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What does it mean to be Human?
James Felton Keith   Mar 3, 2011   Ethical Technology  

With the integration of human beings and technological enhancement, the ideal of what is morally just becomes increasingly ambiguous, referencing the seemingly endless scenarios of mechanical, electrical, and bio engineering enhancements that have propelled individuals of our kind to mature well beyond the centennial of exploration.

While the philosophical quarrels of today regarding emerging technologies are specific to ethics and what we have the power to do versus what we should do, I don’t think that we’ve spent enough time exploring what ethics are and to whom they apply.

Ethics, or the moral regard, has the potential to be somewhat relative when individuals fail to subscribe to the same social normative. Similar to legal standards, citizens or subscribers of a society agree on laws of sorts, and are only protected by those laws through acknowledging themselves as a member.

Humans Although the Homo genus can define all humans in the known past and existing today, our sub species or sub group needs to be further narrowed as a result of the technologically forced evolution that is taking place currently.

Inside the group that we currently identify as human, per the attempted Universal Declaration of Human Rights presented by the United Nations, there is a great difference between the (Homo) extensions of the technological elite and the aboriginal groups that we’ve identified as Homo sapiens sapiens since approximately 200,000 years ago.

Today individuals use enhancements for physical deterioration and deprivation (like gene therapy or implants), cognitive abilities for qualitative and quantitative methods (like microprocessors), mechanical assistance both dynamic and static (like prosthetics and motor propulsion), and many other technologies, leading to a great difference in ability and, further, potential. These differences are at least as distinct—if not much more so—as between Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens idaltu.

AboriginalHomo sapiens idaltu co-existed with Homo sapiens sapiens approximately 160,000 years ago, and became obsolete in their survival pursuits at locations in north and east Africa. The similar anatomical appearances of sapiens sapiens and sapiens idaltu are at least as significant as the differences between, say, Stephen Hawkins or the late Michael Jackson and the indigenous Australians (pictured right: perhaps our most identifiable linkage to the prevailing Homo sapiens sapiens some 160,000 years ago). All of the Homo species still possess the same bipedal primate designation, but that may change in the future.

The modern rhetoric of humanity is synonymous with inefficiencies (qualitative), ineffectiveness (qualitative), and inequality (lacking benevolence). I find that humans in passing typically state things similar to the ideal that our lack of proficiency is not only intrinsic to being human, but also desirable. Humans need to decide how they want to grow.

Of course there is an unfinished debate between the technological determinists and the social constructionists that would acknowledge how we grow. Perhaps the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature should modify its code to accommodate another variation in taxonomic rank of dual existing Homo sapiens subspecies. Of course the PEST (political, economic, socio-cultural, and technological) implications of such a classification are a huge regulatory undertaking, but it wouldn’t necessarily cease the orchestration by technological elites of the other factions in human societies.

James Felton Keith is an award winning engineer economist and published author. He is Founder of the Personal Data Project, Co-Founder of the IBM Watson backed FinTech (financial technology) firm Accrue Inc., and Keith Institute. He specializes in the ethnography of technology and economic inclusion. Formerly CEO of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce and a Mayoral Technology Appointee in Detroit, JFK currently contributes as board and patron member to OUT in STEM, OUT & Equal, Lifeboat Foundation, Apollo Theater, The Guggenheim, and IBM Global Entrepreneurs to name a few.


I would say that humanity is probably best defined by our ability to take responsibility and continuously learn from our decisions on one hand and our need/ability to form circles of relationships on the other.

By this measure we all pass and fail the test of humanity.

Very thought-provoking. For example it caused me to think about two things I had forgotten. Perhaps you will find them interesting as historical anchors. One is the book Man Makes Himself by V. Gordon Childe (I think 1936) and the Sartre work also titled Man Makes Himself. I think when these works were written the point was that humans make themselves slowly, incrementally, and with a sense of purpose, through a process of cultural evolution—an accompaniment to processes of physical evolution. However, we are now about making enhancements that modify humans from the inside out instantly. Why bother now with the hopelessly time-constrained, unpredictable, and merely responsive processes of actual evolution? We can have designer humans via genetics, nano-, micro, etc. It this human design (to borrow a concept from another context) intelligent? Is it ethical? What, really, are the parameters of thinking about ethics and morality now?

if anything, human is like the word “computer” its boundary and definitions are constantly changing. Remember computer used to mean a “person” who “computes”—that’s where it comes from. Human and computers will eventually infuse like Kurzweil said, in the meanwhile, there’ll be a lot of human-existential crisis as future creeps up on us.

check out my post:

@Cybernoetic Man
great post!

However programmed the darn thing should be held responsible and liable for its actions.

@Cybernoetic Man: I can agree. My chief concerns are in what ways the crisis that your referred to will pervade the culture and if they will adversely effect the bodies of knowledge that we (human kind…lol) have built. Morality…conservatism…protectionism…scientific vs other exploration…I’m not so sure that we can afford to be so very diverse philosophically and remain relevant. In my upcoming book I propose a mortal stance to combat the ambiguities of morality and suggest that a honor code base don mortal ability to self-actualize and provide value to the eco system of beings should be held in the highest regard. And if people want to search for god or other things, so be it. Great blog post, I’ll have to start following.

@Bob: I think designer is ideal and the notion of it being ethical is philosophically irrelevant. If actualization is the objective of the individual in her/his/its pursuit to “be great or die trying” then in the lyrics of Daft Punk we should aim to be “harder better faster stronger”


spoken like a person at the top of the pyramid. “ability to self-actualize” can not be extricated from privilege. Nutrition, education, human rights (e.g. society accepting your personhood—such as the condition of dalit, gay, female), access to technology, etc. all impact our ability to self-actualize.

The difficult thing about these web format even while they may house an unlimited amount of text, they just don’t compel us (me) to write long and well in the comment box….LOL…

Regarding self-actualization, I am always meaning that everyone has the potential to make realizations (or actualizations) but there are of course (per Maslow’s pyramid inspired by Goldstein) some prerequisites.

Hopefully my word weren’t leading any readers to think that I find my self in the elitist sect of our collective society.

Sorry, my bad; I should have googled you first. And I should have remembered you from the MTA conference.

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