Almost Human

Posted: October 16, 2014 in Mediated Lives

There have been huge technological advances in robotics and cybernetics in recent years. But along with these amazing advances is the question of how all of these advances will affect us as humans. Will we almost be defunct as robots take over all daily functions from teaching our children, to gardening, to caring for the sick and elderly. But these are

Figure 1 – spot the robot

not just jobs – these are social interactions either with other people or the world around us. As far as I know there is no coding for social interaction, no robot who can genuinely replicate our humanness even though many scientists continue to try. Japanese scientists recently contributed to the “Android – what is human?” exhibition (June 2014) in Tokyo. “The robots will help researchers to explore robot-human interactions, and to examine what it means to be human.” (1)

But what if we don’t go down that route? What if rather than recreating ‘humanness’ synthetically, we enhance ourselves as humans?

Breakthroughs in cybernetics and robotics are allowing humans to maintain and even enhance their humanness, particularly for disabled people whose life is altered due to a disability. For example, the ability to walk is not strictly a criteria for humanness but the ability to walk and meet friends or walk to work or tend a garden is. As recently as June 2014, the FDA(Food and Drug Administration) in the USA approved a robotic exoskeleton to help paraplegics walk again. This new technology will allow people to to walk again in their homes and in their communities.” (2) The opportunity to give people moment back so that they can interact more fully in society again is such an important part of what humanness is all about.It is not simply about the ability to walk but the ability to interact in a community with other people.

Figure 2 – ReWalk exoskeleton suit

Murugami in her paper Disability and Identity (2009) states that “impairment should be seen as part of the human condition rather than a basis for setting someone apart, or a characteristic diminishing one’s humanness.” (3) However, research also suggests that disabled people do feel ‘less human’ as Depoy and Gilson’s research suggests “For many people with a disability, the greatest struggle is the acceptance of others to see them as human” (4)

We can debate whether disabled people should or should not look to technology to enhance or overcome their disability and whether the pressure to do this is from themselves or social norms in society but there is an argument that technology should be used toenhance the human condition rather than attempt to replicate it. The point at which robots demonstrate humanness is, according to Rob Miller, professor of computer science at MIT, something that will never happen. “People are constantly inventing new slang, watching the latest viral videos and movies, or partaking in some other cultural phenomena together. That’s something that an algorithm won’t ever be able to catch up to,” he says. (5)

Figure 3 – The future of robots?

And until robots can really demonstrate a sense of humour, our humanness will remain something unique to us.


  • (1) Russon M, International Business Times (24 June, 2014) 1453992

  • (2) International Business Times (24 June, 2014)

  • (3) Murugami M, Disability and Identity – Disabilities Journal Quarterly Vol 29, No 4 (2009)

  • (4) DePoy E, Gilson S – Branding and Designing Disability: Reconceptualising Disability Studies (2014)

Routledge (p 130)

  • (5) The Atlantic (2013)

Figure 1 – International Business Times (24 June, 2014)

Figure 2 – (June 30 2014)

Figure 3 – Washington Post (October 17, 2013)

E Rocon, J. M. Belda-Lois, A. F. Ruiz, M. Manto, J. C. Moreno, and J. L. Pons

IEEE Transactions On Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering, VOL. 15, NO. 3, SEPTEMBER 2007

Geary J, (2002) chapter 6 “Touch” from The Body Electric:An Anatomy of the New Bionic Sense, London: Wiedenfeld and Nicholson


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