The Post-human age by Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam November 19 2019


The Post-human age

Science, technology and future of civilisations. DR. MOHAMMAD MANZOOR ALAM

As explained in the first part of this article the ‘post-human age’ dawning on us could be difficult for people who are not prepared for it. It will be a data-driven, Al-propelled, algorithm-dictated age. In the words of Harari, it will be an age of Big Data (which is going to be the largest source of wealth, even larger than IT has been for more than two decades). Harari (half in jest) calls it Data Religion.

It also requires life-long learning and frequent change of job (jobs that can be totally unrelated to the education and skills required in the earlier job) every few years. To survive and flourish in a world where Al and algorithms would be making previous education and skills, say, every decade, obsolete, jobs will be lost in millions and humans will be frequently replaced by new technology, mainly based on Al and robotics. However, as indicated in the first part of the article, as the years pass and the full impact of the age begins to bloom, far more jobs will be created by the new technologies than were destroyed in the earlier onrush of the age.

To quote Harari again “,…you will need to reinvent yourself again and again” through fresh education and training, possibly every ten years. The education system, particularly in the developed countries, has already begun development of an entire range of courses (short diplomas, graduation and post-graduation courses, Ph.D. programmes) on campus and online, free and paid. All these are geared for equipping people to function productively in the new age.

An interesting point is that the millions of workers to be replaced with machines in the early phases will be mainly engineers and technocrats of all kinds, because machines will be more capable of doing their jobs, faster and better. However, people with ‘general-purpose life skills’ will be less likely to be swept away by Al and robots, because they have ‘soft skills’ that machines do not. People who have the four Cs–critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity–will have an easy going.

Illustrious men like Amartya Sen and Fareed Zakaria have said that too much of focus on engineering and all kinds of technical courses has over the decades produced men and women who do not have the profound vision and grasp of human affairs, their spiritual and moral aspirations. Decades earlier Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had regretted that the preponderantly technological thrust of civilisation had failed to address the general emptiness and spiritual void of life. Existential and ontological, philosophical and moral issues have been swept under the carpet with the advance of technology.

In the new age, more people who know art and literature would be needed, persons who have a wider sweep of imagination than merely technology-oriented people, whose skills will be easily surpassed by Al-driven machines. Einstein had clearly said that imagination was more valuable than knowledge, because knowledge was about the present or past, and thus had limits, but imagination could go much deeper in future and reach different dimensions.

Areas like philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology and literature will become more important because with them human beings will be able to put some meaning into a world and life of data and algorithm. These will enable people to decide what is important and discard the meaningless flow of information and images on smart phones that rob people of the purpose and orientation of life.

Jodi Foster, president of the Yale University, puts the case for a liberal education most precisely and graphically:

And education without the humanities
would be like waking up on a desert
island with no sense, no memory, no
reason..… lost in sand yet guided by
the illusion of certainty.

This is a strong case for readjusting our educational priorities and shifting some of the focus from technical education to liberal education, because the people with liberal education will be the real leaders of the new age, not technocrats.

To get some idea, howsoever vague and unreliable, about the world in 2048, Harari quotes Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto (published in 1848) that said, inter alia, “all that is solid melts into air”. If “all that is solid” melted “into air” in 1848, there is every reason for all that is solid to be vaporised 200 years later, in 2048.

It is going to be an age when “…you are so irrevocably outclassed by the algorithms that looking at your crowning achievements from the previous decades fills you with embarrassment rather than pride,” Harari cautions.

There will be some more pressing and urgent problems to be addressed in the new age, like the aggravating environmental condition because of a continuous rise in the earth’s temperature over the last several decades. The trend began in the late 1800s as the Industrial Revolution took hold, using enormous amounts of coal to run mills and locomotives. Within decades cars came out on roads, burning a great amount of petrol. They were followed by a huge number of buses and trucks. All of them left enormous amount of carbon that led to greenhouse effect increasing the temperature of the earth. Methane from agriculture added substantially to the greenhouse effect.

In the new age solutions to myriad environmental problems would have to be sought quickly as delay in solving or postponement of solution to the issues may render the earth uninhabitable for future generations.

It is worthwhile to note that the world in which we live today is already being called “unnatural world,” because it has changed so radically and dramatically over the last couple of centuries that its natural features have been altered. Officially (from geological reckoning) we are still living in the Holocene age that began as late 10,000 years ago, but more and more scientists are beginning to call our age Anthropocene (an age when humans have deeply changed the very nature of earth).

So far the human species had been reared, supported and shaped by the earth with its environment, food resources flora and fauna, air and water now the humans (anthropes) are changing the earth for ever. Many people fix the cut off mark at different points in time for reckoning the beginning of Anthropocene. One dramatic and epoch-making moment as a symbol for the complete human mastery of the earth was the ‘earthrise’ shot taken from Apollo 8 circling the moon (100 kilometers away from the moon’s surface. The astronauts saw the earth rising on the horizon barely the size of a baseball as we see the sun or moon rising on the horizon in late December of 1968. The astronauts were the first humans to see the earth rising. They were no longer bound to the earth.

When the picture was beamed from space directly to US television channels, astronaut Bill Anders (circling the moon in his spacecraft), who had taken the shot, told TV watchers in America: “You are looking at yourselves as seen from 180,000 miles out in space.” To many that was the dawn of Anthropocene, the moment humans established full control of the future of the earth and could see it rise and set.


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