Wow! Don’t I look pretty? You bet…

2011: Homo machina – sapiens?

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Nowadays, almost everybody knows that severely defective joints in the body can be replaced by an artificial joint, made of mostly an alloy called titanium. The joints that are most frequently replaced are the hip, the knee, the shoulder and the elbow. They are known as the large joints, in contrast to the small joints of the fingers for which, if ever replacement is needed (such as in cases of rheumatoid arthritis) it is a plastic-like material (silastic) rather than metal which is used.

People are also familiar with artificial legs, and there are centres which have refined them by packing in sensors which allow for a more coordinated and human-like gait. For those who have lost their hands or forearms, there are similarly constructed forearms/hands, made also of metal, which endow the amputees with the essential functions of the hand, such as grip, and restore their capacity to take care of themselves.

Further on, even the bones of the face if damaged in an accident can now be replaced partially by metal, and this is also true of the skull, for which a customized plate of titanium can be used to close any gap left after an accident or an operation. Natural heart valves can be replaced by ones made of metal if required, and there are mesh-like sheets made of plastic-like material which are used for the repair of hernias in the abdomen. And there is no doubt, as we go on, what with implantable chips and such devices – which are becoming smaller and smaller in size – that scientists and others working in the field will come up with even more daring and innovative replacement materials that will have nothing to ‘envy’ in their natural counterparts in terms of the function(s) they are required to perform.

In orthopaedics metal plates/nails/rods have long been in use to fix broken bones, and dentists use fillings made of metal in the treatment of carious teeth. It can thus be seen that a good number of body parts can be substituted for by metal and other artificial materials, and the possibility of further developments is beyond doubt. On the other hand, we increasingly depend on machines in our daily lives, whether it is the numerous devices in the kitchen at home, our transport, our communication and so on, the list is very long.

In fact, we have gone as far as inventing a humanoid robot, as seen in the picture, that is used for a variety of educational purposes. In the write-up on the robot, called NAO, the website starts by asking not ‘WHAT’ but ‘WHO’ is NAO? The answer is ‘NAO is a humanoid robot that is 58cm tall and weighs 5kg developed by ALDEBARAN Robotics. NAO is an autonomous and interactive robot that is completely programmable. NAO is used today for research and education around the world in prestigious universities and research institutes. ALDEBARAN Robotics is working on a general public version of NAO for 2012,’ and goes on to describe ‘WHAT CAN NAO DO?’ – ‘ NAO has the ability to see, hear, speak, feel and communicate. Using the latest and most innovative technology, NAO is a unique combination of hardware and software designed, developed and built by Aldebaran Robotics. NAO’s special characteristics of fluid movements, the ability to sense and avoid obstacles and the capability to be fully programmed… and comes with complete software and documentation.’ (italics added)
The italicized words beg the question – who has written the programme? Obviously not NAO, but human beings. The point is that at the end of the day, a robot can be humanoid – human-like – but can never become a human being, however there are many characteristics of the latter we may programme into it. Similarly, a human being can behave like a machine – but can never become a machine. However, it is a pity that we have become so mechanical in our habits, behaving like machines in an automatic way, having little time to spare as we are caught in the routine of métro-boulot-dodo.

This tendency has infiltrated in our interactions with each other. In our dealings with our fellow human beings, we mostly strip ourselves of our humanity and face our interlocutors as if they were objects fit only for exploiting, especially if we are addicted to alcohol and other intoxicants which complete the dehumanising process and reduce us to the level of our primitive instincts. Looking at other human beings – from the youngest to the oldest – as objects instead of considering them as fellow human beings deserving of our respect for their dignity could be one of the major reasons for many of the social ills we are witnessing today. And it perhaps comes as no surprise that the most vulnerable should be the weak and defenceless — children, and many women – who become the targets of lust and violence instead of being treated with care. The reality is that, alas, many women may share a degree of responsibility in their own unfortunate situation and its more often than not brutal outcome.

As the years have gone by, and we have made tremendous progress in improving our material conditions of living, we have tended to make short shrift of the finer human emotions, seeking instead quick gratifications. Impatient and always in a hurry, we are unwilling to take the time necessary to understand each other and our respective situations more fully: inevitably we stumble and also tumble, in the process hurting ourselves and others too. We prefer short experiments to lasting experiences that would cumulate over time and add up as our reservoir of wisdom — which alone can help us to withstand the winds that blow about and threaten to make us topple over.

We have forgotten and do not seek to discover our true nature, which is that we are not merely the body with its insatiable demands or, as Teilhard de Chardin so beautifully expressed it, ‘You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.’ The identification solely with the body distracts us from the quest to find the light within and live our lives by its illumination. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, perhaps we could start thinking of ways to become more sapiens and less machina… the journey is likely to be long – but all journeys start with that single step, so we should not be shy or afraid to travel the road.

And as we do so, we must remember what a philosopher has said, to wit that the unexamined life is not worth living. Uniquely as human beings we have the capacity to do that because of our brain, which is more highly developed than that of any other animal. This renders us ‘capable of abstract reasoning, language, introspection, and problem solving. Such mental capability, combined with an erect body carriage that frees the hands for manipulating objects, has allowed humans to make far greater use of tools than any other living species on Earth. Other higher-level thought processes of humans, such as self-awareness, rationality and sapience, are considered to be defining features of what constitutes a “person”.’
My best wishes to all our readers for a Happy New Year and an exhilarating and safe journey on the road to do honour to our sapiens dimension…and try to transmit it to others.

* Published in print edition on 30 December 2010

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