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"Siri never says no"

Does the future belong to cyborgs and intelligent machines? Literature scholar Philipp Theisohn and ethicist Johann Roduit discuss the future of humans and society.
Thomas Gull and Roger Nickl; English translation by Philip Isler


Looking into the future: German literature scholar Philipp Theisohn (left) and ethicist Johann Roduit.
Looking into the future: German literature scholar Philipp Theisohn (left) and ethicist Johann Roduit.


Johann Roduit, Philipp Theisohn, the British artist Neil Harbisson had an antenna implanted in his skull that can receive sounds and transform them into perceptions of color. He is widely considered to be the world’s first cybernetic organism or cyborg, a human-machine hybrid. Will humans merge with machines and technology in the future?

Johann Roduit: I’m not so sure he’s a model for the future. Harbisson is using a new technology to compensate for a shortcoming, as he was born color-blind and can only see the world in black and white. This disability was removed by adding the antenna, but now Harbisson can even perceive infrared and ultraviolet waves. People aren’t normally able to do that. 

Thanks to technology, Harbisson hasn’t only compensated for a shortcoming, but has even enhanced his abilities and can now do things that people without disabilities can’t. Can a disability be turned into an asset?

Roduit: There are other examples of people who for example have high-tech prosthetics and point out that they now have better arms or legs than normal people. In ethics, we can observe how disability is being discussed in different terms – indeed not only as a disadvantage but also as a potential advantage. 

Is a sound body turning into a handicap for elite athletes?

Philipp Theisohn: The most famous example of this is the South African runner Oscar Pistorius, whose prosthetic running blades probably allowed him to run faster than he otherwise could. Or take the Paralympics: An ad for the event tells the story of a good swimmer who loses a leg, but then starts training again with a prosthetic leg and gets incredibly good. She goes from disabled to super-abled, and her disability ultimately leads to a super-ability that exceeds her previous ability to perform. This obviously also marks a historico-cultural shift and the starting point for new stories.

Which stories?

Theisohn: Machines now allow us to compete on a different level. That’s also the major bone of contention. People used to demand that they be allowed to compete in regular athletics championships despite their disability. Today they're a threat to athletes without any disability, because there are runners or triple jumpers who thanks to prosthetics have exceptional abilities compared to conventional athletes. Cyborgs are a reality. They’ve become established in the world of sports, and from there they’re growing into other areas of society. 

So sport is the testing ground for the superman and superwoman of the future? 

Roduit: Sports is indeed a kind of laboratory to test the limits of our bodies. Faster, higher, stronger – that’s what competitive sport is generally about. Athletes want to continuously improve their performance and above all also be better than their competitors. In sport, but also in the military, the enhancements of tomorrow are being tested today. The military too is concerned with expanding the skills of soldiers through technological means. Here too prosthetics are used, or artificial lenses that allow people to zoom in on an object in the distance. For a sniper that’s a very welcome ability. The narrative underpinning these developments in both sports and military is competition. That’s what it boils down to from an ethical and philosophical point of view. We as a society need to ask ourselves whether we want competition to be the dominant narrative. 

Theisohn: That’s right. At the same time, we can – quite thankfully – observe that we’re in the middle of giving up the basic principles of a thinking that, at its core, is discriminatory. Our previous discussions about disabilities were based on a notion of humans that rested on certain abilities and a supposedly perfect, intact and natural body. This implies that there are people who have a shortcoming, which thus makes them incomplete, but instead of crutches or a pair of glasses, we now have intelligent body parts that enhance the body’s capabilities. This changes our understanding of what it means to be human.

In what way?

Theisohn: If for example your goal is to be the fastest man or the fastest woman on the planet, but this goal can only be achieved by having special prosthetics, you’d have to draw the necessary conclusions...

...and have your legs amputated?

Roduit: That's basically what happened with Oscar Pistorius. He was in a wheelchair as a child. His parents decided to amputate his lower legs so that he could get prosthetics. They willfully intervened to get him an upgrade. We’re not that far off from this idea of expanding our body’s abilities through intervention. Actually, we’ve already been doing so for quite a while.

Do machines also change our brains?

Theisohn: I don’t have any students with antennas in their heads in my seminars, but most have a laptop in front of them. So they’re basically already tapping into the knowledge of machines. We’re already working in cyborg structures today. This applies to our society in general.

But the devices are still external, they’re not implanted chips or something of the sort. 

Theisohn: But cyborgization is already under way, regardless of whether we’re connected to external devices or have intelligent prosthetics. The technological possibilities are changing our thought patterns, our desires, how we organize our days and lives, our love life. All of these things are already set up digitally, and that’s often not as clear to us as it should be. Even our smartphones are much more than telephones and information devices – they’re our entry point into a different world that has its very own laws. When we connect with machines, we also change our needs, because machines operate at an entirely different speed. I’m convinced that communicating on WhatsApp, for example, sets off entirely different desires, expectations and needs than say a relationship that is based on writing postcards or seeing each other regularly.

In what way does it change our needs?

Theisohn: A machine has endurance. Siri never says no to working for me. If I have the need for others to react to me, WhatsApp allows me to be on permanent standby. Every form of reaction, even if I don’t react at all, sends a signal. This also affects our level of excitement. With our emotional restraint, which largely still marked the romances of the 20th century, we’re simply unable to really operate these devices. We’re being ramped up to the point that our highs last longer and one state of ecstasy chases another – and all the while we’re edging closer and closer to emotional collapse. Streams of data have their own dynamic, and they’re changing us. 

Roduit: I often speak with philosophers. If you look at the lives of philosophers in the 16th and 17th centuries, their time was spent reading books and taking part in society. Today we mostly just sit in front of and interact with computers – in a way, this means we’re already cyborgs. You could also say that it’s dehumanizing. The machines and the internet have changed us within an incredibly short period of time. I don’t think we’re fully grasping the implications of these changes.

So the machines have already conquered us then?

Theisohn: In the past that’s probably how we’d have put it, but today we’d struggle to use those words. That’s the whole paradigm shift right there. For example, the national census in Germany in the early 1980s caused a huge uproar, despite the fact that the volume of data collected at the time was laughably small compared to today. Back then people accused the state of spying on its citizens. From a 2018 perspective, this opposition seems absurd. Today we’re in an entirely different place. We might know that we’re being manipulated by Cambridge Analytica and what Facebook is doing with our data, and yet we still stay the course. Because we can no longer go back. 

How do you see the future? Optimists are convinced that everything will get better – humans themselves and their abilities. On the other hand, there are nightmare visions of machines taking over power and enslaving humanity. Where are we heading? 

Theisohn: When it comes to self-learning machines we can no longer act as if they’re merely vacuum cleaners. They might go on to take on a function that makes us dependent on them. If this happens, it’d be good if the machine didn’t treat people the way it treats objects. Otherwise we’re in trouble. 

What can we do?

Theisohn: Machines learn their behavior from us. If we treat them like machines, then they’ll treat us the same. That’s why we have to start handling machines in a more human way.

Roduit: If our opinion is that efficiency is the only thing that counts, then we can let machines take on the majority of work. They work faster, better and more efficiently than we do. But then there’s the question of what happens to the people.

Theisohn: That’s a crucial question. Of course artificial intelligence changes our working life. Some jobs will disappear and be replaced by others. It’s a fact that that machines can do many things more efficiently than humans. And yet I still believe that the machines should carry out the tasks at which they’re better than humans. 

Will we become superfluous?

Theisohn: No, far from it. We’ll only become superfluous if we define ourselves through tasks that machines can do better than us. But we might have an entirely different purpose in life. It could free us up to do something completely different with our time and energy. The problem that we must solve, however, is to find out how people can survive in a capitalist economy when all the work is done by machines. There are a number of ideas here. For example, today the most valuable businesses on the planet no longer produce anything – they make money by collecting our data. So maybe we should get paid for sharing our data. Or we have to completely redefine the notions of work and salary.

Roduit: We’ve developed all this technology in order to make our lives easier. But we’re still working for as long as we did before the digital revolution. More so even: We’re supposed to be more and more productive. I think we should take more breaks and focus on other things. I don’t believe we’ll be superfluous either – we’ll simply be people.

What would we have to change to benefit more from technology?

Roduit: I see us as competing in a rat race of constant improvement, spurred on by the idea of being better and more productive than others. That’s certainly a part of our human nature. But then there’s also our capacity for cooperation that sets us apart. I believe we’ve taken the idea of competition too far. We should go back to cooperating more instead of wanting to be more and more productive and efficient. If we continue with the same way of thinking, we’ll all be disabled, because competition never ends – well, maybe one day when there’s a cyborg that can win it all.

Theisohn: That’s why we have to tackle the issue at a more fundamental level. Maybe the answer to the question of what it means to be human is an entirely different one from what we’ve been imagining. This never-ending cycle of competition will only go on for as long as we’re in it. Our communication tools have now come so far that we can no longer keep up and only get dragged along. I doubt that constantly having to interact with machines is good for us, since it often puts a strain on us, as machines never get tired. That’s perhaps why we should tell ourselves: OK, there are areas where we’ll let the machines do their own thing. And we have to ask ourselves: What else we can do? 

Humans and machines coexisting in peace?

Roduit: Yes, we should ask ourselves how we can improve our cooperation with artificial intelligence, other species and the environment. 

Theisohn: Our goal should be to avoid an us-versus-them thinking and instead create a world in which different life forms can exist side by side. We won’t be enslaved by robots, nor will they be our slaves, but they would help us to lead lives that we consider worth living. If we look at the lives of a majority of people, I don’t think we can seriously reject this idea. I wouldn’t exactly say that I’m euphoric, but I am optimistic about technology being able to help us create better living and work conditions for many people.

Should we look forward to the future?

Roduit: We should look forward to the future, because it brings new things.

Theisohn: Yes, we should look forward to it, since we don’t have a choice anyway. The future is coming. One way or another.


Weiterführende Informationen

UZH Magazin

This interview was published in UZH Magazin 2/18.