One thing that seems a certain outcome of current societal momentum is the increasing integration of intelligent machines into our daily lives. One concern often expressed when this outcome is considered has to do with the eventual role of humans in an increasingly machine-centric world. (Brian Christian recently published a thought-provoking book considering the topic, called “The Most Human Human,” Anchor Publishing; 2012; ISBN-13: 978-0307476708). The most oft-cited concern can be paraphrased as: “what will the humans have left to do when the machines can do everything we can, but better, faster, cheaper, and more reliably?”

We quite often discuss the evolution of machines from dumb hunks of metal towards intelligent interactive systems, potentially someday possessing thoughts and feelings of their own. This scenario can be dubbed the ‘humanization of machines,’ in which the end result lies somewhere along the spectrum between a full flesh-and-blood intelligent and feeling human and a fully metallic dumb bit of machinery. We invest many billions of dollars per year bringing this vision towards reality, and we discuss its implications at length.

Let us call the ending point somewhere in the middle of the spectrum from human:machine the ‘middle ground.’

What we consider less often is the path towards that middle ground starting from the opposite end. Let’s call this the ‘machinization of humanity.’ This is not to say the discussion is not present at all (cases in point: Star Trek’s Borg, cyborgs in literature/pop culture, military exoskeletons, etc.), but for some reason we discuss it less, and we have a less coherent R&D path when compared to the humanization of machines approach. This is perhaps because there is a less clear path to achieve the middle ground along the machinization of humanity pathway. Perhaps also because it can be an unpleasant topic, and is often portrayed as such (case-in-point: the movie series “The Matrix”). Certainly bio-engineering, bio-medical engineering, and genetics stand to play a large role in the machinization of humanity, versus a predominance of computer and electrical engineering (arguably more mature fields of science/engineering) in the case of the humanization of machines.

There are many interesting aspects to ponder while we compare and contrast the convergent approaches. One fundamental truth is that at the end of the process both paths will get us to that middle ground along the spectrum of human:machine. Whether or not the solutions at the middle will be similar is unclear at this time. Most likely the resulting solutions from each path will converge functionally, but will diverge in the details of the approach, comparable to the similarities and differences in the case of convergent evolution to flight amongst mammals, avians, and insects. Functionally they are the same, but the mechanics and details of how flight is achieved are quite different.

As we compare and contrast the differences of the two approaches toward the middle ground, one point that is rarely, if ever, pondered is the implication of the pathways themselves. We ponder the end results and what impact that will have, but we rarely ponder the impacts of the pathways themselves. Could the pathway be more important than the end result, especially considering that the end results may be functionally very similar? What influence does the choice of which path to pursue (or both) have on the shape of society at the end of the process? Can we influence the ultimate outcome and shape of society at the end of the process by considering and influencing the developments we take along the path to the middle-ground? Is it inevitable that humanity takes that pathway to the middle-ground?

In a grossly oversimplified scenario just to prove a point, consider the following thought experiment: Society A pursues a purely humanization-of-machine approach, and Society B pursues a purely machinization-of-humanity approach. Is it likely that given the same starting point, Society A and Society B will look the same at the end of the process? In fact it seems highly unlikely. But what are the cogent differences?

Is one society more or less equal than the other?

Is one group of humans happier than the other? And, if so, why?

Could it be the case that the machinization-of-humanity approach results in a more balanced society than the humanization-of-machines? Is there a hybrid approach that gives an optimal solution?

These are important questions to ponder as our society marches down the pathway towards the middle-ground.