What makes us unique?

And by us, I mean humans. And I point that out because one of the most important questions that we have to answer, or at least be confident that we’ve explored, is just that. In a world increasingly of the machine, and on the latter part of Kurzweil’s trajectory towards the singularity (or alternatively, the Rapture of the Nerds) how we differentiate ourselves–our human selves–both from our machine selves and from machines of their own selves is important to understanding what’s worth protecting and what we can discard.

Part of what I’m currently working on is attempting to answer a sub-question: what are we losing in our rush to embrace pervasive computing? Obviously to get at that answer, I’ve got to go back to fundamentals and ask what makes humans unique?

This question is more difficult to answer now than it was a couple of thousand years ago, and many of the answers that have been trotted out and relied on more recently, are falling by the wayside as science reveals them to be nothing more than self-centered ignorance. Of a ‘standard’ such list–tool use, laughter, language, foresight, culture, morality, intelligence, ability to feel pain, and to experience distress–research is suggesting that other animals have variants of some, and direct analogues of others. A few still seem to be ours alone.

This week, as part of this exploration, we’ll be talking about the granddaddy of those trying to define man as a unique creature–Aristotle. His conception of man as both political and rational, seems still to be something that sets us apart–and still sets us apart. But I’m wondering if it too is something we might someday offload.

Two quotes to hold you over:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, programme a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.

–Robert Heinlein

Man is a rational animal — so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life I have been looked diligently for evidence in favour of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it.

–Bertrand Russell

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