A few months ago a friend of mine told me that her five year old had turned around and asked her out of the blue: “Mum, how do I know I am not a robot?”.
My friend was positively surprised — the little one had not had a chance to watch “The Matrix” yet, so her question came from a genuine place. I guess the generation growing up lulled to sleep by Alexa and woken up by a multitude of screens has a fair concern about transhumanism and the nature of reality and self that we did not have twenty or thirty years ago.
I, for one, have never questioned my own nature this way. I have my certain archaic mechanisms for escaping — reading, meditating, even the occasional exercising — but at the end of the day reality for me is, well, very real. However, it soon became clear that my friend and I were in no position to reassure her child that there was absolutely no chance she was a programmed robot or a man-created being.
Fast forward six months and, looking at my own and others’ reactions to the coronavirus crisis, I think we can safely say that despite the AI revolution we are very much still human. Phew.
We still struggle to define the essence of humanity — this is a long-standing question starting with the Greeks, carefully dealt with in the Bible and unresolved by science, still to provide a definite account of human. We instinctively know that we can be defined as more than “a member of any of the races of Homo sapiens” though, and very much capable of the unusual ways of thinking, feeling and acting that made us thrive for the last 6 million years.
“We still struggle to define the essence of humanity — this is a long-standing question starting with the Greeks, carefully dealt with in the Bible and unresolved by science, still to provide a definite account of human”.
How do we know? Let’s look at some of the ways in which we have showed our uniquely human ways throughout history:
The earliest humans went from walking on all fours to walking upright, which allowed them to climb trees and stand on the ground. This facilitated movement and helped them learn to live in different habitats and cope with changing climates — which resulted in bigger bodies and more importantly, more complex brains capable of processing and storing a large amount of information.
Tools and food
2.6 million years ago hammerstones were used to strike stone cores and produce sharp flakes. These were used to remove meat from big animals, expanding the human diet. There were followed by handaxes which made the job easier, and about 1.5 million years ago, to cooking and later on to pottery for storing goods, freeing up time for other activities.
Social bonds helped ensure humans’ survival. As life and the environment became more complex, sharing food, caring for infants, and building social networks helped our ancestors meet the daily challenges.
Language and symbols
Symbols changed the way humans lived and provided new ways to cope with an unpredictable world, from decorating caves with pigment to the invention of the press. We communicate, we plan and record information, and it helps us survive today as much as it did when climates fluctuated strongly and our ancestors were forced to move around in search of food and shelter. Sharing vital resources and enhancing social bonds significantly increased our chances of survival as a species.
In short, adapting to a changing world is what we do best. We seem to have forgotten about it, but we have been doing it for millions of years, and we will keep doing it. We have it in us. Dealing with uncertainty, unpredictability, climate change and unfriendly environments is not a new thing. We are still every bit as smart as the guy that discovered how to make fire for the first time.
“We can safely say that despite the AI revolution we are very much still human. Phew”.
All of the changes our ancestors tested made life easier, and at the same time more complicated. Hunting is physically dangerous, but provides the concentrated source of calories, protein, fat, and nutrients that helped them thrive even more. Social alliances enrich our lives and help us survive, but they can also be a source of conflict. Remember that when you next engage in an argument on facebook.
“Dealing with uncertainty, unpredictability, climate change and unfriendly environments is not a new thing. We are still every bit as smart as the guy that discovered how to make fire for the first time”.
Not that long ago I wrote an article about dealing with uncertainty brought about by “normal” life changes. Recent events have rendered most of my concerns irrelevant as they were superseded by more urgent matters. After phases of denial, shock, fear and anger, I am now pretty well-adjusted to the new situation and almost relieved at the ways in which, against all odds, this new reality has simplified parts of my life and the workings of my brain.
Adaptability is neither the buzz word in a business world claiming the need to adjust faster to the rapidly evolving market conditions, nor an abstract self-development concept that we must apply. It has become the daily reality of millions of people having to ease their way into a new lifestyle without knowing how long it will last or where the world is going. And we are, quite simply, just doing it.
The question of what “being human” means will probably remain unanswered for a long time, but history and anthropology have shown us that we evolve, we learn, adapt and thrive, regardless of the circumstances.
It is the challenge and the beauty of living as a full human being.
Thank you for reading! : ).