Can Technology Make Us More Human?

Will advances in technology increase or decrease our humanness?

Posted Jul 28, 2017

As technology advances, the issue arises as to whether technology will increase or decrease our humanity.  Many children, young adults, and even adults are having fewer and fewer human interactions, while their human-technology interactions are increasing.  Social media is consuming more and more of people’s time, decreasing the amount of time they spend in face-to-face interaction with others.  Artificial intelligence is becoming more and more a reality.  The line between human and robot is decreasing, and robots may soon replace humans in many settings.  These and other advances in technology are increasing the likelihood of that human-human interaction may become less and less a part of a person’s day.  There is also the possibility of humans having artificial organs, as well as technologically augmented sight, hearing, touch, and taste, thus becoming part human and part machine.  Social media, in addition, can be used in ways that objectify and dehumanize others, resulting in such behaviors as cyber-bullying.  Thus, the question arises that as technology advances, will humans become less and less human?   

To answer that question requires an understanding of what a human being is.  The word "human" generally refers to the only still existing species of the genus Homo, that is, Homo Sapiens.  Homo Sapiens are characterized by such things as an erect posture, bipedal locomotion, manual dexterity, tool use, and systems of symbolic communication (such as language and art).  The definition of “human,” however, goes beyond membership in a species.  Humans are characterized by natural instincts for cooperation, empathy, and fairness.  Humans are adept at organizing themselves into purposeful groups held together by common goals, from families (kinship networks) to communities to political states.  Humans establish a wide variety of values, roles, social norms, and rituals, derived from social interaction, which together form the basis of human society.  The need to be part of a group leads to an innate desire to belong, to love and be loved, and this prompts humans to stay on good terms with those with whom they are interdependent. 

The most fundamental aspects of humans derive from being a member of a group.  Humans feel empathy when they view the distress of others, often leading to high levels of altruism.  Historically, humans have the capacity to care for those unable to return the feeling, adopt unrelated young, cooperate with strangers, and empathize with others and even with members of a different species.  Most humans believe that resources should be distributed in a way that is fair to everyone, so that harmony is preserved within the group.  Curiosity, combined with the desire to understand, influence, and manipulate the environment, has resulted in the development of fields of knowledge such as science, history, and philosophy, and formulating religion and mythology. 

The defining characteristics of being human are reflected in the ways humans interact with other group members.  Being human involves engaging in relationships that reflect such characteristics as empathy, caring, compassion, concern, friendship, love, helping, kindness, fairness, responsiveness, and non-violence.  Similarly, being humane means being characterized by compassion, tenderness, and sympathy for people and animals, especially if they are distressed or suffering.  To the extent that a person demonstrates the opposite of such qualities, he or she may be considered to be nonhuman or inhumane.  It is the cruelty to and the destruction of other people that define inhumane; it is the positive involvement with other people that define humane.  Although we are all members of the same species, we tend to differentiate between humans who act in a humane way and those who act in an inhumane way.  Many people consider those who act in inhumane ways (such as serial killers) as not being fully human. 

So the question becomes, does technology, reflected in social media and the coming technology revolution in artificial intelligence, robotics, and other areas, help make us more human?  Can technology be designed to make us more human?  Is it possible that technology will help make us more empathetic when we view the distress of others, more altruistic when we see others in need, more caring even for those who are unable to return the feeling, more willing to take care of unrelated children, more cooperative with friends and strangers, and more empathetic with not only other humans but also with members of other species?  As machines replace other humans, the need for the group may decrease, and thus the basis for human relationships may erode.  Will humans consider their relationships with machines sufficient for living a satisfying and fulfilling life?  Will moral parochialism be reduced to oneself and one’s machines?  Will we still be human when empathy, caring, and compassion are infrequent?  Or, instead of objectifying other humans, could technology increase our ability and motivation to be empathetic, caring, and compassionate?  Can social media, artificial intelligence, robots, and other technological advances be designed to increase human-human interaction and promote the type of interaction that increases our humanness?