THOUGHT TREND ANALYSIS
The Post-human age?
Science, technology and future of civilisations.
Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam
Humans have divided large segments of time into aeons, eras, epochs and ages, millennia and centuries, and attributed those times with dominant features with appropriate age names, like stone age, bronze ages, iron age, ancient prehistory, ancient historical times, medieval age, pre-modern age and modern age. Then there are other, more convenient divisions like industrial age, space age, age of information technology. There are dozens of divisions for different purposes and reckonings. The larger chunks of millions of years are called geological ages that stretch to six billion years.
However, this new label attached to the age in the process of dawning over the next few years and decades has a frightening ring to it. One should, instead of getting carried away by it, pause and ask: does it really mean that humans are going to be extinct like millions of species of animals, plants, birds, underwater creatures like fish species, reptiles and different flora? Are we going to be extinct like the flightless bird called dodo, or the giant reptilian called dinosaur and many of their sub-species, the woolly mammoth, the sabre-toothed tiger and the giant, mastadon?
It is a fact that the pace of extinction of species has greatly accelerated over the last few years and the number of extinct species runs into hundreds of millions. It would be of some help to remember that we are talking of hundreds of millions of species, not individual members, each species having millions of members, all going into extinction.
Humans becoming extinct is not unthinkable, and is quite possible. Theoretically, humans becoming extinct, or rare, is possible as they are part of the chain of animals and plants getting extinct. Species can be drawn into extinction by other species getting extinct.
POST-HUMAN IS NOT ‘AFTER–HUMAN’, REALLY
The “post-human age” scenario is not really about the end of human career on earth, even though scientifically, we remain a vulnerable species as extreme weather events (extensive droughts, cloudbursts and flash floods, growing deforestation and desertification) gather intensity and grow in frequency and peace.
After millions of years of ice ages (Pleistocene), when much of the earth was covered with ice, making human life and availability of food (except fishes, oysters, seals and other animals of water and ice) difficult. Human population was virtually stagnant during the ice ages. The last ice age ended 11,000 years ago, and over a thousand years, weather and climate conditions were stabilised. About 10,000 years ago agriculture began and some food security became possible. Every civilisation and culture began only after that. No food security, no culture, no science.
My idea is to highlight the fact that the present climate change has the potential to once again establish a weather and climatic pattern that makes agriculture difficult or impossible, thus endangering human survival and wellbeing. Constantly increasing temperature of the earth’s surface can also trigger extensive transcontinental pandemics, killing people in hundreds of millions. A changed climate can destroy agriculture and create unprecedented food shortages.
There could be other cosmic events that can potentially destroy the earth and everything on it, like a giant asteroid hitting the earth. Some scientists have even talked about the probability of the sun (which is like a nuclear power station) exploding and taking away not just the earth, but the entire solar system with it. Some scientists have talked about the sun losing all its energy over the aeons and becoming a “red dwarf”, like some other stars (the sun also is a star), which will be the end of the earth, the planets and satellites.
Every moment there is a huge flare up at the sun, equal to the explosion of thousands of Hiroshima-sized bombs that produces energy for all animals (including humans), birds, underwater creatures, small and big plants on earth.
However, everything remaining the same, and keeping in mind the law of probability, there might not be a mortal physical threat for humanity in foreseeable future, after all.
SIDELINED BY THEIR OWN CREATION
Humans will not probably disappear, but somehow their value could temporarily be degraded and material considerations, technology and profit-making may take the front seat.
One should keep it in mind that Rand Corporation, which conducts research for the US military and CIA, reported a few years ago that the rich world should allow the “excess” population in developing and underdeveloped countries to wither away and die from disease and hunger for the rich world to live in peace. This is another fearsome scenario of the post-human world.
However, on balance, the fears about the future may not be justified and millions of jobs may not be destroyed in what is termed as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, when Aldriven tools would supposedly drive employees out of job and replace them.
Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of World Economic Forum, a half-century old global networking platform for world leaders in business, politics and civil society, feels that such fears could be exaggerated.
In a recent interview he said certain things that are worthy of a long quote. He remarked:
We still have terminology that is related to the First Industrial Revolution. So we still speak about capitalism and socialism, and so on. These were ideologies that were born at the end of the nineteenth century as a consequence of the First Industrial Revolution. Now people are much more divided along the lines of either to embrace or to desist from it. …If we embrace progress in the right way, it offers many opportunities. It even offers opportunities to create jobs; I do not believe that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (embracing technology) will destroy millions of jobs as some organisations have forecast.
– Business Today, November 3, 2019
The World Bank’s annual development report (World Development Report 2019) titled “The Changing Nature of Work” also dismisses the worries of job losses because of prevalent use of artificial intelligence (AI) in a wide range of technologies and contexts like work places and extensive use of intelligent devices like driverless cars, powerful (pilotless) drones and Al-guided home and office appliances.
The World Bank Report sagely describes the fears of common people in times of transition:
There has never been a time when mankind was not afraid of where its talent for innovation might lead. In the 19th century, Karl Marx worried that “machinery does not only act as a superior competitor to the worker, it is always on the point of making him superfluous. It is the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes”. John Maynard Keynes warned in 1930 of widespread unemployment arising from technology. And yet innovation has transformed living standards. Life expectancy has gone up; basic healthcare and education are widespread; and most people have seen their incomes rise.
The report emphasises enhancement of human capital in the new work environment:
The role of human capital is also enhanced because of the rising demand for sociobehavioural skills. Jobs that rely on interpersonal interaction will not be readily replaced by machines. However, to succeed at these jobs, socio-behavioural skills–acquired in one’s early years and shaped throughout one’s lifetime–must be strong. Human capital is important because there is now a higher premium on adaptability.
According to a study by NASSCOM, by 2022 as many as 75 million jobs of data analysts, IT architecture, engineering and decision-making will be lost due to technology development. However, a study by World Economic Forum says this will be offset by 133 million new jobs created by new technologies.
The post-human scenario puts Al and Al-driven machines like robots at the centre, replacing humans. The pre-Renaissance Europe had God at the centre of everything. Renaissance put humans at the centre, arguing that nobody knows God’s Will and humans had to conduct their affairs without knowing God’s Will. Thus the philosophy of humanism emerged. Scriptures gradually gave way to studia humanitas, or the study of human affairs, in Europe. Humanities became major subjects in university syllabi worldwide. Interestingly, Ibn Khaldun was among the earliest philosophers who saw that human affairs did not always had to be understood in religious perspective. At the time he was writing the 8-volume preface, or Muqaddimah, (in Latin and English Prolegomena) to his 20-volume Kitabal Ibar, Europe was being devastated by the Great Plague (also known as Black Death). All of Europe was saying it was God’s scourge.
However, Ibn Khaldun differed in his diagnosis and said that it was not God’s scourge, but a result of the dense population and unhygienic living of Europeans. Even today modern medicine accepts Ibn Khaldun’s idea as true, not the European idea. In the same Prolegomena he wrote about asabiyah, which political philosophers think was the basis of nationalism nearly four centuries before nationalism became common in Europe (to gradually spread to the rest of the world). He talked about economics, governance and rise and fall of empires, all human affairs. He also noted that Europeans were not greatly interested in these subjects, but had lately begun to teach them in their universities.
It was the beginning of European Renaissance and the age of putting humans at the centre (humanism), rather than God’s Will being at the centre. At that point humanism emerged, which also signified humans being responsible for their own affairs. In a sense, Ibn Khaldun’s diagnosis of the Great Plague was among the earliest signs of the shift of human affairs from the agency of God to human responsibility. The post-human age is the second such shift after humanism.
Now the people arguing for a post-human age are mooting “rights” of robots, and even “citizenship” for them, possibly to identify which robot belongs to which country and to prevent robot “trafficking” across borders. This somehow seems extreme in view of millions of human refugees living difficult, uncertain and insecure lives, without citizenship, without a state to call their own.
However, there are less grim scenarios also. One of the most notable is constructed by the famous Israeli professor of history, Yuval Noah Harari. Possibly the best known thinker of the present times Harari has written three outstanding and highly accessible books: Sapiens, Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
The inside jacket flap of the last book defines all the three books thus: “Sapiens explored the past; Homo Deus explores the future; 21 Lessons explores the present.”
In Homo Deus (man god) Harari says that devastating wars like WW1 and WW2 are in the past, and death, disability and dislocation of that scale are unlikely now, because as a species humans have learnt to negotiate rather than fight wars. Mass deaths in epidemics and famines are also history. Human life expectancy has steadily grown. Advanced surgery, organ transplants and all kinds implants have extend life and eased the burden of disease. Genetic engineering and high-tech pharma are in the forefront of the struggle for overcoming illness. Thus the new human is some kind of a demi-god who has overcome most major threats to his/her life, wellbeing, property and happiness.
(TO BE CONCLUDED)