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The Algorithmic Account of Humanity

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One of the major developments of our century is the discovery that both physical structures and the communication of ideas can be assembled on the basis of algorithms through means of codes. Similar to the use of alphabets and grammar rules for verbal communication coding and algorithms are at the core of digital communication such as entire enterprises like AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics. Yet, this rising trend should not be interpreted as if natural organisms could be reduced to algorithms.

According to the concept of singularity, our bodies and brains can be considered as algorithms which can be re-written artificially and connected with a natural variety. Yet, this idea is scientifically not sound.

Intelligence as a Basis

Algorithms are formulas or recipes in the development of a particular solution. On the other hand, living organisms, including human organisms, are not algorithms themselves as they merely display properties that could or could not be specified in the algorithms guiding their construction. Needless to say, living organisms are collections of organs, tissues and systems within which every cell is a vulnerable living entity made of proteins, lipids and sugars. So, rather than being lines of code, they constitute palpable stuff.

There is plenty of evidence that artificial organisms can be designed in such a way that they can surpass the intelligence of human organisms. Yet, there is no evidence that such artificial organisms, designed for the sole purpose of being intelligent, can generate feelings just because of the fact of their intelligent behavior.

Intellectual processes lend themselves well to an algorithmic account as seen in the examples of well-developed Ai programs beating chess champions. Yet, to date, there is no evidence to suggest that intellectual processes alone can constitute the basis for what makes us distinctly human. On the contrary, intellectual and feeling processes must be functionally interconnected in order to produce something that resembles the operations of living organisms, especially those of human beings.

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Morality as a Basis

Artificial systems could be built to operate according to moral values. Yet, this should not mean, however, that such devices could entail a basis for those values and could develop them independently. The presence of actions does not ensure that the organism or device mentally experiences the actions.

Moreover, the predictability and inflexibility that the term algorithm conjures up do not imply the higher reaches of human mind and behavior. The presence of consciousness in human-beings ensures that the execution of natural algorithms can be thwarted by the creative intelligence. Our freedom to run against the impulses that either the good or the bad angels of our natures attempt to impose on us is certainly limited, yet in many circumstances, we can act against such good or bad impulses. The history of human cultures is in good part a narrative of our resistance to natural algorithms by means of inventions not predicted by those algorithms. In other words, even if we were declare human brains as algorithms the things accomplished by human-beings are not algorithms and human beings are not necessarily foretold.

Departures from natural algorithms might lead to an algorithmic account. Yet, that does not mean that the initiating algorithms create all the behavior.

Accepting an algorithmic account of humanity would mean also accepting its context independence, inflexibility and predictability. Yet, such a reductionist approach would mean to dismiss the science and technology as demeaning and bemoan the passing of an age in which a humane response to suffering made humanity soar above other species. To produce accounts of humanity that appear to diminish human dignity would not advance the human cause.

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Advancing the human cause is hardly the issue for those who believe in a ‘post-humanist’ phase of history in which human beings have lost their usefulness to the society. According to this picture painted by Harari, when human beings are no longer required do their daily jobs most of them will vanish so that those who could prevail might even enjoy longevity. In a similar vein, according to the philosopher Nick Bostrom, as the intelligent robots will take over the world the human misery will come to an end. In either case, future lives and mind are assumed to be dependent on electronic algorithms which artificially simulate what biochemical algorithms do. Moreover, these thinkers assert that human life can be compared to the lives of other living species which would undermine the notion of humanism, namely the idea that human-beings exceptional and distinct from other species. Although human-beings share various features of life process with all other species, the scope of human suffering and joy is uniquely human.

On Our Current Human Condition

Although human-beings benefited from modern science and technology in the last few centuries, we should also not deny the fact that their spiritual condition went bankrupt to a great extent. Given the decreasing quality of news- thanks to for-profit media- and the decreasing quality of education of public citizens despite the higher level of degrees received reverence for truth and nobility of spirit are vanishing rapidly. In his famous book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ Postman would not foresee that we would suffer to such a great extent before dying although he made a correct diagnosis in terms of the lessening individual ability to convert massive amounts of information into sensible and usable conclusions due to the preoccupation with entertainment on social media.

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The widespread availability of abundant and instantaneous communication of public and personal information paradoxically reduces the time required for reflection. This is further aggravated by the fact that regardless if how much informed we are we have a natural tendency to resist changing our beliefs.

Another important issue is the addictive nature of electronic media which diverts attention from the immediate experience of our surroundings to a mediated experience via all sorts of electronic devices. This issue is further exacerbated by the fact that the universal use of the web and social media enables the monitoring of individuals leading to an espionage on a bigger scale. The growing tension between the companies and governments that are in control of the information and the individual users who don’t have time to judge and interpret massive amounts of information is also another concern of our digital age.

Being Cursed or Being Blessed?

We may blame for all these concerns of too much entertainment or decreasing levels of education the paralyzing speed of digital communication. Yet, a rearrangement of human powers based on their unique and authentic nature compatible with the digital age is still possible. If humanity could leverage the Internet and more generally digital communication to have a positive role to play for education, civic behavior and governance, these tools would be more of a blessing than a curse.

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Ayse Kok
Ayse completed her masters and doctorate degrees at both University of Oxford (UK) and University of Cambridge (UK). She participated in various projects in partnership with international organizations such as UN, NATO, and the EU. She also served as an adjunct faculty member at Bosphorus University in her home town Turkey. Furthermore, she is the editor of several international journals, including those for Springer, Wiley and Elsevier Science. She attended various international conferences as a speaker and published over 100 articles in both peer-reviewed journals and academic books. Having published 3 books in the field of technology & policy, Ayse is a member of the IEEE Communications Society, member of the IEEE Technical Committee on Security & Privacy, member of the IEEE IoT Community and member of the IEEE Cybersecurity Community. She also acts as a policy analyst for Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research. Currently, she lives with her family in Silicon Valley where she worked as a researcher for companies like Facebook and Google.

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