What Makes Us Human?

May 1, 2015
Man machine post

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 1st May 2015

My eye was caught yesterday by a photo of a charming Chinese lady known to her friends as Yangyang. She has long hair, a fetching smile, Sarah Palin glasses, and a calm and gracious manner. Not only does she speak faultless Mandarin but she’s also fluent in Japanese and can tell you to have a nice day in a dozen other languages. But she is undeniably creepy. You see, Yangyang, unveiled two days ago in Beijing, is a robot, and not a character in a science fiction film. Yangyang is real.

Perhaps I’m oversensitive to such things. You see an ancestor of mine, Rabbi Judah Loewe, the famous rabbi of Prague in the sixteenth century, is credited, at least in legend, with inventing the first robot, otherwise known as the Golem. Made of clay and brought to life by mystical incantation, he was a very decent, human looking and moving robot, created by the rabbi to defend the Jews of Prague from antisemitic attacks. The one limit Rabbi Loew imposed was that he had to be switched off on the Sabbath. One Friday, the rabbi forgot to switch him off, and the Golem went on a rampage until the rabbi was able to remove the mystical name that gave it life, at which point it fell to pieces.

Now I’m not supposing for one moment that Yangyang is going to go on a rampage, but I do think a line is being blurred, especially when you put this story together with another one that came out of China less than two weeks ago, that researchers in Guangzhou have, for the first time, used gene editing techniques on human embryos, creating germ-line modifications that could change the very course of human evolution.

At what point will humans and machines merge, with robots becoming human and humans being designed like robots. Yuval Harari ends his recent book Sapiens with just this possibility. “We may fast be approaching a new singularity,” he says, “when all the concepts that give meaning to our world – me, you, men, women, love, hate – will become irrelevant.” Those who are not spooked by this question, he adds, probably haven’t given it enough thought.

The time has come, I believe, for a serious global conversation about what makes us human, or in the language of the Bible, in the image and likeness of God himself. Let us not lose our humanity in a fit of absentmindedness, just because it seemed like a good idea at the time.