.e. as means to achieve desirable ends, rather than as the end itself.

Notes:

[1] Ornstein, R.V., Ehrlich, Paul R., New World, New Mind: Moving Towards Conscious Evolution, ISHK, 1989

[2] Ibid, pp. 44-45

[3] Rubinstein, D.H., « Epidemic suicide among Micronesian adolescents », in Social Science & Medicine, vol. 17(10), pp. 657-665

[4] Fukuyama, Francis, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Evolution, Picador, 2003

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3 thoughts on “Will technology save or end humanity?

  1. I think it is pretty silly to blame technology for something that we humans quite clearly are to blame. I’m all for gun control, but in this case I’m with the argument that it isn’t the technology that kills, but the human using it.

    Of course, as a software developer, I’m well aware that today’s technology is so complex and built of so many parts, that there rarely will be only one that is “guilty” of when something bad happens, neither end-user nor developer.

    Quite possibly our biggest fault since the industrialization is that we tend to build first, then fix later if it turned out that this had some bad side effects (poisoning ground water, heating the planet, etc). Today there are fairly strong drives towards responsible thinking from beginning to start, but there is a long way to go.

    Without excusing actions of the past, I think it is important to note that even as new factories produced huge amounts of waste, they still improved the lives of millions relatively speaking. Today we have reached plateaus on several axis’, letting us easier see where we are no longer improving the world (or at least not using the methods of the previous century).

    Another aspect that I think has been a leading factor is that back then (and for many still), it is hard to see how actions you make can have an affect globally, because we evolved in a world were our actions had a purely local effect. Combine this with our linear understanding of the world as it is increasingly becoming exponential, and it is easy to see where we can go wrong.

    This does of course not mean that we are doomed or anything, just that one could get that impression by reading a bit too selectively (for example the linked texts above). Living life as if there is no hope is a poor way if one want to turn anything around.

    If we can make technology with an understanding of the global reach and the exponential effects in the background, then we can also do good that 1) doesn’t f**k up more thant it achieves 2) have a noticable positive effect, also on what has previously been bad.

    Rather than focussing on all that has gone bad (except as part of a RRCA (Relentless Root Cause Analysis) as part of making things better), I prefer taking the opportunistic view that I can, with technology, have a more profound positive effect on the world than you could even only 6 months ago. And no, yet another messenger app isn’t it.

    Whether you think I’m too positive or not, I certainly would want you to read “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler and the “Whole Earth Discipline” by Steward Brand , because I found the above article a rather unbalanced view on the topic.

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    • Dear Lars,

      Thank you for your comment.

      In fact, I am precisely saying that “Technology is what we make of it. It is not inherently bad, and as mentioned before it has in fact fueled positive progress in many ways throughout the history of humanity. But what is mainly dangerous in humanity’s relationship with technology is the lack of awareness of its potential to irreversibly modify our lives.”
      I am not sure where you understood that I could think that “it’s the gun that kills”.

      I agree with you that technology has a lot of positive things to bring, and just like you I have high hopes for the future of humanity.

      I agree with this too: “Rather than focussing on all that has gone bad (except as part of a RRCA (Relentless Root Cause Analysis) as part of making things better), I prefer taking the opportunistic view that I can, with technology, have a more profound positive effect on the world than you could even only 6 months ago.” However I also don’t think that just focusing on the positive aspect is the most responsible of attitudes. If we want to get better and really make a difference, we need to be ready to face the negative aspects too. That is why I think highlighting the negative as well as the positive is important.

      I think it is possible that you misunderstood some of the points I made, but thank you for taking the time to add your voice to the discussion.

      Regards,
      Nótt Magazine

      Liked by 1 person

      • I didn’t really mean to attribute a lot of negative thinking towards you specificially, I rather felt that the thinkers you referred to do – and that there are disproportionally many negative thinkers in certain circles. (and probably too many positive thinkers in others …)

        And yes, of course we need to be responsible, but I don’t think that in itself is a contradiction to be overall positive 🙂 Positive in this regard is more in the direction of seeing the bad as challenges to be overcome rather than lost causes.

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