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Bioethics: technology changing faster than its users

By Rahul Darwar
On November 5, 2012

On Monday evening a large group of students gathered in the Classroom Building to hear an informative talk about the governance, law, and ethics of emerging technologies by Mr. Wendell Wallach of the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics. The talk, which was sponsored by the Leadership, Legacy and Experience Program and the Department of Student Activities, falls into the program's mission of gathering campus community members to gather and explore the important topics of the day. Mr. Wallach touched upon many important aspects of how human life interacts, and is affected by, the rapidly developing technologies of today and tomorrow.
Mr. Wallach, a consultant, ethicist, and scholar who has been featured in the national and international news media including in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and BBC, started off by flashing pictures of various animals, humans and machines on the screen and asked the audience to determine which category each picture fell into. At first, the audience found the task very easy but things soon became complicated when Mr. Wallach flashed a picture of a robot designed to look exactly like a human. This confusion between what was a robot and who was a human really drove home the point to the audience that technology is much more advanced that we may even realize. These dissolving distinctions between humans, animals, and machines are what some animal activists use to demand that certain animals, like Great Apes, be given the same rights as humans.
In the past the Aristotelian idea of an intelligent, supernatural soul that was distinct from our human bodies is what was used to differentiate us from animals, but the disintegration of the religious and theological concept of the soul has given rise to many different theories about humans and our minds. One of the current ideas about human intelligence, the Computational Theory of the Mind, states that the human mind itself is a computer. This fairly recent theory came about as new advances in the creation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) brought about the creation of machines with intelligence that rivals that of humans. Mr. Wallach believes that the human race was drastically affected by the Industrial, Germ Theory, and Sanitation Revolutions, and modern day humans are currently being transformed by the Biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology revolutions. Mr. Wallach believes that the convergence of these technologies is actually what kick-starts and accelerates our technological developments.
The next part of the lecture had the audience enthralled as Mr. Wallach talked about ideas and theories that seemed straight out of Star Trek, Star Wars or The Matrix.
Some scholars working in the field of bioethics and technological ethics believe that humans face several existential risks, or risks that threaten the very existence of human life on Earth. One of these existential risks is the creation of a technological singularity or a point in time when artificial intelligence drastically improve their own intelligence and outpace human intelligence. Some scholars believe there is a chance that these highly developed and highly intelligence machines may not be friendly towards humans.
Although the future existence of a technological singularity is a hotly debated topic, Mr. Wallach knows that right now, "technology is changing faster than we can adapt."

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