Yuval Harari and Patricia Piccinini are two extraordinarily original thinkers you need to pay attention to, because they have some compelling viewpoints to consider about  the game-changing impact of biotechnology on humanity and the planet.   

Harari, the internationally bestselling author of Home Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, worries that our brains are getting hacked by artificial intelligence. He says,

"When you combine our increasing understanding of biology, especially brain science, with the enormous computing power that machine learning and AI is giving us, what you get from that combination is the ability to hack humans, which means to predict their choices, to understand their feelings, to manipulate them and also to replace them. If you can hack something you can also replace it."

Harari believes that human beings will change more in the next hundred years than they have in all of their previous existence. The combination of biotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI) may enable some people to be digitally enhanced, transforming what being human means. As this happens, concepts of life, consciousness, society, laws, and morality will need to be revised.

AI and biotechnology may be two of the most critical issues facing humanity, but Harari notes that they're barely a blip on the political radar.

"What might happen if breakthroughs in biotechnology will make it possible to upgrade humans?" he asks. How will we as a society deal with the huge gaps that will open between the rich and poor?"

Who decides?

Harari is not against giving more authority to AI, but the question is, who is the master of AI? He says we need to think more deeply about AI and its impact. Does it serve a small elite or big corporations? Does it serve dictatorial governments? Or does it serve me? You can use AI to create a total surveillance regime of the government, controlling the population. And you can use AI for the citizens to survey the government and make sure there's no corruption. The same technology can go both ways. Harari says we still have some choice about what kind of impact AI and bioengineering engineering will have on the world, but they will change the world, maybe more than anything that happened previously in history

Patricia Piccinini, like Harari, is not opposed to biotechnology. She takes us into a strange new world with her disquieting creepy-cute human-animal hybrid sculptures. I have to admit that when I first saw her sculptures (on display in Vancouver until Dec 15, 2018) I found them to be repulsive, but when I learned more about the context, my attitude changed to curiosity and empathy, which is the point of Piccinini's work. Her aim is to bring emotion into the tech discussion and her art invites us to reflect on its implications, and unintended consequences.

"It's not about being right or wrong or good or bad even. It's about empathizing," says the artist.

Key to her work is the idea of differences. These genetically altered beings look different from us and are therefore unsettling and confronting. Just like the world we live in now. "The possibilities for my creations are already amongst us, and before too long the things themselves could turn up unannounced, without our ever having had the opportunity to wonder how much we want them."

We have to think about what nature is and becomes. On one level we don't want to lose the pristine but we have to think in terms of who we are in nature and what kind of nature do we want.

"The danger here is to confuse creation with control; just because we can create and manipulate things does not necessarily mean that we can control our creations. Anyone who dabbles in creation would do well to remember that as soon as something exists we begin to lose our grip on it."

Piccinini is influenced in part by the story of Frankenstein who makes a monster and then rejects him, which ultimately results in catastrophe. "Frankenstein was a really bad parent," she says. "He did not look after his offspring." Her artworks re-frame the story into one of curiosity, connection, and empathy.

Empathy is at the heart of my practice. I don't think you really can - or indeed should - try to understand the ethics of something without emotions. It can easily be argued that such a focus on empathy might distract from a true rational understanding of the issues, but in fact, that is exactly what I am aiming to do. Emotions are messy and they do get in the way of rational discourse - as they should. The empathetic nature of my work deliberately complicates the ideas. It is one thing to argue for/against cloning when it is just an intellectual issue. However, things change if you have a mother or son who might need it.
 -- Patricia Piccinini

For example, the idea behind Young Family comes from genetically modified pigs being bred to provide replacement organs for humans. We see a humanized pig exhausted from giving birth with a look of resignation in her eyes.

According to Piccinini: The "moral" of the work seems obvious: How could we possibly breed this beautiful creature just to kill it? We are moved by her apparent sentience and fatalism. However, it has another less obvious side. How would you feel if within her or her offspring grew the heart that your baby daughter needed to live? If it came down to a choice between her life or my son's it would not be a difficult decision for me to make.

She and Harari both compel us to consider the promises and consequences of human interference. When it comes to the ethics and values of biotechnology and AI, who decides?

Published on: Oct 19, 2018