1. Who are we, as humans? What does it mean to be human in the age of robots, gene editing and augmented reality?
2. How can we all live together? What technology can be deployed to help reduce inequality, improve well-being and foster inclusive development?
3. How can we ensure the well-being of humankind and the sustainable future of our planet? How can we supply the world population with the necessary food and energy while regenerating our planet?
The Science Breakthrough Radar provides an anticipatory mapping of the scientific advances of the next 5, 10 and 25 years that could have a strong bearing on the answers to these questions. However, it is not enough to anticipate trends in natural sciences, medicine, and engineering. Reaping the benefits of anticipated science advances and emerging technologies requires that we also anticipate and understand the trends, schools of thought and strategies within the rapidly evolving landscapes of philosophy, social sciences and the humanities. In other words, we also need to formulate the right questions and considerations about the future of the human, given anticipated advances in these disciplines.
This section aims to do just that, extending the initial reflections of a group of scholars from philosophy, social sciences and the arts developed in the 2021 edition of the Science Breakthrough Radar. Here we present a short summary of two workshops convened in Geneva and Brussels on 7-8 and 9 June 2022, introduced and chaired by Mark Hunyadi and Wendell Wallach. It is divided into three parts:
A. Moving landscapes in philosophy: three intellectual approaches. This describes how philosophy and social sciences are approaching their subjects as they relate to anticipated science developments.
B. Being human: philosophy and social science for a moving landscape. These are the questions raised by philosophy and social sciences about the human — at the level of the individual and of society, and in relation to our planet.
C. Tools for navigating a successful planetary life. Here, we offer initial reflections about a way forward.
“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination”, as Daniel Dennett said in Darwin's Dangerous Idea.^1 One role for philosophy is to bring to light underlaying assumption, and to provide an appreciation for how change alters or makes obsolete existing theories and beliefs. Another role for both philosophy and the social sciences is to offer frameworks for understanding scientific discovery and technological development. Finally, philosophy, ethics, and the social sciences each play an essential role in shaping the deployment of a technology to facilitate the realisation of shared goals.
Our conceptual, epistemic, and moral frameworks are not immutable; they have a history, and it is the responsibility of philosophy to continuously rethink and rebuild them. Science and technology play an important role in shaping these frameworks ; deep philosophical questions about the human as an individual and as a collective (that is, “society”), and the human relationship with the planet, are now shared by all sciences, natural and social. Philosophical naturalism — the necessity of philosophy to take science into account — is growing and must be nurtured. Today, science is integral to gaining a better understanding of subjects formerly in the exclusive domain of philosophy — for example, consciousness studies can involve mathematical modelling, experimental psychology, and neuroscientific imaging. Finally, ethics must be re-envisioned so it is better able to address complex challenges and uncertainties where many values come into play, and are often prioritised differently by various stakeholders.
A. Moving landscapes in philosophy: three intellectual approaches
1. The machinic condition
For millennia, humans have built machines and put them to work in the world. This has, in turn, acted upon and transformed humans themselves. But the unprecedented pace, scale and transformational power of today's digital technologies is different: it has fundamental implications for our human condition. Below, we explore how workshop participants saw the implications of this new “machinic condition”.
The first implication is for our senses of time and desire. For the past three decades, we have been experiencing a change in our relationship with time; essentially, we have been attempting to dismiss the infinity of time. The result of this is that the modern promise of gradually accumulated progress has been replaced by a philosophy of carpe diem. The vision of progress traced back to the Enlightenment — the slow emancipation of the individual towards an ideal — has been replaced by “presentism” and instant gratification. Postponing the satisfaction of desires — sacrificing ourselves today to preserve the interests of our children, for instance — is either treated as absurd or dismissed.
In the digital universe, each user assigns to the system the function they expect from it, given their immediate desire. They thus become administrator of their own well-being: it becomes the norm that desires are fulfilled, unquestioningly, with a single click. This is how the digital world suppresses time: by satisfying impatient desire as quickly as possible, instigating a libidinal reflex.
The second consequence of the machinic condition is the problems that come with what is known as “desymbolisation”. Humans are beings of language, and this is affected by the dialectical relationship between man and machine. Through language, we break with immediacy and reactivity; we leave the present in order to conjugate our existence with the future. However, when we reduce language to information, as happens in the technological world, this reduces the symbol to the signal, and language loses its symbolic function of semantic representation. This crushing of symbolic dimensions, or desymbolisation, leads to a reduction of human beings and social interactions, as well as to a new fatalism.
2. The new materialism and humanism
In the 1980s, Bruno Latour and colleagues went beyond the anthropocentrism of social sciences and showed that the world is made up of interactions that involve humans, animals, plants and micro-organisms, as well as countless technical objects. At the heart of this new materialism is the decision to take into account the active role of non-humans in the constitution of social systems, refocusing social science research on the agency of non-humans and their material and environmental dimensions. This new materialism proposed to replace categories and oppositions such as nature versus culture or human versus non-human. It opposes a reductionist “machine” conception of life and makes it possible to restore the “living” as distinct from the machine, freed from the cybernetic control paradigm. As a consequence, our belonging to planet Earth becomes the only universalism possible.
The new materialism participates in a redefinition of the human and its boundaries because it proposes a conception of human existence as one in which non-humans play a central role. This blurring of boundaries raises the question of “animality”. If biology is the motor of history and the smallest bacterium a source of autonomy, each species introduces exceptions, which makes the distinction between human and animals obsolete.
But humanism also invokes autonomy and responsibility for humans. In this respect “animalisation” refers specifically to non-dynamic automation: animals instinctively remain on the same course of action without changing direction, whereas human beings know how to take charge of their destiny. In this perspective and in the context of the climate crisis, nothing is gained by this “animalising”.
The concept of humanism is obsolete in the Anthropocene: the influence of humans on nature has become such that we are witnessing a fusion of natural history and human history. This implies a “redefinition of the human being” that cannot be satisfied with notions that predate our geological era. This offers a conceptual opportunity to re-establish ontologies, particularly that of the living: an obligation to reconstitute borders and categories. This is the proposition of radical materialism; it requires “de-centring”: we become relational beings, dependent on living beings, water, bacteria and so on. This can offer us an alternative normative basis to humanism.
This has serious implications. In the Anthropocene, the concept of environmental catastrophe can only be considered in terms of the human being capable of representing it. To subsume the human view into the animals' point of view is, in the context of the ecological crisis, to declare a generalised sauve-qui-peut: this would merge the human being into the great whole of living beings that will, whatever happens, continue to exist.
3. Mathesis universalis -- or the cyberspace as new metaphysics
The digital world is a succession of 0s and 1s to which algorithms are applied. It is a metaphysical reality because it aims at unification as “cyberspace”. Cyberspace realises the Cartesian and Leibnizian project of mathesis universalis -- a universal science modelled on mathematics. This “informational paradigm” is applied to everything and extends to the humanities and social sciences. The result is a de-complexification of theory, and a normalisation of practices resulting from the confrontation between machines, organisms, algorithms and even thoughts. This normalisation can be termed “ordinary transhumanism”.
To deal with this appropriately, cyberspace has to be conceived as a new environment, one with the primary impression of having the whole world at our fingertips. This total presence is a central element of our condition in cyberspace. The digital model is marked by an extreme objectivism: all reality is reduced to a code, with the result that borders are erased, particularly the one that separates the human from the machine.
B. Being human: philosophy and social science for a moving landscape
Technological development is a social process; science and technology are necessary conditions of this process, but they are, by no means, sufficient to determine its direction or performance. Once a technology is introduced into a social context it becomes an integral part of a sociotechnical system. “A sociotechnical system includes people, relationships between people, other artifacts, physical surroundings, customs, assumptions, procedures, and protocols,” according to Huff.^2 The technology is in a dynamic relation with other elements of that system, transforming their actions, and in turn being transformed by their activity. For example, social media not only transformed the larger society, but was transformed as users perceived new ways in which it could be used, many beneficial but some that have been societally detrimental.
In other words, the relationships between the development of the social and the technical are not deterministic but contingent and entangled. There is no invention which does not constitute a novel pattern of human action: every invention is an intervention into nature and society. That is the reason why technical development is equivalent to social change. To say it with the words of Karl Marx (1856): “Steam, electricity, and the spinning machine have been revolutionaries much more dangerous than the citizens Barbès, Raspail and Blanqui [named revolutionaries of his day].”^3
Whereas many design activities aim to develop concrete technical solutions, a philosophical lens (that is, a meta-design) and an appreciation of social dynamics provide frameworks within which sociotechnical systems can be developed.
A first requirement is to un-silo the conversation and build it both in a strong transdisciplinary manner and with a collaborative approach to problem-solving. The framework should include support for cultures of participation that put the owners of problems and those most affected by the proposed solutions in charge.
In a socio-technical system, in the dialectic of society and technology, sensitivity to societal impacts is key, from the early phases of the design of the technology, even at the anticipatory stage, and then along the complete life-cycle from technological deployment to dismantling and replacing. Utilising experts with that sensitivity as members of the team developing and deploying the technology enables value-added design geared at nurturing the desirable impacts of a technology (and defusing negative impacts) all along its life-cycle.
This is the required collective, collaborative, multidisciplinary stewardship of emerging technologies.
Where the individual is concerned, our technologies are apparently exacerbating a sense of dissociation. Science and technology seem to be exploding the concept of “human” at all levels, while opening up a range of options for people's conception of what they “want to be” and can potentially become. In view of this, ethics and social sciences should explore the central points of tension, frame questions, and eschew simplistic answers. Are the distinctions made between being human and being a machine sufficient for the challenges we are confronting? Are the things we are producing, whether digital or biological, objects or subjects? Such questions challenge our preconceptions and definitions of humanness and personhood.
Two “conservative reflexes” lurk in the background. First, the status quo bias: today, many believe we are in an optimal moment for being human. While concerns have been expressed that we modify this at our peril, we should not overlook that we might just be at a local optimum. Second, human beings have value for both what they are and can do, and tinkering with human capabilities could destroy this value. In anticipating these technological impacts, many social scientists will naturally focus on challenges and risk; but they must also examine the positive possibilities that technology can enhance our existence.
Given current challenges for humanity, there are new questions the social sciences must ask in many new areas:
Mental Health and autonomy: In the attention economy, mental health and mental autonomy are becoming a “limited biological resource”. Better definitions of what constitutes a “good state of consciousness” will be required, and we must ask, considering the blurring of self and other: what are the ethics and responsibilities of this blurring? Mental autonomy should be protected in the same way that we protect freedom of expression — that is, it must remain a “rebuttable presumption” — and we must integrate, through law, the idea that brains are to remain “unviolated” by means of neural computation. Will it be possible to keep the “founding principle” that nothing should interfere with the individual's ability to take responsibility?
Immortality: With the development of the Metaverse, the dead will remain among us in palpable, directly accessible and maybe even responsive ways, even in secular societies. This will entail deep changes in our family relationships. What considerations should we have for these VR identities ? And radical life extension of the living, a dream pursued by many high-tech companies will compound the challenge of redefining the roles of human generations.
Machines (AI, automation, artificial consciousness): The legal system must think about [neurotechnology creating machines?] that prevent crime, or identify potential deviants from their thoughts. How do we determine the liabilities of the machines or of those who deploy the machine? And do we need a moratorium on synthetic phenomenology — “artificial consciousness”?
Existential risk : As nano-, bio- and info- sciences and technologies converge, we increasing have the capacity to tinker with the operating system of reality. It is not unreasonable to think about this as an existential risk for humanity. In response to this concern, we need to urgently develop safe “sandbox” spaces for innovation that can facilitate a better understanding of such existential risk, and to explore methods to ameliorate them.
When it comes to questions about society and life on the planet, we must acknowledge that, through digital platforms and infrastructures, technology is segmenting and reordering individuals within societies, and society as a whole. At the same time, it is unifying humanity, diffusing pervasive values throughout society. Work has always been central to humanity, but automation is redefining labour markets. What's more, technology is regionalising and segmenting the planet but is also allowing risks to be mutualised at a global level.
This values shift forces us to expand the vocabularies of ethics, and ensure that they become anticipatory. There is a need for new tools to address global ethical issues. However, our intuitions are not well naturally developed to address such issues. How can we develop values and new ethics — incorporating solidarity, community, democracy and truth — at the social level and at the planetary level empowering sustainability and security?
There are also new questions about our individual rights and the evolution of the rule of law. Given the pace and implication of science and innovation, the rule of law is constantly lagging behind. There is a need to rethink legal rule-making — in advance of issues arising — with a focus on human rights and human centricity. But how do we anticipate which entitlements and responsibilities come with the new machines, new life or new hybrids that humanity will create? What responsibilities, for example, do we have when we blur the real and the virtual to the point they are undistinguishable. Do we have a plan for extra-planetary self-determination and rights?
Anthropogenic climate change is certainly a pressing issue. Humanity is losing the fight against climate change: we have already lost control, and can only strive to limit the damage. What are the implications of humanity realising that it is a failing species?
We are at a point in human history where we can sit down and engineer our future, and have the potential to redesign, re-engineer or simply hack what it means to be human. It is exciting to think that we can engineer the future we want — but what might we lose? Discussions of trade-offs in such a complex and uncertain space are central to the honest brokering of science and technology.
C. Tools for navigating a successful planetary life
Much of contemporary ethics can be considered as individualistic-centred ethics (“small ethics”) in the sense that it focuses on the rights and freedom of the individual. It is a legacy of the liberal tradition of the enlightenment, enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights.
However, the moving landscapes we encounter in the context of the Anthropocene as well as the cumulative impacts of emerging technologies forces us to re-envision ethics, as Joel H. Rosenthal and Wendell Wallach have argued:^4
“Collectively, information technologies, biotechnologies, and nanotechnologies have given birth to an inflection point in human history: the Information Age. Re-envisioning ethics will be helpful for all realms of human endeavour, but it is particularly essential for addressing the challenges posed by emerging technologies that are rapidly transforming daily life, reshaping human destiny [and that of our planet] ...A re-envisioning of ethics is certainly not a rejection of the past. Ethics will continue to be grounded in shared principles as goals to strive to fulfill. The Golden Rule or something like it exists in all traditions and offers a good starting point. The dignity and rights of each individual has become sacrosanct. What exactly those rights are and require of us and our governments remains a subject for debate and further elucidation.”
We may have to rethink traditional values of Western liberalism, such as the primacy of the subjective individual and their freedom to act, so that we can go beyond small ethics and move towards “global ethics”.
This is particularly important when we face the fundamental questions raised by the deployment of emerging and next-generation technologies. As we have seen, these technologies profoundly alter humanity — in its individuality, in its relation to others (in society, in other words) and in its relation to the planetary ecosystem. The world currently lacks the philosophical and political tools but, as Rosenthal and Wallach go on to say, also “requires input from a variety of perspectives and experiences as well as collaborative problem solving across disciplines and professions” to understand and deal with these implications.
^1 Dennett, D., 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea', Simon & Schuster (1995), p. 21.
^3 Ropohl, G., 'Philosophy of Socio-Technical Systems', Society for Philosophy and Technology Quarterly Electronic Journal, 4: 186 (1999), https://doi.org/10.5840/techne19994311.
^4 Rosenthal, J.H. and Wallach, W., 'Ethics As We Know it is Gone. It's Time for Ethics Re-envisioned', Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, May 13 2022, https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/media/series/presidents-desk/ethics-re-envisioned.