How To Become Human

They Say, I Say

They say stop staring at your smartphone.
I say stop staring at the past.
They say the internet is shallow and fake.
I say people are shallow and fake. The internet just makes it obvious.
They say being online is bad for social skills.
I say being online makes you collaborative, and that’s the only social skill that matters.
They say social media makes you depressed.
I say negative people make you depressed. Just get rid of them.
They say robots destroy our jobs.
I say robots will liberate us from paycheck slavery and let us focus on things that matter.
They say I’m a tech-fundamentalist.
I say I’m a humanist. Because technology is the most human thing there is.

Can you see the pattern? I love technology. I believe that with it, we can solve all of our present and future problems. This won’t happen without risk and accidents. We will even fuck things up pretty badly along the way. But eventually, technology will save us from ourselves.

Bear with me

I’m even willing to step it up to this:

Technology is the most human thing that has ever existed. Nothing is more human than technology. Technology isn’t something that happens to us. It is us.

Bear with me. I’ll explain.

The whole idea came to me a few weeks ago when I was playing Deus Ex. It’s a video game that was first released in 2000 that has been developed into a series with several new releases throughout the years. The latest one is “Mankind Divided”, released in late 2016.

In Deus Ex, the world is a technology-infested, Big Brother, police state dystopia (screenshot). Images from Eidos-Montreal © 2016 Square Enix Ltd. All rights reserved. Deus Ex, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Deus Ex Universe, Square Enix, Eidos-Montréal, and their respective logos are trademarks or registered trademarks of the Square Enix group of companies.

The story is set in the near-future, in which humans have invented and almost perfected the science of human augmentation — the art of replacing or upgrading your biological organs with artificial and mechanized/computerized organs.

You basically upgrade your biology to something better, smarter and stronger.

For example, you can replace your biological arms with much stronger and better artificial arms. You can augment your brain, by implanting microchips with different features, so that you become superintelligent. You can augment your legs, so that you can run at extremely fast speeds and jump much higher than your biological legs would ever allow you to. And so on.

The conflict in the game arises when a class of superhumans arise — the humans who can afford to buy the augmentations. The people who don’t have the money to augment themselves, or are against augmentation for ideological reasons, become inferior. Class warware ensues, and due to certain events (I’m not gonna spoil the story), the humans end up winning the political struggle (that was not a spoiler, I promise). A new kind of apartheid is created, in which augmented humans are put in ghettos, in order to keep “natural humans” safe and prosperous.

Adam Jensen, the lead character in Deus Ex. He’s sporting augmented vision and arms, among many other things (screenshot).

So, as I was playing this game during the last weeks, it occured to me that we actually aren’t that far away from augmentation in the real world.

Let me show you what I mean.

First of all, the creators of Deus Ex, Eidos-Montreal, have teamed up with Open Bionics — an initiative with the vision to create affordable, open source prosthetics for amputees, researchers and hobbyists. Open Bionics has come a long way beyond just a vision though. They’re already delivering robotic hands and related components at extremely affordable prices. Without compromising quality and functionality. The medical industry hasn’t even been close to the affordability that Open Bionics is offering.

And the collaboration with the Deus Ex team (going under the name Augmented Future) has added another level of awesomeness to what Open Bionics is doing. You see, the talented crew behind Deus Ex has been designing prosthetics (or augmentations) for the characters in their games since 2000. They’re among the most experienced on the planet when it comes to designing beautiful, artificial body parts.

And now they’re designing prosthetics for Open Bionics, so that people can wear extraordinarily gorgeous prosthetics, rather than boring medical devices designed by the prosthetics industry.

Meet Tilly Lockey. She’s wearing an arm from Open Bionics, with a design inspired by the lead character in Deus Ex. Photo courtesy of Eidos-Montreal.
Cathrine Disney is a “part-time cyborg”, wearing an arm designed by the Deus Ex team. She’s currently a postgraduate student of Material Futures at Central Saint Martins / University of the Arts London. Photo courtesy of Eidos-Montreal.

They’re so damn gorgeous, in fact, that I’d want one myself. Even though I don’t need one.

So, prosthetics are becoming gorgeous and widely accessible. This in itself is revolutionary. But what’s even crazier is that new devices are slowly showing up on the market, with the aim to improve your biological functionality.

Let me give you a few examples.

Cyborg Nest is a startup that has developed an augmentation, the “North Sense”, that you pierce onto your body. The North Sense augmentation allows your body to feel when it faces the north pole, effectively giving you a sixth sense — the sense of a compass, built-in and part of your biological body. I’ll let the company itself reason for why this augmentation would bring value to your boring and all-biological life. But damn, I can’t say it’s not tickling my senses and boggling my mind. I’ll probably buy one.

The North Sense augmentation by Cyborg Nest. Photo by Fabio / VH_desirestudios.co.uk. Courtesy of Cyborg Nest.

Waverly Labs is launching the equivalent of the “Babel fish” from Douglas Adams’ “The Hithchikers Guide to The Galaxy”. In case you haven’t read the book, it’s a device that translates other languages directly into your ear in real-time. Waverly Labs is shipping the product, which is called “Pilot”, in May 2017.

Although you won’t have to replace your biological ears with the Pilot, it’s in many ways an augmentation — you put it in your ear and it will allow you to understand other languages. Live!

In the future, it could just as well be a piece of software that you install in the microchips that you already have implanted in your brain.

Pilot, the “babel fish” device created by Waverly Labs.

And lastly, Verily (a company born out of the Google X spin-off lab) is developing a smart contact lens that replaces your natural lens. It has a tiny chip that detects glucose in your tears, thus revolutionizing life for diabetic patients.

It’s just a matter of time before lens augmentation evolves into lenses that improve vision beyond human capabilities, and even act as displays that show information directly on your eye.

Verily’s smart contact lens.

The examples above are just a tiny pick of what’s going on out there. The science of augmenting our bodies is advancing rapidly. So the question remains: should we embrace these new and artificial augmentations to our bodies, or should we fight to remain human?

What It Means To Be Human

Essentially, what I’m asking is the following:

What does it mean to be human?

That brings us back to the point of this story — my idea of what technology actually is, that I shared in the beginning:

“Technology is the most human thing that has ever existed. Nothing is more human than technology. Technology isn’t something that happens to us. It is us.”

Think about it. Your biological arm, for example, isn’t that different from the arm of an ape. In fact, it isn’t that different from a cat’s or a mouse’s arm either. Physiologically and biochemically speaking, they’re pretty similar.

Look closely. We ain’t that different.

What actually separates you from the chimpanzee, cat, mouse, and every other animal, is your imagination and your ability to invent. That is the sole differentiator between you and every other species on this planet. And technology is the manifestation of your imagination and inventiveness. So therefore, technology is what makes you human.

In fact, technology is the only thing that makes you human. Without technology, you’re an animal.

That’s why I believe augmenting ourselves is the most human thing we can do, when the technology is mature enough. And that’s why I believe technology will save us from ourselves.

Because the wars we wage and the violence we impose on each other stem from the leftovers we have from when we were animals. The leftover in our brains called the amygdala. It’s the amygdala that urges us to be tribal, to be insecure and hostile towards one another. It’s the amygdala that fuels our fears and that urges us to distance ourselves from each other and the unknown. It’s the amygdala that fuels our ego and neglect of other human beings. It’s the amygdala that fuels our greed, instilling the fear of running out of what we already have. While technology brings enormous possibilities, it’s the amygdala that finds a thousand ways to misuse it for egoistic reasons.

There it is. The life saver. The very broken and counterproductive life saver.

Yet paradoxically, we can’t live without it. Because the amygdala helps us escape danger. It helps us stay out of harms way. It fuels our survival.

But clearly it’s broken. So why not augment it? Why not install a chip that corrects its flaws? That would be the ultimate goal.

We’re far away from getting there at the moment. We will probably augment every part of our body before we start even thinking about augmenting our brains. But we’re on our way.

Meanwhile, we should embrace technology despite the shortcomings of our fragile, human brains. Because essentially, technology is the only thing that makes us human. It’s the only hope we have in stopping us from destroying ourselves.

It’s the only hope we have in truly becoming human.


I’m a scientist, investor and global speaker, studying how technology affects industries, societies and human behavior. I’m on Facebook & Twitter.
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