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How can technology change humanity?

Artificial organs, implanted microchips, AI—with the evolution of technology, tools have developed from simply assisting with tasks to actually expanding human functionality. Can mankind handle these evolving devices? What will it mean to be human when technology transcends human limits?

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What does Professor Takashi Ikegami, who studies artificial life, think about the abstract notion of “humanness”? There are qualities universal to life, yet “humanness” is in constant flux. Ikegami talks about the importance of thinking not about the individual but about the relations between people.

The Components of the Body Change, but What of the Unchanging Will or Consciouness that Defines the “Life-like”?

“Humanness,” I think, encompasses both a universal component and a component heavily influenced by the environment.

As Professor Takashi Ikegami of Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, The University of Tokyo, the superficial meaning of “humanness” changes easily. For example, social changes attendant to the collapse of systems such as the simultaneous recruiting of new graduates or lifelong employment—taken for granted as recently as a few years ago—is sure to dramatically change the way people think about happiness—an important element of humanness. At the same time, the desire to live long, stay healthy, and otherwise maintain life is universal. As Ikegami says, “The parts of the body themselves are constantly changing, but the metabolic functions—the desire to remain conscious and to sustain the body—seem to persist.” This “life-likeness” is a universal that applies to humans, too, and falls within the scope of Ikegami’s research.

“When thinking, in the course of researching artificial life, about what defines life,” Ikegami says, “a number of things come to mind such as homeostasis or autonomy, but I think evolvability is also key. If nothing changed at all between parent and child, there would be no evolution. You need, therefore, to create something that ensures constant change, some mechanism that prevents change from coming to a halt. I call this “open-ended evolution,” and it’s the issue that everyone involved in researching artificial life is trying to untangle. We don’t know yet whether it’s possible to create open-ended evolution. After all, evolution is something that happens on a time scale of billions of years. Human technology today is incapable of predicting or designing what will happen over such long periods of time. Creating life, I think, boils down to designing open-ended evolution.”


It was Impossible to Elicit Humanness Using Algorithms Alone

Ikegami says that trying to design “life-likeness” also means thinking about the changing nature of humanness. The Alter android that Ikegami created in collaboration with Osaka University Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro retains many visually robotic parts, yet also conveys a powerful sense of what we think of as humanness today.

“When we made Alter,” he recalls, “I thought it would be impossible to elicit humanness using algorithms alone, that there was no way we could plug some algorithm into a robot and suddenly perceive it as humanness. Looking for another approach, I wondered if having it interact with people would make it more humanness. Consciousness is contagious, and I thought humanness might be, too. You know how there are algorithms that, instead of being closed off inside the system, are only completed when combined with something else? To create humanness and life-likeness, I thought we needed that kind of open algorithm.”


Under the Influence of the Group, Individual Movements Start to Change

While noting that it was a odd example, Ikegami mentioned the Ouija board as an illustration of the way consciousness can be contagious. “Nobody is intentionally moving their fingers. Rather, their fingers move as the result of a kind of collective unconsciousness, or transmission of the unconscious. Or think about how often things happen in synch, like taking a sip of wine at exactly the same time as the friend you’re having dinner with. More than most people realize, our behaviors are influenced by a kind of collective consciousness generated through interaction.

“Research on collective consciousness or collective intelligence is all about investigating mechanisms that are not found in individuals but are generated when the numbers are increased. This isn’t limited to people, either. For example, in a simulation of flocks of birds that move according to simple rules, increasing the numbers from thousands to tens of thousands results in completely different movements. In such “super-organisms,” the movement of individuals change under the influence of the group. Large groups create different patterns of movement than smaller groups. Other things are generated by the influence between different groups. It struck me that humanness might emerge in much the same way. The humanness of someone who lives alone on a deserted island is different than the humanness of someone who lives as part of a group in a city. Humanness changes radically depending on difference in nationality and ethnicity, and even more with technical innovation. This is what I mean when I say that the environment influences what we think is good. Indeed, the effects of interaction change humanness; I think humanness really emerges within relationships.”

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