Did we ever realize the ethical meaning of considering humans the center of the universe? What’s the extraordinary spark that makes us value humans differently than animals? Isn’t it just higher intelligence or power? If and when computer programs attain superhuman intelligence and unprecedented power, should we begin valuing these programs more than we value humans? Would it be okay, for example, for artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further its own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite its superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to exploit and kill pigs?

Yes, it sounds like the same old story about technology taking over human beings and the universe. Even influential tech leaders, like Alibaba’s Jack Ma are optimistic regarding ai: ‘ …Computers only have chips, men have the heart. It’s the heart where the wisdom comes from.” When he said that, besides him there was Elon Musk incredulous, trying to show his total disagreement. I mean Jack Ma also said that there is no real risk of ai stealing our future jobs after he once claimed that working 12 hours per day is a huge blessing…

AI is the new black

For sure, nobody would argue that AI is going to change the world significantly everywhere and even if most of the time it is just a hype companies use to make them feel cool, it is deployed in most of the tech products you use. I found really interested to discover how many companies sell ai services after I heard some talks by Masha Krol, Human-AI Interaction Lead at Element AI. Masha Krol allows other innovative companies to upgrade to the next level of power, that takes benefit of problem-solving software that continuously learns, and services that have great business impact thanks to AI, but the challenge for her is to remember that AI must be built with people, for people. Whether it is pretty clear that advanced solutions like self-driven cars can bring a lot of social and environmental benefits, the huge impact of AI must arise countless ethical consequences.

Do we really have a magical spark that makes us unique and invincible?

Quite interesting are the thoughts made by the great historian Yuval Noah Harari, famous for his bestseller ‘A brief history of humankind’:

Let’s start from the assumption that after the scientific Revolution, humanistic religions replaced the ones with gods. Basically, these religions, like Liberalism, Communism, and Nazism share the conviction that men (Homo Sapiens) have an essence that is unique, sacred, and the origin of all meanings and authorities in the universe.

You just need to have a look at nation constitutions or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to realize how the entire cosmos and phenomena are judged good or bad in relation to the impact they have on men.

But why did we get more important than anything else in our whole ecosystem? Whereas theism justified traditional agriculture in the name of God, humanism justify industrial agriculture in the name of men.

But nobody can give an answer to the centrality of human beings, simply because it shouldn’t exist. This may suggest that the only reason why industrial agriculture sanctifies the needs and whims of humans without having any interest or respect for animals, is that we have more power?

There is no doubt that Homo sapiens is the most powerful species in the world. Less obvious, and here is an important point, is that Homo sapiens have superior moral status and thus greater value than the lives of pigs, elephants, or wolves. We are more precious than other animals just because the human collective is more powerful than the pig collective? The United States is far mightier than Afghanistan; does this imply that American lives have greater intrinsic value than Afghan lives? Probably because of an unjust result of a geopolitical balance of power a murder of an American citizen creates far greater international ferment than killing an Afghan citizen. But still, every person agrees with the fact that the life of a child is sacred independently of where he comes from.

In contrast, we privilege human children over piglets, we want to believe that this reflects something deeper than the ecological balance of power. We want to believe that human lives really are superior in some fundamental way. Is that true? What is this unique human spark?

The main cause of this belief is the idea that only Sapiens have eternal souls compared to pigs and other animals that will die and fade into nothingness. That’s why we should care much more about the eternal human souls than about ephemeral pigs. And this is no fairy tale, but an extremely powerful myth that continues to shape the lives of billions of humans and animals in the early twenty-first century. It is a central pillar of our legal, political and economic system. It explains why, for example, it is perfectly okay for humans to kill animals for food, or even just for the fun of it.

The truth is that Scientists never found any magical spark hidden in humans. Well, you may say that scientists just need to keep looking. If they haven’t found the soul yet, it is because they haven’t looked carefully enough. Yet the life sciences doubt the existence of the soul not just due to lack of evidence, but rather because the very idea of the soul contradicts the most fundamental principles of evolution. This contradiction is responsible for the uncontrolled hatred that the theory of evolution inspires among devout monotheists. According to a 2012 Gallup survey, only 15 % of Americans think that Homo sapiens evolved through natural selection alone, free of all divine intervention; 32 % maintain that humans may have evolved from earlier life forms in a process lasting millions of years, but God orchestrated this entire show; 46 % believe that God created humans in their current form sometime during the last 10000 years, just as the Bible says. Though schools evidently do a very poor job teaching evolution, religious zealots still insist that it should not be taught at all. Alternatively, they demand that children must also be taught the theory of intelligent design, according to which all organisms were created by the design of some higher intelligence (aka God). But someone could argue: why does the theory of evolution provoke such objections, whereas nobody seems to care about the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics? The theory of evolution rests on the principle of the survival of the fittest, which is a clear and simple idea. In contrast, the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics argues that you can twist time and space, that something can appear out of nothing, and that a cat can be both alive and dead at the same time. In our daily life, these theories don’t imply that much for us. In contrast, Darwin has deprived us of our souls. This is terrifying thought not only to devout Christians and Muslims, but also to many secular people who don’t hold any clear religious dogma, but nevertheless want to believe that each human possesses an eternal individual essence that remains unchanged throughout life, and can survive even death intact.

Humans against machines. Another perspective: humans against other animals

Take the easy example of modern farms. Sows are locked in tiny gestation crates, measuring less than two meters by sixty centimeters. These small crates with concrete floors and metal bars hardly allow the pregnant sows even to turn around or sleep on their side, never mind walk. After they give birth, even if the piglets would naturally suckle for ten to twenty weeks, in industrial farms they are forcibly weaned within two to four weeks, separated from their mother, and shipped to be fattened and slaughtered. The mother is immediately impregnated again and sent back to the gestation crate to start another cycle, and this for another five to ten cycles before being slaughtered herself. Crates are still largely used, although in EU and some US states their use has been restricted.

Gestation pigs blog

But here is one of the points I was always struggling with when I was thinking about human and animal rights. My struggle was about how to accept the way humans behave with animals with some fundamental ideas of natural selection. Can this scientific theory explain our extreme cruelty and somehow justify it? Actually, there is one big problem in all this. Humans always tend to underestimate the importance and complexity of their own minds and imagine the ones of other animals. As we were saying before, actually farmers nowadays provide everything for the sow to survive and reproduce. The sow maybe has enough food, it is vaccinated against diseases, protected against the elements, and artificially inseminated. From an objective perspective, the sow no longer needs to explore her surroundings, socialize with other pigs, bond with her piglets, or even walk. BUT from a subjective perspective, the sow still feels very strong urges to do all of these things, and if these urges are not fulfilled she suffers greatly. Sows locked in gestation crates typically display acute frustration alternating with extreme despair. This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology:

“a need shaped thousands of generations ago continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer necessary for survival and reproduction in the present. Tragically, the agricultural Revolution gave humans the power to ensure the survival and reproduction of domesticated animals while ignoring their subjective needs.”

monkey sad

Is it really true that animals such as pigs actually have a subjective world of needs, sensations, and emotions? Unfortunately (for the cruel humans) every research conducted on animals shows that they have self-consciousness, they are emotional, and thus somehow are much more similar to humans than we could believe. Basically, all mammals evolved emotional abilities and needs, and from the fact that pigs are mammals, we can safely deduce that they have emotions. In recent decades life scientists have demonstrated that emotions are not some mysterious spiritual phenomenon, but biochemical algorithms that are vital for the survival and reproduction of all mammals.


Are we nothing else than algorithms?

An algorithm is a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions. It isn’t a specific calculation, but the method followed when making that calculation. To calculate the average between two numbers for example, there is an algorithm saying ‘1st step: add these two numbers together. 2nd step: divide the sum by two’. Another example is a cooking recipe. We can assume that humans are algorithms that produce copies of themselves. The algorithms controlling humans work through sensations, emotions and thoughts. And exactly the same algorithms control pigs, baboons, otters and chickens. In order to transmit genes to the next generation, it is not enough to solve survival problems, but also reproduction problems. Here, natural selection evolved passion and disgust as algorithms for evaluation reproduction odds. Beauty means ‘good chances for having successful offspring’. Obviously nobody makes such calculation of probability with pen and paper, but we feel them. 99 % of our decisions, including the most important life choices concerning spouses, careers and habitats, are made by the highly refined algorithms we call sensations, emotions and desires. Very likely these algorithms control all mammals and birds, since for example when we feel fear, similar neorological processes take place in similar brain areas. That means that frightened humans, frightened baboons and frightened pigs have similar experiences.

Ok, but what’s the point now. We created basically sophisticated algorithms that are able to generate their own algorithms to solve big problems. Back in the time (1997) Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion famously was beaten by IBM’s Deep Blue and now advanced machines are able to collect, interpret and make advanced calculations that tell us much more about what we actually think to be or even to ‘want’. These algorithms will be much more powerful than the ones we developed over millions of years and they will make much better decisions than the ones we do through our reasoning and the algorithms of feelings. The comparison with animals serves only to show how naive humans are in considering themselves the ultimate scope of the evolution and kind of an invincible creature. But what makes us extremely fragile is the fact that we underestimate the impact of our deeds as a collective entity. Whereas we can more or less control the consequences of our own actions, we are not able to foresee what could happen at a macroscopic level.

Are our feelings or our magical souls going to save us when we will lose control of a new super powerful intelligence?