The Future of Being Human in 2024
As we usher in the new year, it's never been more important to understand how emerging technologies have the potential to transform what it means to be human
When we established the Future of Being Human initiative at Arizona State University a year and a half ago, we realized that there was an urgent need for new thinking and understanding around what defines us as individuals in a technologically complex world.
What we didn’t anticipate was just how fast things would change with breakthroughs in AI and other technologies, and how relevant the initiative would become as we grapple with what it might mean to be human in a technologically advanced future.
Now, as we enter 2024, I can’t help but think that there’s a greater need than ever for new thinking around what it means to be human when the technological capabilities we’re developing have the potential to profoundly change this.
Over the past few years I’ve become increasingly interested in the question of what it means to be human in a technologically advanced future. I’m fascinated by how we define ourselves by the technologies we develop and incorporate into our lives. And I’m intrigued by how emerging technologies enhance or diminish what we consider to be the essence of what it means to be human.
But what drives my work more than anything is the possibility that we’re reaching a tipping point where, rather than being a means of augmenting and expressing who we are, our technologies begin to fundamentally change who we are — or even what we are.
This past year has shown hints of this as AI has advanced in leaps and bounds — not only in the underlying technology, but in the ways it’s impacting our lives. Building machines and systems that mimic what we previously thought of as uniquely human — our mastery of language for instance, our creativity, and our ability to think and reason — has held a mirror up to our understanding of who we are (albeit a rather imperfect one). And as it has, we’ve had to face the possibility that what we think of as defining us is simply the product of biological computations that machines can, in principle match — or even exceed.
This in itself presents a profound challenge to whom and what we understand ourselves to be. But beyond this we’re also beginning to realize that these selfsame machines have the power to fundamentally alter what it means to be human in the future.
These are not trivial possibilities when it comes to our individual sense of identity. And while I suspect that many of the fears and aspirations that AI has sparked are more speculation than imminent reality, there’s a sense that humanity’s mastery of science and technology is on the cusp of transforming what it means to be human in ways we haven’t previously experienced as a species.
Of course, AI is where the focus of attention lies at the moment, but it’s not the only technology that is likely to impact what it means to be human in the future. There are synergies emerging across a multitude of technological fronts that are laying the groundwork for advances that defy convenient categorization — and yet are likely to be transformative. These include — but are far from confined to — areas like nanoscale science and engineering, quantum technologies, gene editing, synthetic biology, neuromorphic computing, neuroscience, brain machine interfaces, and even social media. Where advances in these and other areas overlap and intertwine, new capacities for fundamentally changing who and what we are are beginning to emerge.
That said, there’s always been a complex interplay between the technologies we develop and our perceptions of who we are. Yet while many past technologies have been extrinsic to our sense of self — augmenting what it means to be human for sure, and perhaps even modulating it over short periods of time — not so many have been intrinsic to what it means to be human; changing us from our constituent molecules and cells all the way up to our consciousness, self-awareness, beliefs, capacity for care and empathy, and other less-tangible aspects of what makes us “us”.
There are growing indications though that, over the coming decades, emerging technologies will give us the ability to alter the intrinsic “base code” if you like of what it means to be human — or will even lead to alterations in this base code without our agreement or permission.
I suspect that AI systems that have increasing mastery over language — part of the “base code” of self-identity, self-understanding, and social identity and understanding — are part of this trend. So are increasingly advanced gene editing, cutting edge neuroscience, the growing sophistication of brain machine interfaces and, of course, the intersection between AI and any technology that has an impact on how we think and behave.
How this will play out is anyone’s guess at this point. It may be that evolution will trump technology at every turn, and what it means to be human will continue to be dictated by our biological heritage rather than our technological prowess.
But it’s equally possible that emerging technologies will radically redefine what it means to be human — and that for the first time in our history as a species we’ll begin to break away from our biological roots.
Either way, there’s a growing need for new thinking, new research, and new scholarship around what it means to be human in a technologically complex future.
I’d go so far as to argue that this is one of the most profoundly important questions we face as a species as our technological reach continues to accelerate — and one that we still have precious few answers to.
This is, of course, why we established the Future of Being Human initiative in the first place at ASU, and why we continue to push at the boundaries around understanding what it might mean to be human when technology changes everything. But we still have a long way to go in terms of even understanding the questions we should be asking here, never mind finding answers.
As we enter 2024, the urgency with which we need to grapple with how emerging capabilities impact our understanding of what it means to be human is only going to increase — especially in the area of AI.
With recent breakthroughs we’re getting perilously close to creating simulacra of the essence of being human within our machines, and I’m anticipating further advances in 2024. Yet we have no clear idea what the implications will be to our sense of identity as we come face to face with machines that emulate what makes us — in our own eyes — unique.
This, to me, only underlines the urgency with which we need to get increasingly serious about understanding what it means to be human in the future we’re building.
Hopefully 2024 will be a year where we make strides in addressing what it means to be human in a technologically complex future that parallel advances in the technologies that are forcing the question. We’ll certainly be expanding our work on this through the ASU Future of Being Human initiative. And, of course, I’ll be continuing to develop and refine my own thinking here on the Future of Being Human Substack.
With that, here’s to a 2024 where the present of being human is one that is full of value to you — however that comes — and one sets the stage for an even more value-filled future of being human.
January 1, 2024