I recently caught a link to a brief video showing a robotic hand manipulating a cube. Here is a longer video from which the short clip was taken, and here is the article describing the technology that imbued this robotic hand with its “remarkable new dexterity.” MIT’s Technology Review tweeted a link with this short comment: “This robot spent the equivalent of a hundred years learning how to manipulate a cube in its hand.”
Watching the robotic hand turn the cube this way and that, I was reminded of those first few months of a child’s life when they, too, learn how to use their hands. I remembered how absurdly proud I felt as a new father watching my baby achieve her fine motor skill milestones. I’m not sure who was more delighted when, after several failed attempts, she finally picked up her first puff and successfully brought it to her mouth.
This, in turn, elicited a string of loosely related reflections.
I imagined the unlikely possibility that one unintended consequence of these emerging technologies might be renewed wonder at the marvel that is the human being.
After all, the most sophisticated tools we are currently capable of fashioning are only haltingly developing the basic motor skills that come naturally to a six-month-old child. And, of course, we have not even touched on the acquisition of language, the capacity for abstract thought, the mystery of consciousness, etc. We’re just talking about turning a small cube about.
It seemed, then, that somewhere along the way our wonder at what we can make appears to have displaced our wonder at what we are.
Ultimately, I don’t think I want to oppose these two realities. Part of the wonder of what we are is, indeed, that we are the sort of creatures who create technological marvels.
Perhaps there’s some sort of Aristotelian mean at which we ought to aim. It seems, at least, that if we marvel only at what we can make and not also at what we are, we set off on a path that leads ultimately toward misanthropic post-humanist fantasies.
Or, as Arendt warned, we would become “the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.”
It is odd that there is an impulse of sorts to create some of these marvels in our own image as it were, or that we seek to replicate not only our own capacities but even our physiology.
Yet, it is precisely this that also makes us anxious, fearful that we will be displaced or uncertain about our status in the great chain of being, to borrow an old formulation.
But our anxieties tend to be misplaced. More often than not, the real danger is not that our machines will eclipse us but that we will conform ourselves to the pattern of our machines.
In this way we are entranced by the work of our hands. It is an odd spin on the myth of Narcissus. We are captivated not by our physical appearance but by our ingenuity, by how we are reflected in our tools.
But this reflection is unfaithful, or, better, it is incomplete. It veils the fullness of the human person. It reduces our complexity. And perhaps in this way it reinforces the tendency to marvel only at what we can make by obscuring the full reality of what we are.
This full reality ultimately escapes our own (self-)understanding, which may explain why it is so tempting to traffic in truncated visions of the self. This creative self that has come to know so much of the world, principally through the tools it has fashioned, remains a mystery to itself.
We could do worse, then, than to wonder again at what we are: the strangest phenomenon in the cosmos, as Walker Percy was fond of saying.
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