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'The Extinction of the Human Brain'
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #65
‘The Extinction of the Human Brain’
CAERS Substack Article #65
It is becoming progressively more difficult to function in the world without a cell phone or other electronic device. How many of us can remember a single phone number, including our own, without checking our electronic contact list? Our calendars and schedules also reside on our devices. We often store valuable data and notes on our phones, and can do much of our money management with them as well. In fact, the use of cash is becoming obsolete. QR (‘quick response’) codes are becoming omnipresent; without electronic technology it is difficult to even access a menu at a restaurant.
The human brain is becoming so unnecessary that it risks becoming extinct; our cellular devices do our remembering, calculating and even our thinking for us. AI (Artificial Intelligence) can perform many mundane chores much more quickly and accurately than we can, and soon will be capable of sufficient creativity that we will not have to engage in new thoughts ourselves.
This has been an insidious process. Our identities have slowly been converted to binary data streams, and with it so has our individual humanity to some degree. Those with whom we interact, including authority figures, would prefer to trust their electronic devices than the living human being in front of them with whom they are ‘interacting’. Face recognition is incredibly powerful and security cameras are everywhere. More worrisome, however, is the ever- increasing ability of new programs to alter photos and videos that are so convincing that it requires considerable expertise to distinguish those artificial images from reality.
Soon we will not need to think at all. The patterns of our lives are constantly monitored so closely by various technologies that they know what we want, or think, or how we will act before we do. We are bombarded regularly by seductive and focused advertising based on past behaviours. We are far more predictable than we would like to think, and very powerful forces are capitalizing on that. Everything is under continuous surveillance: every e-mail, every purchase, every call, every action outside of our homes (and sometimes even inside of our homes). This is often promoted and justified as saving us time and energy, or money, or keeping us safer and healthier; we are told that it is for our own good. But is it?
Following 911, more intrusive surveillance of our lives was deemed necessary for national security, and that has steadily increased. Closed Circuit Television is nearly ubiquitous in most cities of any size. With the arrival of COVID, all of this became more intense; passports were deemed necessary, even to the point of having to sign in on entering restaurants. Strangers were now allowed unfettered access to some of our personal health data. And all of this was for our safety, we were told. And it may well have helped in that regard, but it also acclimatized us to progressively more unrelenting and intensive monitoring.
The study of ethics explores how we ought to treat one another from a moral perspective. But more and more our interactions involve our personal electronic device interacting with another electronic device owned and operated directly by governmental agencies or indirectly under their auspices. That reality greatly complicates matters, and muddies the waters as to what humans are obligated to do in their ‘interactions’ with fellow humans; robotic automatons don’t need ethics. It seems as though machines always win when there is any kind of discrepancy. Human compassion and empathy quickly disappear, if they were present at all. And human thinking seldom takes precedence. Soon all we will be known by is the QR code that represents, and essentially becomes, ‘us’.
Before we lose touch with our own humanity, it might be wise to reflect on what kind of world we want. My articles next week will explore various ethical theories that can help shed light on how we can do that. There is no time to waste.
J. Barry Engelhardt MD (retired) MHSc (bioethics)
CAERS Health Intake Facilitator
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