by Sean A. Riley, PhD
We are all cyborgs. That is to say, we all use technology to enhance our experiences and extend our physical and mental powers. On the weakest definition of a cyborg, the first humans to use tools to hunt or gather food or build shelters or clothe themselves were cyborgs already. Of course, we tend to use the word “cyborg” more strictly than that, referring to a being who has replaced about fifty percent of her human parts with mechanical parts. Those cyborgs of science fiction do not yet exist, but we ought not to think of the difference between such cyborgs and ourselves as a difference in kind but rather in degree. We are well on our way from using sharpened sticks to kill tasty animals to being Darth Vader or RoboCop. Contact lenses, pacemakers, prosthetics, and smart phones are already ubiquitous, and soon wearable tech will become commonplace. Many of us spend several hours per day in a mechanical transport vehicle, and most of what we do in them we do unconsciously. And most of us even store our memories in external brains we call discs, cards, and drives. Our children and grandchildren will be even more cybernetic than we are. The future of technological development promises increased melding of human and artificial body parts and increased use of technology to enhance human experience and extend human powers.
The prospect of a more cybernetic future may be frightening, but I think we need not be frightened of cyborgs as such. Though we are cyborgs, we are still human, and we can utilize technology to achieve genuinely human goods. Our bionic children will use their technology to do what they would do otherwise better if we train them up in the way they should go. We may rightly worry that they will become all the more vicious through the extension of their powers – “improved means to an unimproved end,” as Thoreau put it. We may wish them to lack their performance-enhancing technology just as we might prefer to be burgled by an incompetent or ill-equipped burglar if we’re going to be burgled at all. However, it would be foolish for the virtuous to resist entirely the propagation of cyborgs just as it would have been foolish for the early Christian monks to resist the technological advancement of written communication in favor of the more natural mode of preserving culture through oral tradition.
The Robot Apocalypse
Though we ought not to fear our cyborg successors any more than we fear our cyborg selves, we ought to fear the coming robot apocalypse. The science fiction robot apocalypse narrative runs something like this: First, humans develop robotic technology to serve their interests. Some of the robots clean, others cook, and others shoot enemies. Eventually, the robots develop artificial intelligence, become aware that they are superior beings enslaved by inferior beings, stage a revolution against their human overlords, and attempt to enslave them or wipe them off the face of the earth. The story involves robots becoming something very much like humans before casting off their fleshy oppressors. They exhibit self-awareness, free will, lust for power, and violence. Though most of their reasoning appears cold and calculating, such reasoning is always instrumental reasoning in service of all-too-human ends like survival, revenge, dominance, and glory. These stories almost always resolve romantically. Some unlikely human creative genius emerges utilizing his instincts and emotions to foil the utilitarian logic of the robots. And, in some cases, some incredibly advanced robot with human emotions plays turncoat and helps the human race survive. Such a narrative is romantic, assuming that humans are at bottom good and that by tapping into their primordial goodness through creative expression, they can overthrow the rational robots and the evil scientists who created them. Such endings may sell paperbacks and movie tickets, but they are unlikely to convince us that our future is secure in the coming robot revolution.
I think we need not fear that sort of robot revolution. Such stories involve a questionable mechanistic view of human nature that makes possible the development of the sort of artificial intelligence needed for robots to make a conscious decision to rebel. We do not know whether such advances are possible, and if they are, they are still a long way off. That does not mean that we do not have anything to fear. Indeed, we ought to fear robots, not because they will consciously choose to enslave or destroy our grandchildren but because they will enslave and eventually use robots to destroy themselves.
There are two ways to imagine this happening. The first is to imagine human beings using robots (i.e. drones, robotic soldiers) to destroy other human beings. On such a narrative, humans will use warrior robots to enslave or destroy other human beings. Humans using technology to kill humans has been a danger for a very long time. Our awareness of our ability to destroy the entire human race is in part what may continue to deter us from utilizing weapons of mass destruction to their fullest capacity. The second way is to imagine us enslaving and destroying ourselves individually and voluntarily by means of experience machines, like the ones envisioned by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, the State, and Utopia. Such a fate is far more likely, and we are well on our way to seeing it realized.
The Experience Machine
Robert Nozick writes “Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain.” Nozick asks us whether we would plug ourselves in. He says we would not, and for good reasons. On Nozick’s view, more matters to us than having pleasurable experiences. Hence, morality cannot be reduced to maximizing pleasure, as the utilitarians would have it. According to Nozick, we not only want to have pleasurable experiences, we want to actually do certain things, to bea certain way (i.e. not be a blob in a vat), and to live in a world that is greater than that constructed by human beings. In other words, Nozick believes that we all recognize the value of embodied human action, the value of human flourishing, and the value of wonder and mystery. According to Nozick, “Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide,” for it destroys what we are to make room for how we feel inside.
I really want to believe that Nozick is right that given the choice, no one would plug into the experience machine, but I am afraid Nozick must only be talking about properly formed human beings or those mythical demigods of the philosophical imagination – so-called ideal rational agents. When I share this thought experiment with my high school students, generally more than half of them enthusiastically assert their desire to plug in. This should not be surprising, for many of them spend most of their waking hours outside of the classroom plugged into early prototypes of the experience machine, and many adults who have remained moral teenagers are doing the same. In reality, the machine that existed only in Nozick’s mind in 1974 is well on its way to being constructed. Most of us have a miniature mock-up of the machine in our pockets. We turn to our devices religiously to inform, comfort, and most of all,entertain us. TV’s, cell phones, and computers, which were originally billed as making possible enhanced productivity and improved education have been all but reduced to devices though which human customers can consume entertainment. Our electronic devices have become ready-at-hand for us, appendages in the same way a hammer is an extension of the master carpenter’s hand. And if anyone doubts that, try to take a teenager’s cell phone away.
I find it entirely possible that we will eventually create a machine that will maintain the human body through nutrition and muscle stimulation and entertain the mind through pleasurable stimuli. The creators of the machine will promise you complete control of your entire world. If you run out of ideas for experiences, it will make recommendations like Amazon.com does with its products. As you inevitably get bored with these constructed experiences, the machine will recommend increasingly intense experiences to satisfy your intemperate appetites. Eventually, you will become addicted and opt to remain in the machine forever. Thus in this technological nirvana you will find your embodiment will be minimized, your will eroded away, and your reason rendered nearly inoperable.
Even if such a future is unlikely, we can see it as a possibility, as one imagined possibility. And because it is imaginatively possible, we do indeed need to fear the robot revolution. We can see it already underway. We are moving in that direction. The robots are winning the war. In contrast to the robot revolutions of science fiction, however, their war is not one of consciously chosen rebellion against humanity. Rather, the robots are winning the war by conversion. They are attempting to capture our hearts by giving us everything we want. Or, more accurately, we are attempting to give ourselves what we think we want by means of them. Dr. Faustus will no longer need the devil to promise him the world in exchange for his soul. The Dr. Faustus of the future will sell his soul to a devil of his own making.
So how do we train our cyborg children to resist the robot revolution? The only defense we have is to help them to see the greater value of life outside the experience machine. You will recall that Nozick believes people will not plug in because they value embodied action, a life of virtue, and the splendor of a world they have not created. Unfortunately, much of what passes for education today aims not at embodied action, virtue, and wonder but at exactly the sorts of things that can be delivered nearly as well by experience machines: the transmission of information, the acquisition of basic skills, and entertainment. Of course, even in schools that explicitly state that their highest goals are that of empowerment by means of information and technical skill acquisition, individual teachers are inspiring students to engage in embodied action, to live virtuously, and to marvel at creation. However, such aberrant behavior will increasingly become difficult. The recent trend has been to start replacing classroom instruction with online instruction. Doing so makes sense to administrators who fail to understand the higher purpose of education. In their minds, online courses can transmit information and provide basic skill training nearly as well as can classroom instruction, they are accessible to a larger market than are traditional classes, and they require less overhead. The logic of transitioning to online courses is fairly sound if the purpose of education is simply to transmit information and train students in basic skills. The problem is that that sort of education will not assist our bionic children in the coming robot revolution. They need more than that if they are going to resist self-enslavement to pleasure-generators. If online education simply replaces classroom instruction, we risk losing some of the things that make us uniquely human.
So what is the solution? Should we smash our smart phones and wage a Luddite war on online education? I do not think that is necessary, though I understand the temptation. It seems to me that classroom teachers ought not to fear online education but embrace it as a means to freeing up classroom time for the humanities and humanizing pedagogies. Why not allow online education do what it is pretty good at – transmitting information and providing training in basic skills? Doing so would allow traditional classroom teachers more time to apprentice their students in embodied action, virtue, and wonder. The solution is certainly not to continue teaching classroom- based courses the same way as online courses are taught. A classroom-based course needs to be more than a syllabus, some lectures, and assessments based on the readings and lectures. It must be a place where things happen that are not easily duplicated by technology, where humanizing pedagogies are the norm.
Thus, I propose allowing information transmission and basic skill development to be given over to online education and having teachers turn their classes into laboratories of virtue, where students participate in humanizing practices of embodied virtuous action, engage in conversations about the nature of the good life, and where they are encouraged and inspired to orient themselves towards the world in such a way that the more they learn, the more they wonder.
I will start with embodied action. Our schools should train cyborg students to do good with their bodies. They ought to be singing, chanting, praying, cleaning, cooking, experimenting, and playing regularly. They ought to be looking other people in the eyes, standing up to make speeches, and imitating exemplary role models. They should even occasionally give high fives, pats on the back, and hugs. They should be doing service projects related to the content of the course, and those service projects should involve them getting messy and sweaty.
In addition to embodied classroom activity, cybernetic students need the time and space to disconnect from their mini-experience machines. During two recent school years, hurricanes hit our Long Island boarding school campus after the boarders arrived. We were without power for many days. Our students learned how to disconnect, how to be fully present with each other, how to follow their bodies’ natural sleeping rhythms. Many complained about what they were missing, but most could also articulate what they gained by being forced to confront their embodied connections to those around them and disconnectedness from their games, movies, and social media sites. The experience gave them a touchpoint in later conversations about their relationship to technology. We cannot plan a hurricane every year, but camping trips can provide a similar experience, as can school-wide technology sabbaths. Such experiences are essential to our students’ moral and intellectual growth.
Apprenticeship in Virtue
In the classroom, cyborg students should be training their minds to know the good and preparing their hearts to love the good. In my classes, I thus aim at cultivating the intellectual virtues needed to help students arrive at truth, and the moral virtues needed to have a good face-to-face conversation. I rarely lecture anymore. I let the book we are reading do the lecturing, and if needed, I post a presentation online for my students to view. I have instead moved to a seminar model because I believe it better trains students in virtues that will help them for the rest of their lives. The night before class, I propose a seminar question. Students then do their reading with the seminar question in mind. They come the next day knowing that each of them must contribute to the conversation. As they discuss the seminar question, I encourage them to construct their case in a simplified logical form and write it on the whiteboard so that we can all analyze the argument for validity and the premises for their truth-value. Other students then jump in with challenges to the weakest premises. I require them to put their challenges in logical form as well so that they themselves can be challenged. By developing the intellectual virtue of logical demonstration they grow in understanding. I also require them to address each other humbly and charitably, to re-present their opponent’s position to the opponent’s satisfaction before proceeding with critique, and to concede when they have been disproven. The back-and-forth interaction we have is not easily replicated in an online format, nor is the immediate feedback I can give as an instructor, feedback that is sensitive to their body language as well as their stated claims. The conversation moves too quickly and requires the students to exercise virtues rarely found in online discussion boards.
The embodied nature of classroom interaction also increases accountability. My students are having the conversation with their peers and with their teacher face-to-face, so they have exemplars to imitate and social pressure to treat each other charitably. As they speak, they realize that they will be eating meals with these people, playing sports with them, and maybe even sharing a dorm room with them later in the day, so they cannot treat them inhumanly without social consequences. Another twist I have used involves students writing arguments in paragraph form in prose and then projecting that prose onto the whiteboard for public critique, using a grammar and logic rubric. Again, the point is to generate accountability by making the writer physically stand in front of her work and asking her peers for help with it. Those doing the helping learn to speak the truth in love to the writer. Since each student takes a turn being up front, they empathize with each other and learn to do to others as they would have done to them.
Cultivation of Wonder
Finally, teachers need to model wonder and help reorient their students’ hearts towards the world so that they can marvel at it, too. The default position of a student entering a classroom is to think of the subject matter as something that must be mastered and then used as a means of passing an assessment. Teachers must actively challenge this notion. To do that, I recommend opening class with a prayer of thanksgiving to God for creating such a wondrous world, followed by a corporate confession that we have abused God’s world by trying to reduce it to something that can be conquered, and then by supplication that God will open our hearts and minds to receive His creation as a gift. During the class, the focus should be on wondering together, thinking carefully about things that we can grow to understand more fully but never fully master. I recommend also the practice of closing class with further questions that were not explored during the seminar so that students realize that while they have made some progress towards understanding, they have not exhausted the question. In fact, by gaining understanding, they understand more of what they do not know. Teachers also must themselves be awestruck by what they are studying and then model wonder regularly. If the teacher thinks he has mastered the content of the course then students will follow his lead and try to master it, too. If the teacher views himself as being on a quest for wisdom and understanding, then the students will join in on the adventure.
To conclude, we are all cyborgs, and our grandchildren will be even more cybernetic than we are. Our greatest danger is ourselves, that we will willingly enslave ourselves to objects of our own creation, that we will bow down to the golden calves of the coming age, machines that not only promise but can deliver immediate and sustained pleasure. The only way we can avoid such a fate is to study the humanities by means of humanizing pedagogies, pedagogies that reorient our hearts towards what is actually true, good, and beautiful. If we do not train up a generation of virtuous cyborgs, the robots will have their victory without having to go to the trouble of developing a rebellious will.