One of the key things about trying to figure out our own humanity while standing on the shoulders of technology we create is that we all don’t agree on what being human is.
In this bit of writing I’m going to express some opinions, hopefully in a sensible way, and I’ll be getting into some controversial subject matter because being human is controversial subject matter. I’ll add a disclaimer I shouldn’t have to: these are opinions at this point of time that will be revised as I continue being human. I’m imperfect, after all, and I suspect you are too.
Homo Sapiens, as a species, have been around 300,000 years or so as far as we know. There are people who don’t believe this. There are people who do. As far as evidence goes, the science is for the 300,000 years.
The reality is that while we have these scientific knowledge, there are people who disagree. I’m not going to debate it here. The point is that when it comes to how long humanity has been around, we can’t seem to get people to agree on when we started being human.
The ‘how’ of being human is another annoying discussion that goes nowhere, and is linked to when we started passing stone tablets around. Well, stone tablets were a technological advancement in that they were more mobile than cave walls. There was nothing like taking your stone tablet out on a nice long walk with friends so you could read it to them in a lovely setting.
Our ability to write, and by extension read, is only about 5,500 years old. This fact doesn’t seem to be disputed as much, largely because of religious texts. We have had written communication for roughly 1.83% of our species time on the planet. For those of you bad with math, that’s not very long.
That’s just the basic historical stuff. During our recorded history, we’ve demonstrated great qualities and terrible qualities. Both are human. Some we deny or ignore out of convenience. We tend to think of ourselves in a very positive light because to do otherwise would be depressing, and nobody wants to be depressed.
“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”Douglas Adams, Last Chance To See (1990)
There’s more history to go through that has filled books that very few people read and less people understand. To read all of our short written history and understand it would likely take a lifetime.
We just can’t agree on what being human is. That’s a problem when we are talking about anything, much less technology than reflects it all back at us with biases we still don’t completely understand. We haven’t agreed on what it is to be human beyond some human rights stuff that even though we sort of agree on, we have people violating anyway.
Civilization gave us rules. Laws. While the Code of Hammurabi is often cited as one of the earliest legal codes written, the Code of Ur-Nammu predates it by a good 600 years and is fairly intact. The Code of Urukagina predates that. It’s likely not a mistake that some people believe that the Earth is around as old as written history like this – we who claim to be part of literate civilizations would find it difficult to understand a world without writing.
The laws are interesting because nobody just makes up a law arbitrarily. Before it became illegal to kill someone, someone got killed and someone said, “This is bad. We need a Law.” It’s pretty clear that Laws don’t stop people from getting killed, or assure that murder is prosecuted. When we look back at these laws, we gain some insight into some of the issues that were prominent at the time.
One thing that stands out in the Code of Hammurabi is the implicit hierarchy, which reinforced the hierarchy:
Examples from the Laws of Hammurabi.
- If one finds a slave who has run away, and he brings the slave back to his owner, the owner will pay two shekels…
- If one is in debt, and cannot pay, he can sell himself, his wife, his son and his daughter to work; after three years they shall be set free…
- If anyone strikes a man whose rank is higher than his, the man shall be whipped sixty times with an ox-whip in public.
- If someone strikes another man equally ranked, he shall pay one gold mina.
- If a slave strikes its owner, his ear will be cut off.
- If a man strikes a pregnant woman, and she therefore loses her child, he shall pay ten shekels for her.
For the hierarchy to be codified, the hierarchy would have had to exist before the Laws existed. Where there are such hierarchies, some people have more value than others. There was no equality except within tiers of the hierarchy, and even then we can assume there was a pecking order. Equality or equity wasn’t something that was considered. There were no human rights except what the laws allowed for.
When we look at society today, we’re not too different. We aspire to be, or so we say, but we’re not very different at all.
And we’re talking about AI and it’s impacts on society.