What does it mean to be human?

Posted on: 04 December 2018

From AI and genetic manipulation to transhumanism, conflict and design, a new Trinity discussion series will explore how we understand ourselves, the world, and our place within it

Transhumanism, genetic manipulation, the challenges of our data-driven world, and human-centric approaches to tech were among topics explored during a public discussion on human progress and its future in Trinity last night, Monday, December 3rd 2018.

Entitled ‘What it Means to Be Human in the 21st Century’, the Behind the Headlines public discussion was held to launch a new lecture series of the same name, which will reflect on how we understand ourselves, the world, and our place within. The lecture series is organised by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute in partnership with The Dock, Accenture’s global research & incubation hub in Dublin.

The new cross-disciplinary lecture series will bring some prominent international academic and industry voices to Trinity to discuss the human experience by looking at human progress and its future in the face of accelerated change brought about by artificial intelligence and technology. With humanity at a critical juncture in our development, this series aims to ask some of the disruptive questions that can only be addressed when academia meets industry, and the sciences join the humanities.

Bringing the audience a snapshot of what to expect in 2019, last night’s discussion included presentations and discussions featuring Genevieve Bell, Distinguished Professor at the Australian National University and Senior Fellow at Intel;  Kevin Mitchell, Associate Professor of Genetics and Neuroscience at Trinity and author of INNATE – How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are;  Lorna Ross, Group Director at Fjord Dublin, Accenture; and Mark O’Connell, journalist and author of To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death.

Professor Kevin Mitchell explored agency and autonomy in an era of genetic prediction and manipulation. He showed how we are learning more and more about the genetic and neural basis of psychological traits — how the way our brains are wired contributes to making us each the way we are. With this, he argued, comes a risk of changing our conception of our own autonomy and moral agency.

Professor Mitchell said: “Pandora’s Box has been opened – the knowledge and technology to manipulate a person’s psychological traits is here, whether we are ready for it or not.  For the first time, the way someone is – deeply, fundamentally who they are – may partly be due to choices that someone else has made.”

Professor Genevieve Bell discussed the emerging data-driven world, looking at some profound challenges as well as opportunities. In her talk ‘Designing wonder in the age of AI: implications from the 4th wave of industrialisation’ she showed the disruptive impact of new business models and markets, and their cultural and social impacts, but also the new ways to imagine how we might be human in the 21st century.

Professor Bell said: “Our AI narratives are dogmatic and either alarmist or evangelical. We need to have a nuanced conversation about what changes, and what stays the same. We need to look back to look forward, even in the face of technologies that humanity has never seen before.”

Mark O’Connell looked at the transhumanist future, asking if we are on the cusp of a great human transition, in which we merge with artificial super-intelligence to become immortal post-human beings.  According to Mark O’Connell these questions, and others on human obsolescence, are not just abstract, “they are, at present, being actively pursued by a growing number of people, known as transhumanists, many of them wealthy and powerful Silicon Valley technologists.”

“Many of us console ourselves with the thought that, as the poet Philip Larkin’s much-quoted line puts it, ‘What will survive of us is love’. Transhumanism offers us something different, and much less abstract. What will survive of us, in this view, is data; what will survive of us is code.”

Lorna Ross, Group Director of Fjord Dublin, explored the dominance of technology in a corporate culture and the utopian view of a world shaped by the machines we build. She also discussed how Accenture and her team at The Dock in Dublin are advocating for “a more human-centric approach, considering the likelihood that the future will be shaped by humans as much as it may be shaped by the tools that we build.”

Next year the lecture series will feature a broad range of talks traversing the humanities, sciences, arts and social sciences with contributions from Professor Danielle Bassett, American physicist and systems neuroscientist, University of Pennsylvania, and youngest individual to be awarded a 2014 MacArthur fellowship; Richard Mosse, Irish conceptual documentary photographer known for his provocative representations of war and conflict using colour infrared film; designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby; and Trinity experts Luke O’Neill, Professor of Biochemistry in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology and Ian Roberston, Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute.

The first lecture in the ‘What Does it Mean to Be Human’ series will be delivered by Professor Luke O’Neill  on Thursday, 31 January 2019, 6:30 – 8:30pm. See more here: https://www.tcd.ie/trinitylongroomhub/whats-on/details/event.php?eventid=130125913

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Fiona Tyrrell, Media Relations Officer | tyrrellf@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 3551