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‘There Is a Big Question as to What Extent a Human Is Still a Human and a Machine Is Still a Machine’

‘There Is a Big Question as to What Extent a Human Is Still a Human and a Machine Is Still a Machine’

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Will new technologies divide or unite people and society? What mechanisms should be used to balance society’s interests and progress so that innovation does not dehumanize humans? How should interaction between humans and AI be structured? Is all technology good for people? The XXIII Yasin (April) International Academic Conference of HSE University discusses these questions and more.

The conference hosted a discussion based on ‘Disruptive Innovations: Human 2.0’, a report prepared by the HSE Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge (ISSEK) and the Research and Innovation Department of Sberbank. The event was organized by the Human Capital Multidisciplinary Research Centre (HCMRC).

Leonid Gokhberg
Photo by HSE University

HSE First Vice Rector Leonid Gokhberg, one of the report editors and Director of ISSEK, moderated the session. He emphasized that studying the mutual influence between humans and technology is an important item on HCMRC’s research agenda. By examining the technologies used to create an ‘augmented human being’, the authors of the report seek to show both the positive effects and the latent risks, as well as ways to mitigate such risks.

Vice President Albert Yefimov, Director of Sberbank's Research and Innovation Department, reminded the audience about the prophecy of the eminent science fiction writer Stanisław Lem. In his novel Summa Technologiae, the writer foresaw the desire to improve man. ‘Lem guessed a lot, and we are only now approaching something concrete,’ said Albert Yefimov. He gave some specific examples of combined opportunities and challenges. Assistive technologies may create opportunities and, at the same time, pose risks for people with some heath issues. In the United States, a large group of patients implanted with ocular devices found themselves without technical support and upgrades due to the financial problems and reorientation of the manufacturing company. Another important issue is education, which is very sensitive to regulatory measures. China prohibited private companies from holding paid lessons for those preparing for school and final exams, which resulted in projects being abandoned and tens of thousands of employees getting laid off, not to mention the millions of students left without additional training.

Brain-computer interfaces are being developed, says Albert Yefimov. Elon Musk has recently announced the start of clinical trials of neurochips in humans, and in the future, this technology may help paralyzed people regain some walking ability. Wearable devices for monitoring human health and individual functions are becoming smaller and more affordable. The expert said that the genome has recently been deciphered, and it is likely to be read soon. Gene editing in animals is also being researched and may prevent human allergies to pet fur.

Albert Yefimov
Photo by sk.ru

Cyber-security issues have become ever more pressing: fraud is causing trillions of dollars in losses, and new technologies enable even relatively unsophisticated attackers to hold people and companies to ransom. There are also many questions about AI ethics. Although this topic drew dismissive smirks on the faces of business leaders just a few years ago, we can now see a significant increase in corporate research on this issue.

According to Albert Yefimov, the relevant questions are now formulated as follows: does technology exclude the mechanisms of human evolution or does progress humanize natural selection? Will new technology divide or unite people and society? Last but not least, what mechanisms should be used to balance progress and society to prevent human beings from becoming dehumanized?

Ozcan Saritas, Head of the Laboratory for Science and Technology Studies, ISSEK, noted the rapid development of technology. We can now use inventions that, until recently, looked like something from sci-fi, such as smart watches and exoskeletons that help disabled people or people engaged in moving heavy weights. We now need to think about wearable technology and implants, but we should remember that the latter may be slowed by problems with chip production. Ozcan Saritas also believes it is important to develop integrated medicines that reduce the negative effects of anesthesia.

Founder of HCMRC and HSE Vice Rector Lilia Ovcharova says that the speed of adopting new technologies depends on the well-being of the population, the activity of business and government, and their interaction. ‘Poor people need survival technologies only. Healthcare technologies will not be required until people have at least some money,’ says Lilia Ovcharova. Technologies will die out if they are only available to the rich, but will be in high demand if the middle class and the extended middle class can afford it, she believes.

Lilia Ovcharova
Photo by HSE University

Some technologies, such as those used in medicine and pharmaceutics, may be artificially held back by companies unwilling to lower prices for their products, including certain types of drugs. The spread of technology depends on its affordability, government support, and businesses’ ability and willingness to make innovations widespread, Lilia Ovcharova said.

Futurologist José Cordeiro is convinced that humanity will make significant progress in the near future: by 2029-2030, life expectancy will be increasing annually by one year, people will be able to grow younger, and by 2045, they will be ‘virtually immortal.’ In the relatively near future, there will be a global intelligence that will surpass the collective human one, he believes. Robotics and AI technology are converging, and space technology is developing. ‘Human civilization will go beyond Earth,’ said the futurologist. ‘As a transhumanist, I hope for super-longevity, super-intelligence, super-being, and super-happiness,’ he said, summing up.

Vadim Tarasov, Director of the Institute of Pharmacy and Translational Medicine (Sechenov Medical University), said that technology is not always beneficial for entrepreneurs and ordinary people. If entrepreneurs have no alternatives to their current products, they find no motivation to innovate. In the current reality, however, the winners will be those who can apply technology fastest and see its potential.

Vadim Tarasov
Photo by pnp.ru

Vadim Tarasov believes that technologies such as bioprinting will soon be in demand in medicine and food production, but printing drugs looks like more of a scientific challenge. However, in the longer term, it will bring local pharmacies back as small production facilities, making some of the medicines for a specific patient.

Leonid Gokhberg suggested discussing the future of ethics and the ways in which people can remain human in a future high-tech world, as well as technological frustration as a modern disease.

Ozcan Saritas is convinced that different scenarios should be considered for the relationship between people and technology, with both parties taking the lead. He thinks it is important to create an environment where man and machine will not compete but cooperate, creating ecosystems. ‘Our goal is to add the human brain to the equation so that humans become part of the collective intelligence,’ the expert said.

He says there is a significant technological gap between certain countries and regions. ‘One billion people live without clean water and electricity; there are countries where the first industrial revolution is only now taking place,’ he said. The future world will be a world of technological diffusion.

‘It is a big question to what extent a human is still a human and a machine is still a machine,’ said Lilia Ovcharova, joining the discussion. Assistive gadgets are beginning to displace animals—we should perhaps include the cost of compensating for loneliness in the minimum market basket of the elderly. She noted the accelerating pace of technological revolutions: in the past, the rapid uptake of new technologies was slowed down by the current generation—they had to wait until their children were older. HSE Vice Rector believes we should now learn to evaluate the effects of technology so that they do not lead to drastic changes in the job market. Techno-optimists do not always understand what a worker will do once they’ve been replaced by a machine.

Supportive technologies are also important: there are cars in Japan that are adapted to the driving habits of older people, and there are educational technologies involving human-machine partnerships. Robots and clones should become the allies of humanity, just like horses or cars in the past, says Lilia Ovcharova. Technology may also change gender roles: in smart homes, men are more likely to do housework associated with controlling complex appliances and systems.

‘We will see the end of human civilization and the beginning of the transhuman era. We will have limitless intelligence. I am not afraid of artificial intelligence, but I am afraid of human stupidity. We should not be afraid of a human-machine civilization. There is no limit to the development of knowledge,’ José Cordeiro continued to radiate optimism. ‘The problems are not only stupidity, but also roads,’ Leonid Gokhberg retorted, echoing the famous Russian aphorism.

In his turn, Albert Yefimov said that ‘humanity has learned to live with its own stupidity, but not yet with artificial intelligence because it has not been created. One must be aware of the dangers of both types of intelligence.’ Albert Yefimov believes that technology should free humans from a number of chores and duties, enhancing our ability to conquer nature.

Vadim Tarasov says that there will be no rapid transition to the virtual world. For now, the metaworld looks like a combination of current technologies that could simplify our lives. New technology requires new social roles. People have to learn, right from school, to be more flexible, adaptive and able to master new professions. ‘The creative professions have always been the biggest advantage of humanity, and technology should influence school, education, and upbringing. It will help us remain human,’ Vadim Tarasov says.

‘Our discussion have outlined a number of areas where more research should be conducted,’ said Leonid Gokhberg closing the session.

Written by Pavel Aptekar

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