The String-player: What is it to be a human in the 21st century facing AI and multiple ecological crisis?


In the 21st century, we sit in the driver’s seat to determine the technosphere and ecosphere we inhabit, in turn reshaping what it is to be human today.

Stefan Brunnhuber, the head of an initiative of the World academy of Art and Science, aims to answer this pivotal question in relation to species losses, pandemics and global heating on the one side, and disruptive new technologies, namely AI and BIG DATA, on the other.

Visit the World academy of Art and Science website:

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Image Source: Adobe Stock Images / Turhan





Hello and welcome to Research Pod! Thank you for listening and joining us today.


In this episode, we discover a spin off from an initiative of the World academy of Art and Science, headed by Stefan Brunnhuber, which aims to answer the pivotal question:  What is it to be a human in the midst of ecological crisis, especially in relation to species losses, pandemics and global heating on one side and disruptive new technologies, namely AI and BIG DATA on the other?


Living in this century means living in a new era, the Anthropocene, where the human species is sitting in the driver’s seat to determine the biophysical conditions of this planet. We are becoming aware of planetary boundaries, inter-connectedness, multiple non-linear tipping points and serial asymmetric shocks, and the technological challenges of AI and BIG DATA. In short, the technosphere and ecosphere are determining the new role of being human in the twenty-first century.


We already share emotions, cognition, living in large cohorts and the use of tools with other species; even the anatomical peculiarities of standing upright and having opposable thumbs, the ability for cooking, gardening and our capacity for analytical thinking and self-consciousness are not specific enough to explain human achievements and human impact on this planet.


The rise of new technologies like AI, BIG DATA, Deep learning, and the overall process of digitization and robotics will sooner or later surpass most, if not all, of these familiar human capacities. And these new technologies will challenge us to rethink our role on this planet.


Even if humans are able to enter the nano world, transcend unforeseeable cosmic distances or travel faster than light, these achievements will remain linked to the human ‘middle dimension’. We are always determined by metres and minutes, by hammers, ploughs and nails. And within this ‘middle dimension’ we are confronted by all our constraints and limitations. We cannot run very fast, are not very strong, cannot hold our breath for an hour, cannot live without food. Our senses of taste, smell, sight and hearing are bound by certain limits. For example, Chimpanzees have a better short-term memory, rats and dogs can smell better, elephants communicate with their trunks and ears, bats orient themselves by echolocation, like dolphins, eagles have vastly superior vision, catfish can taste with their entire body.


Humans have the same number of genes as the ringworm, the difference between individual humans’ genetic make-up is less than 0.1% and major biochemical signalling pathways found in all living beings have remained genetically unchanged for over 300 million years. But humans require early stage bonding and attachment, otherwise they die; false memory distorts our decision-making; we constantly dissociate elements of our perception if our inner world does not match with reality; our impulse control easily overrides rational behaviours; a powerful confirmation bias restricts our analytical thinking; we are susceptible to deception, fake news, propaganda and lies; and our memory does not simply reconstruct past events but can falsify them, meaning we add or delete parts of the story, taking conscious and sub-conscious intellectual leaps.


The qualities that make us human present us with a paradox: we are simultaneously free and vulnerable; it looks like homo sapiens are the only living being on this planet, that is not fully adapted to its environments, leaving a gap which has to be filled, which is not the case for other species.


This gap has to be constantly filled by cultural achievements, governance and technology. These are all products of free choice, and a capacity to take responsibility for that choice, which a mere hunting animal lacks. In short: we need drones, drugs and dams to survive, but other living beings do not. And this gap will never go away and has only increased as we have evolved – particularly relevant in the twenty-first century.


But as humans, while incomplete and not fully adapted to nature, adhere to several specific properties.


We have the capacity for constant rule-based cooperation with non-family members. We collaborate with strangers, as long as each party is following the approved rules. This includes  human rights declarations, market rules, educational agendas and research collaborations for example.


We tell each other fictitious stories about the world, which serve to coordinate large cohorts. For instance, stories about God, money or the legal system.


We possess the capacity to potentially destroy or domesticise our environment: through wars, collective suicide and ecocide, or applying regenerative agriculture or sophisticated educational training programmes and new technologies.


An intergenerational transmission of tools and knowledge, which enables us to improve our knowledge and understanding of the world. These adaptations bear an alleviating function. We do not have to invent the wheel, antibiotics and a fair fiscal system over and over again, legitimising further cultural and technological accomplishments.


And finally, we are able to learn not only through direct mimicking, simulation, modelling and conditioning, but also through joint attention, where we have a shared focus on a common object. We simply learn almost everything from someone else who had the relevant experience first-hand.


None of these qualities alone uniquely determine what it is to be human, but their interplay provides an emergent momentum that characterises our species.


Living in the Anthropocene era of the twenty-first century, what is it then to be human is different than it used to be? We are not in the centre of the universe, as the first renaissance (1400-1600) claimed, nor on top of an evolutionary ladder. This picture of an evolutionary ladder has been promoted by all monotheistic religions (‘make nature your subject’) and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Both  are based on a vertical mental frame, where the top of the hierarchy implies a superior position. What is required instead is a mindset shift towards a parallel, horizontal frame. Evolution, we may come to recognise, is therefore best described not as a ladder with humans at the top, but rather as an infinite series of overlapping asymmetric circles representing living beings and their ecosystems, which we will only ever be able to understand incompletely.


And each of these circles involves a different form of consciousness. Moreover, these overlapping circles do not really orbit around humans. Humans are just a marginal string player in this concert. Instead of asking what is similar, we might ask: what is it to be you, to be different to me? How do bats perceive the world? How do bees and ants coordinate large cohorts? We can learn a lot more, and adapt to nature much better, and fill the void or gap much wiser as a string player in the orchestra of nature than we can from the top of an imaginary ladder.


On this reading, humans are marginal, fragile yet essential string players. Marginal because we are not of primary relevance to the planet’s ecosystem; fragile because we are not fully adapted to nature, and require a crutch to compensate for our deficiency; and essential because once on this planet we are capable either of destroying or living in harmony with all the other living beings that inhabit it. We become literally string players capable of attuning to our environment and all living beings, rather than dominating them.


A technology can simulate rain, but we will never get wet; it can simulate food, but we will not get fed and it can simulate a companion, but we will never have off-springs. We as string players are able to delegate almost every task to a technology we have created ourselves. And throughout this entire process, we would be wise to delegate all but two things:


  • Our personal and collective physical, psychosocial and spiritual health. In short: getting enough exercise and restorative sleep, eating sensibly and treating each other with respect and tolerance.


  • Asking critical questions. For instance: how to hang up a picture on the wall? That requires a nail and a hammer. Or how to fly? That requires knowledge of aerodynamics and how to build a plane. Or how to generate a kilogram of synthetic proteins for less than two dollars so that we can feed the world? Whereas answers to these questions are given by the collective wisdom, rules and technologies available to us, which in turn will prompt further critical questions.


As humans, we operate within the ‘middle dimension’’ and think in a linear fashion. Asking questions however should remain a human task, but answering them requires the crutches that we rely on to solve problems.


To summarize: Whereas the first Renaissance put the human species at the centre of the universe and Darwin located humanity at the top of an imaginary evolutionary ladder, in the twenty-first century the human species is understood to be a string player in one of infinitely many parallel universes. Positioned in a marginal spot, with an ever growing consciousness, also incompletely adapted, able to explore and interact with all the parallel universes and reveal their interdependencies and interconnectedness, thanks to a new technology that surpasses (many of) our native abilities.


To read more about the initiatives of the World Academy of Art and Sciences, visit their website, linked in this episodes‘ description, or read the book ‚The Third culture- How AI is changing our knowledge, consciousness and our society as whole (in press) and available online and through all good book stores.


That’s all for this episode – thanks for listening, and stay subscribed to Research Pod for more of the latest science.


See you again soon.

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