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Human Specialness: Challenged by Our Own Intelligence

evanstiegel's picture

      Being human has lost its meaning.  No, a supreme being did not create us as Darwin revealed.  No, we do not lie at the center of the universe, thanks to Galileo.  And no, our brain does not possess a magical force that gives us our unique human behavior. Rather our behavior is solely a result of our nerve cells. Not only do I no longer believe that many breakthroughs have challenged our important role in the universe, but I believe that we, as humans, are destroying all of the remaining "specialness" that comes with being human.  Surprisingly enough, the remaining specialness we have left is being expunged via our own intelligence.  Advances in modern technology, the creation of intelligent machines, and advances in genetic engineering (all results of collaborative human intelligence) are the new forces at work in depleting human meaningfulness.  Jobs and tasks that used to be exclusively performed by humans are now being performed by computers.  In addition, technology is preventing humans from reaping the benefits of face-to-face interaction.  On another note, advances in genetic engineering are devaluing the short nature of human life.  Now and in the years to come, there is little doubt that these products of our own intelligence are in the process of challenging human pride. 


      As we and our brains have evolved from more primitive beings, we have experienced increased cognitive ability, greater ability to reason, and new emotions.  These new facets, which are responsible for our vast intelligence, stem from a variety of ways that make our brain and nervous system unique from other organisms.  Firstly, as humans, we experience the largest encephalization quotient of all organisms.  The encephalization quotient is the ratio of the actual brain mass to the predicted brain mass of a typical animal of that body size and is often used as a rough estimate to measure intelligence (1).  Responsible for the large encephalization quotient is the neocortex (and to a lesser extent the neocerebellum)(2).  Our neocortex gives an individual an internal experience and tells a story of what the rest of the nervous system experiences from interacting with the surrounding environment.  The neocortex thus accounts for our creativity and imagination.  It is this creativity and imagination that are allowing us to undergo modern technological advances, and consequently leading to our loss of importance. 


      In Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see HAL-9000, a super-computer, purposely take human life.  In the film, HAL is intent on completing his mission even if it means killing members of the crew and endangering the lives of others(3).   This fictional story has perhaps become a reality.  According to Moore’s Law, computing power roughly doubles every eighteen months.  American computer scientist, Bill Joy, suggests in his Wired magazine article that we will be able to meet or exceed the rate of progress according to Moore’s Law until the year 2030.  At this time, machines will exist that are a million times as powerful as the personal computers of today(1).  Joy goes on to suggest that in the year 2030 with the immense amount of computing power available, an intelligent robot will exist.  Once this happens, he describes, it is a small step before robots can self-replicate.  Whether or not Bill Joy, and other experts in their fields who speak of similar things, is correct about our fast-approaching future, it is clearly evident that computers will continue to play a greater role in our society, which is a direct result of our intelligence at work. 


      The increasingly greater role of computers in our society will seize niches once filled by humans, in turn making humans less important.  One repercussion of the increasingly greater role of computers in our society is less face-to-face interaction.  Face-to-face interaction is so meaningful to being human because it allows us to celebrate culture, share ideas, and work collaboratively to reach common goals. Increased complexity of technology which leads to fragmented forms of communication such as text-message, instant messaging, and email are a detriment to a special component of being human especially as their use is now increasing.  With these new, less effective forms of communication, we lose body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, all significant contributors to valuable face-to-face interaction. Our intelligence has devalued our humanness through our creation of increased computational power and, as a result, less face-to-face interaction, but this is not the extent of the problem.  Current breakthroughs and impending advances in genetic engineering suggest another way that our intelligence is devaluing our being human. 


       Cloning exemplifies one way in which genetic engineering will decreased human meaningfulness.  Although moral implications surround talk of human cloning, like species, ethics evolve and there could be more leeway with its implementation. As a result, human cloning holds the possibility of supplementing or replacing reproduction.  Genetic engineering also ensures cures for more diseases.  These health breakthroughs have the obvious result of increasing in life span.  The ephemeral nature of human life stands as one of the most significant factors of the meaningfulness of being human.  Dismissing the limits of human life threatens this meaningfulness and discourages individuals from taking advantage of certain opportunities that life’s short nature produces. 


    The results of our intelligence are jeopardizing the specialness of being human.  Creation of intelligent machines and advances in genetic engineering illustrate two of the most significant ways that this is occurring.  Can we halt our impending demise? Our curious and inquisitive nature suggests that we will continue to work to advance these compelling technologies, which will relinquish the last of our specialness.  However, perhaps our intelligence will also lead to the demise of our curiosity (another component of the specialness that comes with being human).  Then, there will be no need to worry because our remaining specialness will stay safe. 



 1.) Brain and Body Size…and Intelligence /bb/kinser/Size5.html 

2.)2001: A Space Odyssey 

3.)Brain Evolution and Development  

4.) Why the future doesn’t need us.


Paul Grobstein's picture

human curiosity and the future ...

"specialness", "meaningfulness" are going to be lost as we learn more about the brain? Maybe they will in fact increase, as we learn that curiosity isn't only about discovery but also creation?