The Case For Humanism In Tech

At the end of 2016, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) issued the first draft of a handbook entitled Ethically Aligned Design. The 138-page document provides guidelines for “prioritizing human wellbeing” in the development and implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Autonomous Systems (AS). I’m sure we all agree that a people-centred approach is much needed in this era of rapid advancement in AI and automation. But will technologists, particularly in Silicon Valley, fully take it on board?

Humanism in technology design isn’t a new idea. A foundational belief in Silicon Valley is that technology should make our lives better. That humans are paramount, not the technology. The most powerful person in Silicon Valley at this time, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, appeared to reaffirm those values when he wrote last November: “Our goal is to give every person a voice. We believe deeply in people.” Yet the IEEE issued its manifesto on ethical design precisely because the danger has never been greater that technology could steamroll humanity. Or at least ride roughshod over peoples jobs and our sense of control over our lives.

This will affect every one of us. It’s not just currently endangered workers – like Uber drivers, who may be replaced by automated cars within the decade – who need to worry about AI and AS. These technologies are already a big part of our daily lives. We’re slowly giving control over our lives to AI-based products like Siri, Alexa, and Facebook’s news feed. So we need companies like Apple, Amazon and Facebook to offer more than just lip service to the needs of their (human) users.

What the IEEE is espousing is essentially a humanist agenda, because it wants to put people before machines. The IEEE doesn’t use the word “humanist,” because it’s a loaded term and means different things to different groups. Last century, humanism meant self-determination; in particular, to use science and rational thinking. Humanism back then was a way to counter the massive influence of religion in our world. But nowadays it isn’t religion that’s a threat to self-determination. It’s science itself, in the form of technologies like AI and AS. Increasingly we’re controlled by our technology, rather than our religions.

In some cases, technology has practically become a religion. Transhumanism is the most obvious example, since its followers believe that technology will save them. How? By enabling them to evolve faster than the rest of us. An FAQ published on the website Humanity+ described transhumanism as “an extension of humanism, from which it is partially derived.” But there’s a key difference from the twentieth century version of humanism. It’s no longer enough to simply use human faculties, like reason, to make your way in the world. Instead, transhumanism advocates enhancing the human body. These enhancements may take the form of genetic engineering, brain implants to become more intelligent, virtual reality to go beyond the physical world, popping pills to extend your life, and much more. There’s no limit to what transhumanism could entail, but the basic principle is this: to merge with technology. To become one with it and thus save yourself, before it’s too late.

The trouble is, transhumanism opens up a new can of worms for ethicists and all of us worried about inequality. What will happen when your neighbor’s children get brain implants, but your own kids don’t? Simple: your children will fall behind in their education. They won’t be able to compete against your neighbor’s children. Survival of the fittest will rule, as it always has.

One of the biggest challenges of our age is how to ensure technology gives equal opportunity to all. Yet for all the quasi-religious zeal of its proponents, the transhumanist movement is simply too selfish. Its followers obsess over how to enhance their own bodies. They’re all for life extension, as long as it’s their own life. After all, these people want to live long enough for future technologies to kick in. It’s Ayn Rand’s self-serving philosophy taken to the extreme.

There are some in Silicon Valley who are taking a more altruistic approach to humanism in technology. Entrepreneur and long-time blogger Anil Dash coined the term “humane tech” to encourage ethical treatment of workers and users, and a more civic-minded approach to building tech products. As Dash put it, a starting point is “a basic acknowledgment that what we do matters and actually affects people.”

Putting people back at the center of technological progress is going to require more initiatives like IEEE’s “ethically aligned design” guidelines and Anil Dash’s “humane tech” approach to business. It’ll also need more than just words from the current generation of Internet leaders, like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Tim Cook. It’s all very well for Zuckerberg to say, “our goal is to give every person a voice.” But we need more than just a voice: we also need better tools to listen. Fake news and filter bubbles are the result of inadequate listening tools. Likewise, for a company like Uber: what are they going to do for the tens of thousands of human workers who will soon be replaced by automated cars? Uber doesn’t have a legal responsibility to do anything, but it certainly has an ethical responsibility.

As for the future of technology, like it or not, the transhumanists will probably be proven right about technology merging with our bodies over time. That’s why, in order to prepare ourselves for that future, we need to have a more humanistic approach to designing our technology now. We also need to have more discussions about where technology is taking society. What will it mean to be human in twenty or thirty years time? What will it mean for society? Those are questions for science fiction authors and philosophers to ponder (which is why I’m currently writing sf books). Of course there’s nothing stopping all of us from discussing these issues now, using tools like Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

Is it time for a new humanist movement in the technology industry? Something less selfish and more humane than transhumanism? I certainly hope so and will advocate for it in my upcoming columns. Because it’s imperative that we put people first, as we continue to navigate this extraordinary era of technological advancement.

Image credit: Sascha Pohflepp