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Anab Jain



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As unmanned drones, algorithms and prosthetics blur the distinction between man and machine, what, if anything, does it mean to be human?

Live TED Conversation: Join TED Fellow Anab Jain

Anab is a designer and founder of the London and India based collaborative design studio Superflux. Between the speculative, magical and the everyday, her work creates new ways in which we will interact with new and emerging technologies.

This conversation will open at 12pm EST on October 17th.


Closing Statement from Anab Jain

Thanks everyone who participated in this conversation, its been hugely stimulating and fun! Some fascinating themes around ethics, 'evolving idea of 'nature' and extreme technological scenarios emerged. Well, hopefully we can build on this again in the future!

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  • Oct 17 2011: Much has been said about "AI" and "smart machines or computers". The question is, where does the line become so blurred as to be indistinguishable. With the "right" programming and manufacturing, the line may indeed become blurred, i.e., android. However, no matter how intricate the program, the human qualities of spirit and curiosity and intuition will remain unique. Not all humans want to become part of the "digital age". There are plenty of people on this planet who are quite content to live in harmony with nature without "benefit" of technology. Their connection with the natural world and their perspective of spiritual world are characteristics unlikely to be duplicated by a mechanical "man". The ability of the human mind to look at a person, an object, a place, and see something not perceived by "senses" cannot be "manufactured". Personally, I don't see the benefit of trying. We thrive on the unexpected, even on failure, for those are experiences through which we grow.
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      Oct 17 2011: Hi Mark, thats a great comment! I couldnt disagree, you're right, about the ability to see, as not being manufactured. But what happens to a person who is visually impaired, received a new virus and a headset that gives him prosthetics vision, and he is now able to see - in fact see in electromagnetic spectrums not visible to the normal eye? What happens to his 'senses', his memories', his sense of 'reality'? Is that manufactured? And would others want this 'supersighted' world too? I think its not so much about one vs. the other, its about creating a space where responsible design and thinking could allow us to explore those possibilities. Because the technology is already racing ahead...
      • Oct 17 2011: I know the tech in restoring vision is making progress and the emotional impact to a recipient is huge. Using tech to "repair" a body, whether due to injury or birth defect, may be a worthwhile project. But that brings in the question again of how much do we change ourselves to our own liking? The prosthetic "eye" may provide a new view of the world, and the memories thus created are no less real. Those are not manufactured, granted. But is it "right" to make that kind of change, or are we intended to live with the limitations and challenges presented to us? For from such experiences we also learn a great many lessons that a machine cannot.
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    Oct 17 2011: The astonishing capacity to observe ourselves: how we act, feel and react from the director's chair in the back of our own brains.
  • Oct 17 2011: This is an interesting topic, it reminds me of the 'Ship of Theseus' by the Greek historian Plutarch.

    "The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same."
    —Plutarch, Theseus

    I cannot stand to believe that a lack of limbs or functionality will make one less human. We are not that different from machines in the first place except for the limited time span we inhabit the planet, each of us, a bio-machine, how can we ascertain what it means to be human by physical nature alone. The pillar of humanity has always been around building societies, knowledge and expansion. The core fundamentals of what makes us human in my opinion should not be limited to our physical nature but our actions and their consequences as well. Computers are approaching an age where everything is faster, 'smarter' but still infantile in development. Being human to me means development and I think that technology is not there yet to stand completely alone.
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    Oct 17 2011: Morality, Ethics, Emotion, Laughter, Empathy, Free Will, Irrationality all of it makes us human, which machines may never be able to replicate.
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    Oct 17 2011: I think to fail is to be human; failure being just another mode of creativity.

    I figure we'll be increasingly interactive with our environment through the use of technology, but where will the line be drawn to delineate interacting and creating our environment? What is natural anymore?
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    Oct 17 2011: I believe human consciousness sets us apart from machines.
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    Oct 17 2011: Being human is highly over-rated...if there is one common denominator all humans share, it would be that we all make mistakes; some lucky, some unfortunate ones. Almost anything can be put into an algorithm, that's why we all are creatures of habit cos we work on our own disturbing standards of logic. Infact, the entire world of machine is reflection of man's need for order. That's the reconcilation point of man and machine.
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      Oct 17 2011: thats a great comment Dean! Very intrigued by your idea of the 'disturbing standards of logic'. Although wonder if machines make mistakes too? What happens if a trading alogorithm 'forgot', or began to display a certain level of autonomy? We witnessed something of the kind recently...
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        Oct 17 2011: ha...if we are worried that machines will over take man, that can never happen cos we are the perfect machines.All the differences like conscience, ethics etc make us the ultimate terminator. No matter how bad the digital world be, humans will always manage to screw up worse, atleast mahchines dont whine abt it and they listen. Besides, if we want to predict and prepare, well we are not in any better position than fred flintston...yabba dabba dooo....autonomous machine are just stubborn empoyees, we will find a way.
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          Oct 17 2011: Check this post by Jamais Cascio: http://openthefuture.com/2008/03/superempowered_hopeful_individ.html
          Think its not so much about the best or worst case scenarios, about the world where scary technologies will either take us to doom, or humans will always win. I think these technologies can be used for *both* good and ill. So, we might be firefighters (continually putting out new emerging crisis and runaway, 'rogue' technologies), but we'll have the tools to do so?
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          Oct 17 2011: Dean, machines hardly reacts as we (beg to disagree with mankind being the "perfect machines" as we evolve and learn on non-standard patterns), and they usually fail with moral and ethical dillemas (a little bit like we humans, but that's part of the "human experience"). Even going as far as the brain-mapping and reproducing it into "machine thinking", I believe it would still fail when new scenarios proposal (what would happen if a machine, build to react to black and white, face a coloured situation?, and this is a basic example, as there are no moral or ethical issues underlined).
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          Oct 17 2011: "We will find a way" says it all about being human. Would you say the difference is from our perspective as 'humans' in that we're not machines/humans? Everything is measurable it seems, and what's measurable is manageable; isn't that what logic is? I'm starting to see logic itself as something we label 'machine' because of the reasonable expectations we put on everything.
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        Oct 17 2011: ahh..mutually assured destruction is the only thing that man fears and respects. Whatever restrictions be imposed, in some corner, in a damp basement, a nerdy guy is hard at work just for amusement. If and when man realises his impending doom, self preservation will kick in and his disturbing stds of logic will do all sorta dances. But, however, it cannot be a pre-emptive strike, only curative one, figuratively speaking cos man doesnt learn the easy way. the dichotomy of good and evil is the prime HUMAN ASPECT.
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        Oct 17 2011: @Joao alex........as far as machine designed to react to b/w, we need a better coding, but wrt ethical dilemas and moral issues agn we do not fair any better than machines, thats why we have dilemmas cos none of us think on solid logic and is based on highly individualistic judgements. If there is only one solution to a given problem, i suppose algorithm seals the deal, but when many solutions present with variations, it is a matter of choice and if this faculty make us better than machines or the lack of it make machines inefficient is actually very debatable.
  • Oct 17 2011: To be human is to partake in both physical and divine existence. We create technology, but not vice-versa. In us, life is a given for the period of our physical existence; when it leaves our bodies, they decay. This is not so in a machine made by the hands of man.
  • Oct 17 2011: @Al-Amin, how do you decide who's definition of right and wrong to use? You stated that we KNOW what is right and what is wrong, but history shows that human ideals of good and evil, right and wrong, change over time. At one point in time, it was considered right to keep slaves. Now that is unthinkable to most people. I don't believe conscience is absolute, but is mutable.
    An algorithm can learn to think "outside the box". There are machine learning AI which can evaluate situations and come up with unique solutions that the human programmers never intended.
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    Oct 17 2011: One name pops into my mind when it comes to this subject: Ray Kurzweil
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      Oct 17 2011: Joice, what do you think of Ray Kurzweil's work? Are we just information?
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        Oct 17 2011: The anime Ghost in the Machine also talks about this. We are nothing but the sum of our memories.
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        Oct 17 2011: I think Ray Kurzweil is brilliant in his work & theories about the future. I am very intrigued & excited by the idea of humans emerging with machines/computers. I would love for (at least) my brain to be downloaded into a computer that have the potential to immortalize my consciousness that could perhaps be transferred into an immortal body, capable of ever-learning, and ever-evolving! I am a big fan of Battlestar Galactica, and just like everything else in life, that inspiring yet awakening Sci-Fi series showed the pros & cons of it all. To the deepest level, we all have the desire to have "more time" to learn & enjoy our universe, so why not make it a reality? We have gone this far & I have no doubt we can and able to go further. I want to elaborate further, but I know our time in this conversation is limited. =) Good day all! =D Oh & call me by my middle name, Nita. =)
  • Oct 17 2011: @Parth and @Anab; having a conscience def seems to be part of this response, but then we could say "well, what if we come up with all the right rules and agree on them" - certainly these "rules" could be used a basis to develop technologies. In this case, innovations to drones and prosthetics could be in some compliance with our rules and conscience.

    I think most people would be uncomfortable with that thought. But that is because perhaps we take conscience for granted. It is not only having a feeling about what is right and wrong; it seems to involve KNOWING what is right and wrong. This is something an algorithm cannot do; it cannot think outside of the box it is programmed to be.
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      Oct 17 2011: Coming up with these 'right rules' might be quite a challenge I think. Although i feel the distinction between the drones or algorithms and prosthetics is that the latter extend and shift our capacities - something like an added dimension of the 'human'... while drones and algorithsm are programmed to a certain behaviour. And thats why prosthetics could be quite fascinating. To be able to smell or see the world in a way we hadnt before... something we are working on in this project: http://www.superflux.in/work/song-machine
      • Oct 17 2011: I get you now Anab. And I agree coming up with rules, if any, would be extremely difficult. The Sound of the Machine looks amazing, although one thing remains puzzling for me. Can we say that Mark (from the video) can see anything he wants to see? Or, rather, do we say that Mark will see whatever his prosthetics see?
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          Oct 17 2011: Mark will see 'through his prosthetics'... but he will be able to control the spectrum through his handheld device, that will talk to his headset, which in turn will translate light into photos that will reach his nerve cells. Complicated, but really fascinating!
    • Oct 17 2011: Are ethical qualities subjectively reachable in the first place? The Utilitarianism prevalent in today's ethics isn't quite getting the job done, in my opinion.
      • Oct 17 2011: @Dan It would be difficult to discuss all the terms you bring up, though they all warrant discussion. I do want to ask, however, in response to your question: Can a world where there is an all-objective code of ethics and no inclusion of subjectivity be imagined? If the answer to that is yes, then your question is makes sense. But if the answer to that is no, then I think we need to understand what is subjective about ethics first in order to discuss universal ethics.
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          Oct 17 2011: I see the subjectiveness as being the various cultural perspectives. It seems like it'd be nice to have everything seen one way but that diversity is pretty beneficial in practice. Is there a way to understand it all enough to create an universal ethical code? I see this is as why so many resort immediately to Asimov's 3 Laws.
  • Oct 17 2011: We are giving machines the ability to act on their own, to search out and find things that we cannot account for before hand. This is the heart of machine learning AI. I don't see our ability to act as unique anymore.
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    Oct 17 2011: The importance of having a body is ofter undervalued by proponents of Artificial Intelligence. It's interesting to look at the literature about "embodied cognition". The researchers in this field believe that the nature of the human mind is largely determined by the form of the human body: The perceptual system, the ability to move, activities and interactions with our environment and the naive understanding of the world that is built into the body and the brain.

    Researchers in robotics are also interested in the different kind of cognition that can emerge out of machines.
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    Oct 17 2011: What it is to be human?
    See this.
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    Oct 17 2011: Is it possible (of fair to dream over it in the nearest Future) to have machines "thinking" in Good and Evil terms? (throwing in an example, can a machine choose between "lesser evils"?, as the human dillema of not letting someone starve by stealing).
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      Oct 17 2011: Hey Joao, Do you think we, as people, are particularly good at making those kind of decisions? What about cognitive biases: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias - We've all we've got all this evolutionary, irrational stuff hardwired in our brains which impedes our ability to see the world as it really is... but perhaps that's a good thing?
    • Oct 17 2011: This reminds me of the movie Wargames. When the computer felt that people could not make a logical choice to retaliate against a preemptive nuclear strike, it took the power away from people to push the button. When it was taught that thermonuclear war was not beneficial to both sides, it chose to not launch the missiles. Computers can only be taught in logic and reason. I would hesitate to say, but I think that if a machines directive, such as Asimovs 3 Laws, were in affect, it would reason that the survival of someone would be better than preventing the crime of theft.
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    Oct 17 2011: I would hope a Universally Accepted code of Ethics be adopted by all wishing to play Creator.
    • Oct 17 2011: If the code of ethics is adopted by all the Creator-wannabes, doesn't that exclude the ethics of those who oppose such a concept?
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      Oct 17 2011: How specific would this be though? We have an ETHOS week at Eastern Michigan University that does a great job of bringing ethics to the forefront. I wonder though with so many cultures in the world how will any one set be definitive for the rest?
  • Oct 17 2011: What an exciting discussion where we can revisit Asimov's 3 laws of Robotics. So then what happens when they become self-aware in about 20 years and program themselves? (repost of a question from Lisa Dawley in a Facebook conversation)...and on the topic of technology being the extension of the human body (phone/mouth, car/legs....), what happens to humanity (or its definition) if/when we are able to download our consciousness? There is already much work on how brain waves influences objects in real time (driving a car, manipulating the Seattle's tower lights...).
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      Oct 17 2011: Hey Sabine, thanks for the comment! I am a bit uncertain about the idea of 'downloading our consciousness'... Do you really think that can be done 'intact'? And if so, what would happen if there were two of 'her' (a digital version and a physical version)? And, thinking of corrupted files on computers, what would happen if your consciousness was corrupted?
      • Oct 17 2011: Good point. A code of Ethics would certainly include a clause such as such download to happen when the physical person is dying and avoid a duplication of "self." It could certainly offer a direct connection to "wise elders" (imagine if we could just connect to McLuhan and ask him what he thinks about those iPads and how he would revise his "the medium is the message" edition with the new technology)....or Steve Jobs to continue to inspire. File corruption is certainly an issue. I do not have any suggestion for it, considering that even federal secrets seem not to be immune to hacking. ...Unless we can figure out a character recognition software that self-correct aberrations showing up in the downloaded consciousness (or a "back-to-prior" history reboot management tool). and, no, right now I do not think that it can be done or done intact. The technology still has to catch up with futurist propositions (that would include software such as advanced intelligent agents as well as hardware to allow for the download).
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        Oct 17 2011: Doesn't it brings back the "Johnny Mnemonic" storyline, this issue? Mankind does produce Cultural works (as paintings, monuments and such) because of the awareness of our "time boundaries", and phisical limitations (in the movie I propose as example, the human brain wasn't prepared to store unlimited information): the conscient thought that we don't live forever is one of the things shouldn't be built-in the machanies, as they would not understand the "human concept" of continuous learning, and that is the main goal of the living. As for "copy-paste conciousness", it seems that is exaclty what make us humans, the unicity of how 2 (human) beings being able to react differently when meeting the same set of stimulous.
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    Oct 17 2011: More as an example for reflection than a topic for debate: as the new generation, specially kids, play videogames related to the "unhuman super humans" (special powers and such) - there is one called Deus Ex that approach the ethical question on the boudaries of human body tampering, but I'm from a generation where we had Bioonenic Man with an extensible arm.

    If we had the change to choose between having or not a third arm (limb), and the chance of choosing if that 3rd limb is geneticly build or a technological appendix how "human" would be the justification: a Good or Evil one, or an "inhuman"?
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        Oct 17 2011: Hi Justin. I haven't, that you for the link (I'm reading it right now, and it seems to be a very good article). When I refer to the Deus Ex videogame I was more interested on the nowadays technological advantages that could "throw" a base of examples (such as the documentary made for merchandising of the game, in www.youtube.com/watch?v=TW78wbN-WuU). What I've read so far, I would inclined myself on the discussion over the "controlling government issues", and it wasn't my intention to go through that path. Instead, I believe the focus of the discussion should be the inability of machines to choose fairly over the human dillemas: regarding the example I gave, it would go in the same line of thought as "is the spear a Good or Evil technological artefact" (or any other advance, such as gunpowder, computers or any other that would provide any sort of advantage).

        The aim of this example was more for the ethical questions, I guess: are the machines (even with high levels of built-in perceptions and fast information processing) able to "think" in "Good and Evil" terms, or if they are just meant to follow orders by choosing between "right or wrong".

        (by the way, great article: reaches the "darkly issues" of the underlined of the Deus Ex series, and throws others examples that should be more openly debated. Thank you Justin)
        • Oct 17 2011: The site just ate my comment! Sorry about that, Joao.
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      Oct 17 2011: in the new Deus Ex game, they cut off your biological limbs to put mechanical limbs, and injected constant chemicals in the body to make sure they were not rejected by the immune system. the ethical issue was that the main character was about to die and they did not take his permission to convert him into an augmented human, which is why he had hard feelings and pretty much killed anyone in his path. This is the thing, tech will happen, people will be needed to be experimented on. Imagine the next guy in the 3rd world who pulls the short straw and gets a mechanical arm, only to attack another person and the techniology to be banned or regulated. Technology is just a tool, we dont give a hammer to a monkey. Its the same thing, who do we trust with all this power and tech? Time for the rotary club to step up from philanthrophy and start running the world, since we cant trust government greed anymore
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    Oct 17 2011: Hi. Just joined the conversation. What's being talked about?
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    Oct 17 2011: So how about them nano computers the size of a blood cell that would be able to alter our physiological system down to the genetic level? Do you think it's pretty neat? Or an awful cheat?
  • Oct 17 2011: Speaking about algorithms, what do you think about our body structure (as many others structures in nature) can be measured by fibonacci sequence?
  • Oct 17 2011: but like shown in I-robot a sci fi movie...Is it possible for super computers to be able to evolve on it's own and change programming to better itself thus making a conscience of its own??
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    Oct 17 2011: As machines replace humans, isnt it time for a code of ethics and accountability to be introduced into the mix? Higher stages of human evollution will be followed with creations that are genetically altered hybrids or cyborgs which do our manual labor and processing for us. The rosetta stone will be implanted computers in the human body which monitor our bio signals for diseases and pathogens. The future is here already, we have the technology to change us and our evolution. What are we waiting for?
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      Oct 17 2011: @QaziFazliAzeem The point about the 'code of ethics' is well made. In South Korea, a charter for the code of ethics for robots is being prepared, so that in the future, there will be a certain code by which humans and robots interact. Quite fascinating. On the other hand - what are we waiting for - well thats an interesting point. Maybe some kind of consensus? Who gets to make these decision, and on whose behalf?
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        Oct 17 2011: Genetically modified pigs are used to create organs that are transplanted in humans. This opens doors for other animal parts to be grown and grafted onto people who want a biological advantage (what if a certain kind of heart would be better for sportsmen)? Hence, eventually, people would be thinking about modifying genes and incorporating them into our evolutionary stream. We already have latent genes from our ancestors, chickens have been retro-evolved into partial lizard/dinosaur hybrids (a popular TED talk on it too), whats to stop activation of neanderthal dna in humans to make soldiers? People in power will always make their own choices when it suits them, you would do the same, to survive, to ensure the future generations have a genetic advantage. What can happen will happen, the first retrogressed humans may already be created a decade ago, none of this is new science. We will find out the ethical implications a hundred years later when human testing is acknowleged (in most of the world, human rights dont exist) and the first generation of alterted people come forward. We evolve and mutate everyday, no two people are exactly alike, no 2 fingerprints, no 2 zebra skins. As a designer and an academic, I am intrigued by this phenomenom, of radom variation.
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          Oct 17 2011: Wow, Qazi, your scenario is fascinating. Although I wonder if this scenario suggests that the advantages will be concentrated in the hands of the 'people in power'? Will it be this sort of linear one thing leads to the next, or will issues of ethics and desire play a role too?
        • Oct 17 2011: Doesn't genetic manipulation bypass random variation, i.e., evolution? If we are to continue on a path we can call natural, should we alter that path just to suit our own desires? We've already altered the average lifespan. Do we know that's a good thing? In this country, I see people living longer, but not necessarily better. One of the results is increased health care costs. With "my" society being what it is, I don't think I want to live to 100!
  • Oct 17 2011: @Jeffery your use of the word "equal" is generous I feel; is a world where ever single individual has equal opportunity imaginable? If so, then why not just work out a way to get everyone the same tools? If not, then we need to seriously consider what "technology" means and how we want to work with it to improve our lives.
  • Oct 17 2011: hi
  • Oct 17 2011: Isn't being human means having a conscience??
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      Oct 17 2011: I suppose you are right Parth. People's capacity to act - what you might call the 'human agency' is certainly unique, as opposed to drones or algorithms who might have been 'programmed' to act on their own.
  • Oct 17 2011: As singularity nears, and the line blurs... how do we transition from a world in which our ego casts light on which we wish to shine... to a world of light, where we cast shadows on areas to keep us safe but everything is transparent?!? Whats your thoughts on resource based economies??? why arent we seeing small villages and towns getting sponsored into fully self sustaining eco sites...??? how are we going to bridge the digital divide and create equal opportunity for the ppl? Have you looked into Jacque Frescos "future by design"? is there modern age "guild" thats lifted his ideas to the next level??? I'd love a moment to chat with you about any of this =)