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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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To consider the abstract notion of “humanness,” we must start by reconsidering the relationship between humans and technology. After all, we humans use tools to enrich our lives, and the evolution of our tools has driven our own evolution. The evolution of our tools can be seen as an expansion of our physical capabilities. For the Think Human Exhibition, the humanness project team considered the relationship between humanity and the technologically-transformed human body in an effort to present insights that would illuminate the future.

As our bodies change, so do our minds

There should be no limit to the fusion of the human body and technology. This is exactly why the humanness project team started planning for the Think Human Exhibition by considering humanness from the perspective of the functionally expanded human body. Considering functional expansion from the perspective of “eternal life,” “convenience,” and “environmental adaptability,” the team focused in particular on eternal life as humanity’s greatest desire. Shintaro Nemoto, Professor of Thoracic Surgery at Osaka Medical College, supervised our “never-dying body” display of a body implanted with an artificial heart that can keep beating for over two hundred years. Even today, he says, modern medicine can keep a body alive with technological assistance through artificial feeding and mechanical ventilation.

“I think it would be possible to create a never-dying body using advanced technology, but this would only mean extending the life of the human body as a mechanism. Technology cannot create the intangible parts of a human, such as character and personality that are cultivated by environmental influences and generations of DNA inheritance. Such intangibles vanish at death. We could describe the human body as a tangible manifestation of an individual’s history, inscribed with character and personality. I have faced many families who wished to sustain this manifestation of a dying loved one for as long as their heart was beating, even after brain death brought the loss of their character and personality. As a medical doctor, I believe humanness is a kind of intangible afterimage that technology will never be able to create.”


Humanness among humans

We hosted a dialogue between Takashi Ikegami, an artificial life researcher and professor in the Department of General Systems Studies at the University of Tokyo, and Masahiko Inami, a specialist in human augmentation at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology.

During this discussion, Ikegami described an “android opera” called Scary Beauty (2018), which he helped produce, as a starting point for thinking about humanness. The opera’s conductor was an android named Alter that directed a human orchestra. Ikegami said that the most difficult part of the project was creating a robotic gesture to signal the musicians to begin.

The android’s basic movement as a conductor was to rise and fall as if breathing, but Ikegami attempted to create movement that fluctuated instead of following a uniform cycle. Orchestra members grew familiar with Alter over the course of many rehearsals and, as Ikegami notes, although they initially took cues from the sounds of a clicker they soon came to look up to Alter while playing.

“It would be meaningless to create conductor that was nothing more than a complex metronome, and surely no performers would follow such a thing. An algorithm that creates a conductor would need to create the humanness of a conductor, but no such algorithm exists. The relationship between people and androids brought about by a fluctuation-generating algorithm can, I think, be thought of as creating a conductor.” What Ikegami suggests is that this thing we call “humanness” may actually be a relationship that arises between people.

Agreeing that such fluctuations are at the essence of life, Inami continued with a description of his human augmentation research. In a joint study with Keio University, he is currently researching MetaLimbs, a pair of robotic arms worn on the back. By manipulating sensors attached to the feet, the wearer can operate these limbs like the extra arms extending from the flanks of a Hindu Asura. He reported that nearly everyone smiles when they first learn how to control the device and successfully make it move as they wish. Herein lies the uniquely human idea of progress—to think of the future and imagine tomorrow as more wonderful than today. Inami demonstrated that utilizing technology to provide the sensation of being able to accomplish something previously impossible is the role of an engineer and the pride of a researcher.

Ikegami and Inami share the view that humanness is not a fixed concept, and that the transformation of our bodies—our sensors—will naturally lead also to changes in the mind. Rather than a universal soul residing deep within the body, the mind may be more like something pasted to the body. Therefore, to confront and consider the technologies that will propel bodily transformation over the next century is also to considering the nature of humanness itself.

Technology is constantly evolving every day. This is why we must continue to keep our eyes on humanness and human life without getting buried in the technology. Teijin, as a chemicals company that also specializes in healthcare, will contribute to enriching humanness through the evolution of technology, leading the way toward the world we all desire.

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