To Be Human
The most recent essay by Thomas Friedman is thought provoking, as his work usually is. It is one I have given some thought. He focuses on the twenty-first century technological revolution that is happening in our midst. If we have even a smidgeon of awareness, we can know it is happening. But so often we ignore the most obvious signs. One of the unmistakable signs is the amount of shopping that folks are doing on the Internet. All the so-called big box stores and the smaller mom and pop stores struggle to compete with the new elephant in the room.
What I enjoyed about Friedman’s reflection was his sense of where this is taking us. Part of the intrigue is his account of visiting his former teacher, Dov Seidman. Seidman’s first words, which Friedman shares, are unnerving. “What we are experiencing today bears striking similarities in size and implications to the scientific revolution that began in the 16th century…The discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, which spurred that scientific revolution, challenged our whole understanding of the world around and beyond us — and forced us as humans to rethink our place within it.” With these words I knew where Friedman was heading. The last part of Seidman’s quotation gives us the clue: “forced us as humans to rethink our place within it.”
The stakes are even higher in this present revolution. In the 16th century humans knew they had a place in the world; the question was “what” was their place. As Friedman clearly shows, the present question confronting humans is “whether” they have a place. In some ways this is even more dramatic. In the 16th century humans at least knew they could think. That set them apart from everything else in the world.
But now computers think better and faster than most of us. Our computers talk to us and figure out our issues sometimes before we know we had issues. Most of the time this is exhilarating and sometimes just funny. But it also can be scary; most of us don’t want to go there! Friedman faces the issue head on and put it in a way I can understand and see the potential for what is coming. And in some deep way it is a spiritual issue.
Friedman states succinctly what is at stake: “The technological revolution of the 21st century is as consequential as the scientific revolution, argued Seidman, and it is ‘forcing us to answer a most profound question — one we’ve never had to ask before: ‘What does it mean to be human in the age of intelligent machines?’” Simply, the question now is what does it mean to be human? This is a generic question. The specific question is: what does it mean to be me?
This sounds like a basic identity question. It is an identity question with two key levels. For the second time in history humans have to deal with both levels. The first time humans really did not have to deal with it. God dealt with it for them. I am thinking about the creation accounts in Genesis. The most familiar line in those accounts says that God created human beings…male and female, God created them. And the other part of the familiar line is the affirmation that God created humans in the “image and likeness” of God.
That is a special status---being in the imago Dei, the image of God. The most noteworthy thing is this image and likeness of God is not equated to the fact that humans are thinking beings. That is not what makes us special. And this is the key. Now that computers are thinkers, too, that does not make them special in the same way we are special to God and within our world. This is where I rejoin Friedman.
Friedman gets his cue from his teacher: “The answer, said Seidman, is the one thing machines will never have: ‘a heart.’” I like how he, then, amplifies this. “It will be all the things that the heart can do…Humans can love, they can have compassion, they can dream. While humans can act from fear and anger, and be harmful, at their most elevated, they can inspire and be virtuous. And while machines can reliably interoperate, humans, uniquely, can build deep relationships of trust.” This is a powerful way of describing the new way to answer the question, how are we uniquely human?
This helps me loop back to the Genesis story. Maybe the image and likeness of God are “heart” focused, not head focused. Or maybe the focus is simply shifting. It does not matter to me. I had to laugh when Friedman talked about “hired hands” and “hired heads.” Manual labor required hands. On the farm we actually called them “hired hands. And certainly companies have hired brains to do things. Dov Seidman says now the quest is “about creating value with hired hearts…”
When it is put this way, we can see the value of spirituality. This is the arena that deals with heart-things: passion, compassion, empathy, etc. If we can grow into these, we can grow as human beings. It can be an exciting world to be human.