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What Will the Human Being of the Future Be Like?

Co-authored by Sigrid Müller and Martina Besler

Ever since man has existed, human beings have been subject to change. This is obvious from cultural studies, and recent developments in technology, along with their virtual and artistic extension in science fiction show possible future developments. It is therefore not so easy to describe the human being of the future without considering the possibility that it could also develop in a completely different way from how we experience ourselves today. At the same time, we encounter at present a difficulty in establishing guidance for future development because both epistemological and philosophical questions arise when we want to depict a normative image of who human beings are. Today’s perception of human beings rather stresses the fluidity, the adaptability of the brain, and emphasizes that defining a stable nature of human beings as a normative standard against which future development could be measured is confronted with too many shortcomings. This year’s Viennese Workshop on Theological Ethics (WOTE) with the title “The Future Human Being”, which took place at the Department of Theological Ethics at the University of Vienna from 26.09. – 27.09.2022, dealt with this challenge in a round of international experts from various disciplines (theology, philosophy, law, economics, labor research, computer science, architecture, medicine, etc.). The aim of the workshop was to attempt to draw a picture of the human being of the future and to ask what this means for our understanding of the human being. In this article, we would like to sketch some findings from presentations of colleagues of other academic disciplines, in order to show how they stimulate further reflection in theological ethics.

The digital image of man

Sarah Spiekermann-Hoff (Business Informatics) observed that in the field of IT, the language used depicts how human beings are envisaged: handbooks do not speak of people, of individuals, but of users, which first of all shows a neutral and genderless image of man. The individual, who lives in his or her own cultural and social context, is not relevant here. Beyond being a user, proxy personalities (personas) are created, which now have different, market-related needs and goals. The underlying image of humanity is extremely negative; Spiekermann-Hoff talks about human beings being understood as passive recipients of digital salvation and being degraded to the status of children. A contemptuous image of man emerges, who is regarded as a deficient being. From such an image of man it follows that man must be improved (e.g. cyborg) and the processes surrounding man must be automated (e.g. self-driving cars). Research into freezing the brain with the hope of unfreezing it again when technology is advanced enough, thus making humans immortal, is no longer mere science fiction. However, such ideas often make assumptions that are questionable and some have even been disproven. For example, it is assumed that body and mind are separable and that the identity of man is static retrievable memory data, like a hard disk with stored data. The human being thus becomes altogether a mere information object. From the problems pointed out by Spiekermann-Hoff it follows that engineers with such an unrealistic view of man cannot design technology suitable for man. Instead of putting the uniqueness of the human being and his or her personality in the foreground, he or she is placed in the technical world where he or she no longer has any control.

The working world of tomorrow

The situation regarding the future world of work is somewhat more balanced and open. Barbara Gerstenberger from Eurofound (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions) discussed the direction in which things could go in this regard, and here, too, digitization, understood in a broader sense, plays a major role. She pointed out that the positive or negative benefits of digitization are related to its use in the workplace. For example, digitization can help motivate people but also discourage them, it can encourage learning but also create passive learners. Digitization can increase autonomy in the workplace or limit individual decision-making, give more meaning to work but also disempower the employer, increase safety in the workplace or the opacity of work processes.

Virtual medicine as a supplement to personal doctor-patient contact

A similar situation can be seen in the medical context. Already today, telemedicine is used to provide medical help regardless of where a patient is. Artificial intelligence is also already being used (e.g., in the examination of birthmarks). During the discussion, Julia Welzel (Expert in Dermatology) assumed that this digital and virtual component will become even stronger and that avatars of people would be conceivable, which would represent the characteristics and bodily functions of the corresponding real person. Positive aspects of such a development are the improved diagnostic possibilities, and a sound use of resources, both human and material. However, the negative aspects, which were discussed, should not be forgotten. Here, the doctor-patient relationship plays a particularly important role. Personal contact is decreasing due to increasing virtualization, which can cause fears, worries and doubts. This makes successful treatment difficult.

Artificial intelligence (AI) – more than just targeted advertising

Computer scientist Shahram Dustdar is certain that virtually everyone who uses the Internet comes into contact with AI. This can be seen, for example, in the use of Google or YouTube, in which the software and advertising circuitry are linked and which is thus far more than just the listing of desired data. There is already plenty of positive as well as negative criticism of this current use of AI in the field of computer science. But what role will this play in the future? In this discussion, it seems important to mention that humans are actively involved in what AI learns from humans. Bullying, hate comments, and the focus on monetary systems thus lead to the promotion of AI in this direction. The task, according to Dustdar, is for humans to become aware of what image of humanity they want to portray and pursue, and they must act accordingly.

The critical approach of the experts towards the risks of the developments in their fields was striking; yet all the reports were also shaped by the conviction that human beings acting in these fields can make a change and that humanity is not entirely determined by the technological development it provoked. All of them stressed the opportunity of conscious and responsible handling of technology and highlighted the need for careful education and academic teaching in these fields in order to augment awareness for a deeper and fuller understanding of what makes human beings truly human. This was very encouraging, firstly for future interdisciplinary cooperation in search of engagement for a humane future.  Secondly, the results showed also that it is worth making the effort, as theological ethicists, to continue developing a broad and deep vision of the human being, in spite of all epistemological and ethical difficulties in describing what constitutes us as human beings.