Issue 269: 2021 03 04: Being Human

04 March 2021

What it means to be Human

No answers given.

By Lynda Goetz

This week sees the publication of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, a story narrated by Klara, a solar-powered smart robotLike Never Let Me Go, although in a different way, it examines what it means to be human.  In an exclusive interview with Anna Orhanen for Waterstones, the author describes his interest in ‘Artificial Intelligence and in genetic technologies – and in how we should accommodate the opportunities and dangers that will come from such profound developments that are now just around the corner’.

In Homo Deus, his sequel to Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari examines the same question.  Published in the UK in 2016, this non-fiction ‘history of tomorrow’ considers the ways in which homo sapiens has achieved ‘mastery’ over other species; how humans have used that dominance and finally asks whether this century could see the end of mankind as we know it as a result of our increasingly urgent quest for immortality, happiness and power.  One of the most disturbing aspects of this book is the possibility, suggested by biological research, that ‘organisms are algorithms’.  In other words, that just like computers, biological entities are no more than electrical impulses.  If this truly is the case, then our individuality, something of increasing importance to modern man as the idea of gods has decreased in importance, becomes not only less significant, but unimportant.  Big data has tightened its hold on society even since Harari saw it as a threat to humankind in 2015.  Harari’s closing question to his readers is, “What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?”

Only very recently, our PM told us he would be relying on ‘the data, not the dates’.  The worldwide reaction to this pandemic has, for the first time in history, focused on mathematical modelling, statistics and data – even if those models, statistics and data have been selected to some extent to suit governments’ chosen pathways.  The problem with this approach as we go forward into the 21st century is that individual judgement is regarded as suspect.  Conformity with the rules, regulations and tick-box responses is increasingly the way we are heading.  It is 2am on a dry night with no traffic on the road.  You have not been drinking and are well-rested.  No matter; you cannot make a considered judgement to drive (safely) at 90mph unless, of course, you are happy to run the risk of being prosecuted.  Likewise, you may, if you wish, drive down the motorway at 70mph in horizontal rain and poor visibility without actually breaking the law – even though your assessed judgment of the situation should probably tell you that this is dangerous.  Before too long, none of this will matter, as ‘for our own safety’ and that of society, we will probably be required to adopt self-driving cars and leave all ‘judgement’ to the algorithms.  But isn’t the ability to assess risks and to make judgements one of the things which makes us human?

It would appear though that most of us are happy to leave the risk assessments and judgements to others.  Of course there are those who will rebel, those who will argue, but in the main, conformity with the prevailing thoughts and trends is the easiest and safest route to take (which makes those putting their lives on the line in places like Hong Kong, Myanmar, Belarus and Russia even more impressive).  Even in countries where totalitarianism is not the preferred method of government, most appear to take the view that those whom they have elected to be their leaders can get on with the business of government as long as individuals are, in return for paying their taxes and obeying the rules, protected from invasion, thugs and thieves and generally allowed to get on with earning a living, finding a mate and bringing up their families (oh, and going on holidays).  To this list it appears we should now add protection from pandemics and if possible from mortality – in return for which we are prepared to give up the ability to earn a living, go on holidays and indeed meet up with our family and friends.

If we are, as it would appear, prepared to leave the judgements and the decision-making to others, with only a minority carping from the side-lines, then it is perhaps of little importance to us how those decisions are made.  If, as Harari posits in his book, humans are relaxed about handing over important decisions on their health to non-conscious algorithms, even if this ultimately perhaps means having some sort of chip embedded in their bodies, then how easy will it be from there for humans to be governed and controlled by such chips?  Will it matter that we will be part-human part-machine; in fact, cyborg?

The human quest for power, happiness and immortality has been present throughout our history, but recent scientific breakthroughs have made the Grail appear closer.  The problem is that with so many of us now threatening to overrun the planet’s resources, and longevity no longer a matter of good-living and prayer, how can these things possibly be available to all?  Those dystopian novels and science-fiction scenarios appear to be drawing inexorably closer.  If the wealthy can ensure they are endlessly tested for all possible causes of death and can afford the treatment to avoid them, they may be able to extend life indefinitely.  Short of a tragic accident (and the possibility of most of those should have been removed) then some sort of immortality could just be possible.  But what of the poor, who cannot afford such treatments, tests and life-extending possibilities?  What happens about breeding?  Do we try the Chinese approach and adopt a one-child policy or even ban procreation altogether?

Consciousness has long been accepted as a crucial element of being human.  If this is something it is generally agreed machines or robots do not have, then it is presumably something which cyborgs do have?  Once humans and machines are integrated, then these ‘super-humans’ will have consciousness and the ability not only to live indefinitely, but to form relationships.  Does that make them human?  Possibly; just not, as Harari points out, Homo Sapiens.



(cover page photo from


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