What does it mean to be human in an age of machines?

The Neurobotics Lab's prosthetic hand is a close replica of an actual human hand. Researchers are working to integrate it with the human nervous system. Credit: M. Levin, University of Washington

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In his 1854 book, Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Men have become the tools of their tools.” Thoreau’s assertion is as valid today as it was when he made it over one hundred and sixty years ago. Whenever we shape technology, it shapes us, both as individuals and as a society. We created cars, and cars turned us into motorists, auto mechanics, and commuters.

Over the centuries we’ve populated our world with machines that help us do things we can’t or don’t want to do ourselves. Our world has become so saturated with machines that they’ve faded into the background. We hardly notice them. We are reaching a new threshold. Our machines are getting networked, and enabling new forms of human machine symbiosis. We’re entering a new era where fifty billion machines are in constant communication, automating and orchestrating the movement and interactions among individuals, organizations, and cities.

Institute for the Future (IFTF) is a non-profit think tank in Silicon Valley, that helps organizations and the public think about long term future plans to make better decisions in the present. Mark Frauenfelder, a research director at IFTF interviewed Rod Falcon, IFTF’s Director of the Technology Horizons Program, which combines a deep understanding of technology and societal forces, to identify and evaluate these discontinuities and innovations in the near future. Rod discussed Tech Horizon’s recent research into how machine automation is becoming an integrated, embedded, and ultimately invisible part of virtually every aspect of our lives.

What was IFTF’s motivation for exploring what automation might look like in the future?

When people hear the word automation, they often think about the future of jobs. And certainly,
automation will impact what it means to have work as well as how meaningful that work might be. But our research motivation was to go beyond the debate over whether or not humans are in a zero-sum race against machines. Instead, we are interested in the future of human-machine symbiosis and moving the conversation to a place where humans and machines will coevolve. We’re raising the questions, “What does it mean to be human in an age of machines, and can we coevolve?”

As we design new things, new services, and new experiences with technology, how can we design those with principles that optimize for symbiosis? Right now, a lot of our machines and technology experiences are encoded with notions of productivity, efficiency, and optimization, but different possibilities open up when we think about encoding those systems with values and principles that ensure equity and inclusivity.

The Automated World Project looked at the way machines can change our behavior in ways that we didn’t anticipate. Could you talk about that?

We often underestimate how we accommodate technology in our lives and how it changes the way we go about our lives. Technology often disappears into the background. For example, we don’t think of clocks as a technology. If we take …read more

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