Tran­shu­man­ism: on the ethics of hu­mans, an­i­mals, ma­chines


Some­times I won­der if we hu­mans are re­ally bet­ter than an­i­mals or ma­chines. While watch­ing the news on TV or read­ing the news­pa­per, I of­ten come across beast­like men who are in­fe­rior to an­i­mals and ma­chines. For ex­am­ple, there are those who bru­tally mur­der their own wives to col­lect in­sur­ance money or sex­u­ally abuse their own daugh­ters for plea­sure. Nei­ther an­i­mals nor ma­chines com­mit such hideous crimes. Cru­elty is the domain of hu­mans.

We condemn th­ese hu­mans, com­par­ing them to an­i­mals. For in­stance, we use the word “dog” as an in­sult for th­ese sub­hu­man peo­ple. How­ever, ca­nine lovers would im­me­di­ately protest, say­ing, “Don’t in­sult dogs. Un­like men who fre­quently be­tray oth­ers, dogs are in­cred­i­bly loyal to their masters.”

We crit­i­cize politi­cians who frivolously switch party loy­al­ties, call­ing them “mi­gra­tory birds.” Some time ago, or­nithol­o­gists protested, say­ing, “Don’t in­sult mi­gra­tory birds. They mi­grate in or­der to sur­vive. Politi­cians do it in or­der to gain po­lit­i­cal power.”

In South Korea, we call a sex­ual as­saulter a “wolf.” In fact, how­ever, wolves are any­thing but sex­ual preda­tors. In­stead, they are fa­mous for be­ing monog­a­mous and mat­ing for life.

We also as­sume that hu­mans are bet­ter than ma­chines. Ma­chines, how­ever, are of­ten much more re­li­able and faith­ful than men. Ro­bots, for ex­am­ple, will never ne­glect their du­ties and as­sign­ments.

A hu­manoid hus­band will never cheat on his wife and an an­droid fa­ther will al­ways play with his chil­dren and pro­tect them. If they are made of flesh and blood and look hu­man, they may be bet­ter than un­re­li­able hu­man hus­bands and fa­thers. Take Hol­ly­wood movies, for ex­am­ple. A cy­borg com­mits sui­cide to pre­serve hu­man civ­i­liza­tion in “Ter­mi­na­tor 2,” while an­other cy­borg vol­un­teers to do­nate his heart to a dy­ing man in “Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion.” In­deed, ma­chines are of­ten bet­ter than men.

We may be­lieve that an­i­mals or ma­chines can­not match hu­mans when it comes to in­tel­li­gence or emo­tions. Once again, we may be wrong. Ex­perts as­sert that an­i­mals, too, have sen­si­tive and so­phis­ti­cated feel­ings and ro­bots can pos­sess as­ton­ish­ing in­tel­li­gence.

In­deed, AI tech­nol­ogy suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing a robot whose in­tel­li­gence al­most equals that of hu­mans. In Ja­pan, for ex­am­ple, a robot was smart enough to take the en­trance exam to the Uni­ver­sity of Tokyo even though he failed, while an­other went to space and de­scribed what it saw and how it felt there on its re­turn. In Isaac Asimov’s “The Bi­cen­ten­nial Man,” an an­droid called An­drew de­vel­ops in­tel­li­gence and emo­tion, and fi­nally trans­forms into a hu­man and falls in love with a girl. In the novel, An­drew is bet­ter than any hu­man be­ing in many re­spects.

In fact, we de­pend heav­ily on an­i­mals and ma­chines. It is un­de­ni­able that our life would be bleak if we did not have pets and com­put­ers, both of which have be­come our life­time com­pan­ions.

In to­day’s Korean so­ci­ety, pets are beloved fam­ily mem­bers, with as many as 1 mil­lion fam­i­lies rais­ing them, while com­put­ers are in­dis­pens­able and ubiq­ui­tous. Forty mil­lion among South Korea’s 50-mil­lion-strong pop­u­la­tion are smart­phone users.

That means, vir­tu­ally every­body owns a smart­phone in South Korea, in­clud­ing el­e­men­tary school chil­dren. Be­sides, many peo­ple to­day live with ar­ti­fi­cial or­gans in­side their bod­ies. In­deed, an­i­mals and ma­chines are es­sen­tial parts of our lives now. Per­haps that is why posthu­man­ists in­sist that men are no longer at the cen­ter of na­ture and that we should treat an­i­mals as if they were hu­man.

Tran­shu­man­ists preach that ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies can sig­nif­i­cantly en­hance hu­man ca­pa­bil­i­ties and help us over­come hu­man lim­i­ta­tions.

As for tran­shu­man­ism, how­ever, there may be some prob­lems if we mis­use tech­nolo­gies. In his novel, “NEXT,” Michael Crich­ton in­tro­duces a trans­genic chim­panzee and a par­rot that are in­jected with hu­man genes. The chimp Dave, who can talk, at­tends school but gets into trou­ble when he bites some bul­lies. Mean­while, the in­tel­li­gent par­rot Ger­ard turns out to be a fine tu­tor for a child, help­ing him with his homework. Nev­er­the­less, prob­lems re­main as biased peo­ple still re­gard them as noth­ing more than an­i­mals, pets or ser­vants.

In “In­ferno,” Dan Brown warns about the pos­si­ble mis­use of tech­nol­ogy by way­ward tran­shu­man­ists. In the novel, a tran­shu­man­ist/ ge­neti­cist named Ber­trand Zo­brist wor­ries that Earth now faces an in­evitable dooms­day due to over­pop­u­la­tion. Us­ing ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy, Zo­brist con­spires to stem the pop­u­la­tion growth by in­fect­ing peo­ple with a dis­ease that he dis­sem­i­nates. His at­tempt, how­ever, is in vi­o­la­tion of bioethics in the sense that he tries to ma­nip­u­late the birthrate and dreams of a world in­hab­ited only by ge­net­i­cally su­pe­rior races.

If we hu­mans con­tinue to be­have badly by com­mit­ting crimes such as ter­ror, mur­der and rob­bery, we will be in­fe­rior to an­i­mals and ma­chines. If we hate, slan­der and be­tray oth­ers, or do not tol­er­ate dif­fer­ences, we will also be less than our pets and com­put­ers. As hu­man be­ings, we should be bet­ter than an­i­mals and ma­chines. Who among man, beast and ma­chine is su­pe­rior? I am not quite sure of the an­swer yet. Kim Seong-kon is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of English at Seoul Na­tional Uni­ver­sity and pres­i­dent of the Lit­er­a­ture Trans­la­tion In­sti­tute of Korea.

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