Recently, words like virtual reality, artificial reality, and artificial intelligence have come to be commonly used, even in the context of our daily lives. This is making significant changes in how we evaluate “humanity.” Professor Masahiko Inami of the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo considers transitions in our sense of “humanity” from the perspective of our bodies.
Professor Inami says, “I consider the difference between humans and other living things to be our ability to change our own bodies. Having thought about it, my current conclusion is that it is this ability to change our body, including its role, that defines humanity.” This raises the question of how the body’s role has changed. Tracing back through history, we can see that there have been significant changes, particularly in times of social upheaval such as the agricultural and industrial revolution.
“In the agricultural revolution, we used our bodies as a means for creating what was necessary to feed ourselves. When the industrial revolution arrived, the task became designing new machines that required far less physical effort on our part, and developing the skills to use those machines.”
Today, we find ourselves in the middle of the informational revolution, another major change in our thought and values. “Above all else, society following the industrial revolution valued uniformity, avoidance of variation and error. In contrast, an informational society values difference. We find change interesting. After all, there’s no value in information that everyone repeats—the value of information lies in the extent of its differentiation. We Japanese in particular find a sense of security in being the same as everyone else, but I believe that in the future there will be increasing need for people who can do things differently, or who can bring together people who do things differently.”
The physical degrading body and the self-designed informational body
The development of computers has unarguably caused drastic changes in our lives. We must therefore ask how computers benefit an informational society.
“In the world of computers, not only can information be copied, pasted, and undone, we can even hit a delete button to remove it, putting the spilled milk back into the carton, so to speak. [Laughs] If things get too heated on Twitter, you can just start over with a new account. This doesn’t work in the real world, so living in the virtual world might seem like escaping reality, but depending on your viewpoint you might consider it more of an escape from reality to immerse yourself only in work in the physical world and ignore everything else. Further put, perhaps it is now a fantasy to consider ourselves as having only have one life.”
As another benefit of information, Professor Inami points to its ability to change the flow of time. While physical time is unyieldingly unidirectional, in the world of computers we can rewind and fast-forward through time. “My colleague Dr. Makino Yasutoshi is performing research in which he provides AI with motion-capture data for deep learning, through which it can project its form 0.5 seconds in the future. It has learned to predict movements with quite high precision. If we can adapt such currently computer-specific abilities to the human body, we might learn to act while viewing our own futures.”
This is not the science-fiction scenario that it might seem; it is where technology has brought us. But what does this imply for human bodies living in the present? Professor Inami considers this a designable issue, taking an informatic approach to the human body.
“When we think only of the physical body, we tend to regard it in negative terms, as something that begins heading toward decrepitude after age twenty or so. But the informational body can be updated daily, using technological extensions to it, possibly allowing us to accomplish tomorrow things we could not do yesterday. It gives us hope. It allows us to split into multiple avatars, or combine into a new form. We might be able to put together superhuman bodies, like how you assemble a party of adventurers with different skills in a roleplaying game. When we realize something like that, perhaps things like age and gender associated with our physical bodies won’t carry much meaning. There have been reports of psychological studies showing that changing our bodies also changes our minds, such as becoming kinder after being recast as a superhero, or white women expressing fewer racial biases after transforming into a black woman.”
An era in which we change bodies to suit the scene
In other words, there is a deep connection between self-identity and psychological issues that is revealed through bodily change.
“Taking myself as an example, I am both a university faculty member and a family member, and I change my behavior according to my role at the time. Everyone does that. We work hard to create a tale in which our humanity lies in our individuality, but I think it’s more accurate to say we create our true form through interactions, at the point where we change ourselves according to who we are with. I believe we will get to the point where we change bodies like we change clothes, according to the scene we find ourselves in.”
We are still at the cusp of transition to an informational society, and technological advances show no signs of slowing down. It is difficult to say how our definitions of “humanity” will change in the future, when we attain an informational revolution in the truest sense and the future that Prof. Inami describes arrives.