The Impact on the Person

The “Physical” Self

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is expected to accelerate knowledge like never before. As I mentioned previously, technology will advance with artificial intelligence (AI), resulting in medical breakthroughs. As a leukemia survivor, I carry three DNA sets and, thanks to a third-party donor, replaced my stem cell production. I guess that makes me not a cyborg, but a chiborg (chimerism + technology). (And yes, I just coined a new term.) Medical advancements like these will redefine what it means to be human. Nanotechnologies in the medical field will drastically change how we deliver drugs, kill microbes, repair cells, and perform surgery—all on a nano-scale that is more targeted and more accurate than previous medical methods and practices.

As a result of breakthrough technologies, life expectancy should increase as we finally slow—or even reverse—the effects of aging and decay at a cellular level. Body parts that have failed will be replaced with parts grown from stem cells, biomechatronic body parts, or perhaps even 3-D printed organs. More humans will become cybernetic organisms (cyborgs), like Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, a movie in which much of humanity is connected to a vast electronic network through cybernetic bodies (“shells”) which possess their consciousness and give them superhuman abilities.

In addition to increasing life expectancy, technologies such as genome editing will provide us with the tools for human enhancement, allowing us to replace defective genes or modify immune cells to fight diseases. As technology advances exponentially, so too must our civil, moral, and spiritual motivations to accommodate and adapt to the 4IR.

The 4IR will, therefore, change our fundamental understanding of our physical selves—that we were born to die naturally. The introduction of designer babies, cyborgs, and veritable immortality will shift how we view our physical self and how we fundamentally organize ourselves. Our traditional concept of the family might cease to exist. The way we appropriate resources might also shift as designer babies have the potential to outsmart and outwork the now older, yet stronger cyborg population that might not die.

Cogito ergo sum

Descartes’ famous assertion that “I think, therefore I am” has guided modern Western philosophy and ontology for centuries. The notion of self is based on humankind’s ability to think and acquire knowledge. This ontological concept of the self will be challenged during the 4IR. Machine learning and interconnectedness, along with the advancement of AI, will eventually produce an intelligence that is sentient and may potentially trigger the Singularity. A self-thinking and self-improving machine would transcend our notion of self because if a machine is self-thinking, does that make it human or does it simply make it sentient? Would you consider Dolores in Westworld to be human or merely a sentient machine? If we were to consider these androids to be human, what changes would we need to make to our society to accommodate this increasingly powerful and smarter form of “human”?

On the other hand, with the advance of cybernetics and a vast network of connectedness, can humans also attain the same level of knowledge as a sentient machine? Imagine again Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, where her self inhabits a shell and connects to everything. Is she still a human? Or would transhumanism (H+) take over and advance the human race?

Humans could start to control machines through synchronization to accomplish tasks no machine or human could accomplish alone (like the large fighting machines in Evangelion controlled by teenagers). Or maybe, humans would possess so much knowledge that an omnipotent, Lucy-like person could exist. Finally, humans could potentially tap into our stardust memories to unlock the inner universe’s power within us, like Akira did.

The 4IR will advance machine intelligence and sentience while also ushering in transhumanism. Thinking will no longer be sufficient in defining who we are.

Disappearance of the Self or Enhancement of the Self?

The 4IR will connect everything—all networks, all things, all selves. Everything will have access to every datum, available for access in real time. Robots with AI will roam among humans. Humans will have cyborg bodies and their selves digitally copied, stored, and continually backed up in multiple locations, like the horcruxes of the Harry Potter universe. Transhumanism will be a reality.

Will the notion of the self disappear? If everyone is connected and doesn’t die, would humans as a race be the only self that is left—a collective self and mind? Would all humans merge into this self and become a godlike creature, rivaled only by the equally godlike AI? Or will humans retain their individuality and personality, remaining connected to others as an enhancement of their own selves?

The 4IR will not only accelerate technological revolutions and knowledge acquisition, it will challenge the most fundamental understanding of what it is to be human and the notion of the Physical self. But what about the impact on the Digital self? I will delve into this topic in my next blog.

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Mark Barrenechea

Mark J. Barrenechea is OpenText's Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer. A prominent thought leader, he has extensive experience in information technology and his vision is to enable the digital world to help transform organizations.

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