Philosopher Tobias Rees Raises a Question Everyone Thinks is Already Settled

Tobias Rees asks: 'What is human, anyway?'
Tobias Rees asks: 'What is human, anyway?'

The distinction between what is human and non-human is one of the most fundamental ideas of our shared consciousness. You figured out that distinction pretty early on in childhood, and you've never questioned it since.

That is, unless your name is Tobias Rees.

An anthropologist and philosopher, Rees is the director of something called the "Transformations of the Human" program at the Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles. He's also the keynote speaker on Nov. 26 in the Deep Humanities series at San Jose State University.

Rees is not only uncertain about what constitutes a human, but he wants to challenge the certainty of the rest of us as well.

The title of his upcoming lecture at the Hammer Center Theatre is The Human After "The Human." Rees contends that humans aren't what we think they are, backing up his assertion with the help of advancements in two emerging fields of study.

Rees points to studies of the "micro-biome," the enormous and complex ecosystem of bacteria that thrives in every healthy human body. "We don't really know where the human being ends and the micro-biome begins," he says. "Most of the neurotransmitters in your brain were made by bacteria."

The other field upsetting the settled notion of what it means to be human is artificial intelligence.

"There are those in philosophy departments and anthropology departments who are angry because I'm buying into AI," said Rees. "I'm not buying into AI; I'm buying into the provocation of AI. When did we last ask what a human being is in the humanities? There is this vast space of reopening the concept of a human."

What Rees wants to do is bring in philosophers and anthropologists in both the fields of microbiology and AI engineering. The effect is to undermine the neat distinctions between humans and other animals on one hand, and humans and machines on the other.

"Think about AI," he says. "It's an engineering discipline whether you work on ideas of natural intelligence vs.artificial intelligence, of mind and reason and consciousness. Well, these are basically the same key concepts in philosophy and Western thinking going back 500 years. If AI engineers are right and they can build machines that think or are self-aware, then these distinctions that we take for granted, the distinctions between natural and artificial, or between living and nonliving, they are actually dissolved. This is crazy big."

Rees works to introduce philosophy post-docs and humanities scholars into the cutting-edge labs of AI and biotech, to contribute to the research. "Their sole job is to build up a conversation in the lab and make the philosophical stakes of the work there visible and available to the engineer, so we can reconfigure what it means to be human."

Rees says the general scientific concept of the human is only a few hundred years old, and emerged from the European Enlightenment. It was a concept that led directly to ideas of natural rights and to revolutions in America and France.

The notion that AI will bring on an existential crisis in humanity has already been broached in popular culture, particularly in films such as 2014's Ex Machina, in which Oscar Isaac's Silicon Valley AI wizard ruminates about the future: "One day, the AIs are going to look back at us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa: an upright ape, living in the dust, with crude language and tools, all set for extinction."

"We already are dealing with these questions," Rees says. "Should robots, once they have self-awareness, have voting rights? Well, the robot might reply, 'I'm stronger, faster and smarter than you. Maybe you're the hazard. Maybe you no longer have voting rights.'"

Rees' ideas aren't always received well. He told the story of meeting a dean of the humanities at UC Berkeley: "She asked me, 'What do you want to do?' I told her that I want to reinvent the human and the human sciences from scratch. She said that I'm crazy. I told her I'm a megalomaniac, but I'm not crazy. I understand this project will fail. But we have to start somewhere. We already invented the human once. Why couldn't we do it again? She smiled and just said, 'It was nice to meet you.'"

Tobias Rees: The Human After 'The Human'
Nov 26, 7pm, Free
Hammer Theatre Center, San Jose

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