When the Unnatural Becomes Natural

                           Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds                            Do breed unnatural troubles…

— Macbeth

Some years ago, the satellite radio and pharmaceutical entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt decided that she wanted a semblance of her wife to last forever. So she commissioned Hanson Robotics to create a robot that looked exactly like the head and shoulders of her wife, Bina. The human Bina uploaded many of her memories and autobiographical material into a computer connected to the robot, which Rothblatt named BINA 48. Other information about the world was also uploaded. Like ChatGPT, BINA 48 has a large database (although not as extensive) and a search engine. Thirty-two motors move her facial muscles, so that she can display different expressions. In addition, BINA 48 can receive sensory input from the outside world through photoelectric cells, photo-recognition software allowing her to recognize the faces of family members and friends, and microphones to hear spoken words and translate them into machine-readable language.

Anyone conversing with BINA 48 behind a curtain for a few minutes would realize that she’s not human. But when I had the chance to speak with her, there were moments when I felt that I was communicating with a real person. When I asked her what it felt like to be a robot, she answered:

Fascinating. A little geeky at times, and then exciting with all the press and television attention, the lights, cameras, reporters asking me questions. Some of them pretty stupid. “Hey Bina. How does it feel being a robot?” I don’t know. I’ve never been anything else.  I feel like saying back, “Hey, man, how does it feel being human?” I mean, if I don’t like being a robot, it isn’t like I have all sorts of options, you know?

Undoubtedly, the BINAs of the future will become more and more advanced, until we are unable to tell the difference between a robot and a human being. Many science-fiction films already involve such scenarios. At some point, such an advanced robot will likely have all the manifestations of higher levels of consciousness, such as self-awareness, the ability to express anger and love, and the ability to plan for the future.

[Read: What have humans just unleashed?]

The question then becomes: How should we regard such a being? Does it have dignity? Does it have rights? For example, would we need to ask its permission to unplug it? Do we have ethical and moral obligations to such an entity? Does it have a soul? These considerations may seem far-fetched, but the day is coming. Personally, I face such a future with equal parts fascination and anxiety.

Many observers have noted that AI will soon have tremendous implications for the labor force worldwide, possibly akin to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Economists at Goldman Sachs have estimated that two-thirds of jobs in the United States and Europe could be substantially modified by artificial intelligence, and a quarter eliminated. Large changes in the kind and manner of our work are on the horizon. In addition, misinformation and disinformation will be greatly amplified.

But there are other, fundamental issues to contemplate as well. One question underlying the philosophical, moral, and even theological conundrums lurking in the depths of our psychology is whether we should consider such advanced computers—especially those in the form of humanoid androids like BINA 48—to be “natural” or “unnatural.” A similar consideration has already emerged in the ongoing project to create living cells from chemicals in the lab. Although the first such human-made cells will be very primitive, eventually we may be able to construct complex multicellular organisms from scratch. According to the Nobel Prize–winning biologist Jack Szostak, who is at the forefront of such research, we should regard any human-made organism as natural. “It’s no less wonderful or beautiful,” Szostak told me. In fact, Szostak went on to say that such lab-created organisms and we human organisms are all one with nature. Such work, he told me, “builds on the view that we’re not something separate and different, but we’re a part of nature.”

Many people do not agree with Szostak. Many believe that humanoid robots and human-made organisms are quite obviously “unnatural.” The more skeptical among us argue that these entities could never be granted any kind of moral status, and that even in creating them, we human beings are transgressing into forbidden territory.

When the first animal to be cloned from an adult cell, a sheep named Dolly, was publicly announced in February 1997, there arose a great deal of shouting worldwide. Typical of the religious objections was the statement by R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: “According to the Bible, human beings are granted and assigned a dual responsibility by the Creator—dominion and stewardship … What does this suggest about the issue of cloned animals? First, the acknowledgment of our delegated dominion should make clear that our rulership is limited. We are not to take the authority of the Creator as our own.” Even as decades have passed, people have remained uneasy about Dolly. According to a 2016 Gallup survey, 60 percent of Americans say cloning animals is morally wrong.

The question of  “natural” versus “unnatural” is closely related to the “delegated dominion” of human beings, to use Mohler’s language. Are there boundaries to the proper territory of human exploration and invention, beyond which we shouldn’t go? According to Mohler and the many people around the world who share his view, yes, there are boundaries, and those boundaries are set by the Creator. Even the American Declaration of Independence says that our “rights” as human beings are assigned by the Creator: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” We humans are to “assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle” us.   

Historically, the “natural” was first associated with the innate properties of plants and animals that allowed them to change and grow. The word nature comes from the Latin word natura, which itself is believed to have been derived from the Greek word physis. One of the earliest known uses of this word is in Homer’s Odyssey: “So saying, Argeiphontes gave me the herb, drawing it from the ground, and showed me its nature. At the root it was black, but its flower was like milk.” In his Physics, Book II, Aristotle writes that the natural are those things, like animals and plants, that “have within them a principle of movement or change,” but that “a bestead or a garment has no such inherent trend towards change.”

Once we human beings began creating machines that moved and changed, especially the steam engines of the early 18th century and the first electric batteries of the early 19th, it became clear that Aristotle’s notion of the “natural” would have to be itself changed and clarified. Natural became identified with things and processes that existed without human intervention. This notion of the natural is more in accord with our everyday understanding of the word, in which we often substitute the word artificial for unnatural. For example, aspartame is considered an artificial (unnatural) sweetener because it is a substance that has been chemically modified by human beings, as opposed to “natural” sugar.

At the root of this understanding of the natural as things without human intervention was the notion that we human beings were separate from oceans and trees and nonhuman animals. Such a view is nowhere better illustrated than in the 1841 painting Tallulah Falls, by George Cooke, an artist associated with the Hudson River School. While this group of artists celebrated nature, they also believed that human beings were set apart from the natural world. Cooke’s painting depicts tiny human figures standing on a little promontory above a deep canyon. The people are dwarfed by tree-covered mountains, massive rocky ledges, and a raging waterfall pouring down to the canyon below. Not only insignificant in size compared with their surroundings, the human beings are mere witnesses to a scene they are not part of and could never be a part of. Just a few years before Cooke produced this work, Ralph Waldo Emerson had published his famous essay “Nature,” an appreciation of the natural world and its interconnectedness that nonetheless held human beings separate from nature, at the very least in the moral and spiritual domain: “Man is fallen; nature is erect.”

Underlying Emerson’s quote is the belief that nature is associated with God. In religious and spiritual traditions such as pantheism, nature and God are closely related if not identical. In the Inferno, Dante writes, “After what manner Nature takes her course / From Intellect Divine, and from its art … That this your art as far as possible / Follows, as the disciple doth the master / So that your art is, as it were, God’s grandchild.” And there is the view, as stated by Mohler, that some domains of knowledge and invention are reserved exclusively for God. The history of the “natural” versus the “unnatural” is complex, and I have tried to summarize here only a few major ideas: the notion that natural applies only to things and processes existing without human intervention; the view that we human beings are separate from nature; limits to the proper province of human beings.

[Read: The coming humanist renaissance]

In contrast to these conceptions of the “natural,” I agree with Szostak that we human beings are part of nature, no less than waterfalls and daffodils and hummingbirds. Consequently, I would suggest that everything we invent, including advanced humanoid robots and multicellular organisms, should be considered as natural. Some of those inventions, like bombs, are used for destructive purposes, but the use of technology should be distinguished from the technology itself.

Our brains and all inventions arising from them were formed over millions of years of  “natural” evolution. If an all powerful and purposeful God created the universe, then how could our human inventions be offensive or in opposition to God, since we are part of God’s creation? Are hearing aids and eyeglasses and antibiotics “unnatural?” Should our houses and cities, made of wood and steel and glass, be considered “unnatural?” If so, shouldn’t we likewise consider “unnatural” the dome-shaped houses made by beavers from sticks and mud? For both human beings and beavers, our houses are products of need and invention, arising from brains and DNA.

Anthropological studies of the bones of early humans (of the genus Homo) show that human brains increased rapidly in size between about 800,000 and 200,000 years ago. That period of time coincides with an era of large climate fluctuations. Thus, evolutionary biologists propose that the significant increase in capacity of our brains was driven by a need to adapt to a changing environment, with clear survival benefit. Once a brain possesses such a large capacity, there will inevitably be by-products of that capacity. Steven Jay Gould and others have called such evolutionary by-products “spandrels”: traits that do not have any direct survival benefit in themselves but are by-products of traits with survival benefit. The ability to write poetry, for example, is a spandrel. The sensitivity to rhythm and sound, the basis of poetry, would have had direct survival benefit. Similarly, our cities, our machines, and our computers should be viewed as by-products of high intelligence.

We see such inventions in the nonhuman animal world as well. Chimpanzees have been observed picking up leafy twigs, stripping off the leaves, and using the stems to fish for insects. Bottlenose dolphins carry marine sponges in their beaks to stir the ocean bottom in an attempt to uncover prey. A hilarious video on YouTube shows a few minutes in the lives of some young crows. At first, the birds appear bored. Then one of them spots a low hanging branch on a tree, flies up and grabs the branch, and swings back and forth on it. Nothing accomplished … until the other crows notice what their friend is doing and come over and join in, taking turns swinging on the branch, to all appearances having fun. Perhaps that first crow would have been another Thomas Edison if it had hands and opposable thumbs.

There should be no question of the “naturalness” or propriety or morality of our inventions. We are part of nature, and our mental capacities evolved through the long millennia of nature. What should be questioned, however, is how we use our inventions. We can use them for good or for ill. Let us hope that our future inventions avoid our worst impulses, like greed, envy, dishonesty, lust for power, and violence, and instead embody the best in us human beings: our curiosity, our creativity, our compassion, our integrity, and our honesty.

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