Free will under threat: How humans are at risk of becoming wards of technologists

American legal scholar Brett Frischmann says we have to wake up to the risk of losing our humanity to 21st techno-social engineering. He warns humans are heading down an ill-advised path that is making us behave like ‘perfectly predictable’ simple machines.

Humans could become ‘perfectly predictable’ simple machines, warns Brett Frischmann

American legal scholar Brett Frischmann says we have to wake up to the risk of losing our humanity to 21st techno-social engineering — to stop outsourcing our minds to digital companies and sacrificing free will. (Shutterstock)

 Listen to Part Two

"We're not interested in the engineering of intelligent machines. We're interested in the engineering of unintelligent humans," Brett Frischmann writes in Re-engineering Humanity, a book co-authored with philosopher Evan Selinger. 

Frischmann, who is an American legal scholar, says our increasing dependence on technology is putting our very humanity at risk. He warns humans are heading down an ill-advised path that is making us behave like "perfectly predictable and in some cases programmable" simple machines.

"We follow scripts written, and paths, set by platform designers….We outsource thinking of all sorts, I mean route planning, who to date, what to say, what to think, what to believe."

How we engineer ourselves, or are engineered by others, is one of the most important questions of the 21st century, according to Frischmann.

Digitally networked technologies and tools can enhance human capabilities in different ways but the issue is when this same technology is used to reduce — or take away — human capabilities, says Frischmann.

"The tricky thing is really figuring out, well, what are the capabilities that matter?"

'We are not the technology'

Humans are more than just machines, but defining what makes us human is debatable. Frischmann argues what it comes down to is we can't be reduced to "computational systems." 

"The difference between human beings and the kinds of machines we build is we are not the technology," Frischmann tells IDEAS.

"If we were to become mere machines, mere tools, the question would then be: whose? whose machines and tools? Then we become no more than slaves."

Digital network technologies are re-engineering our lives, according to legal scholar Brett Frischmann. In part two of our series, IDEAS explores ways to prevent ourselves from becoming wards of the technologists. First step: we need to wake up to this very real possibility and danger.

He adds, technology doesn't have agency. Machines don't think for themselves, they have no will. They are not sentient.

"The machines don't do things to us, human beings do things to other human beings — human- created corporations or institutions or political organizations, which are basically comprised of human beings."

Frischmann warns we must not become overly dependent on technology to do our thinking for us, because it means you become wards to the technology owners. 

He paints a picture of what this world would look like in his Sir Graham Day Ethics, Morality and the Law Lecture, entitled: Re-Engineering Humanity. It was held at The Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

"A world where engineering determines governance is a world where fully predictable and programmable people perform rather than live their lives. Such a world would be tragic. People living there can be described as humans — and would still qualify as homosapiens — but they would be a thin normative status as human beings because much of what matters about being human would be lost."

'The risk of engineered determinism is that we rely so heavily on digital networked technologies to solve all of our problems,' says Brett Frischmann. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

What's at stake is not natural determinism, Frischmann says, it's engineered determinism. He proposes the way forward is to recognize that "free will matters."

"Live your life like it matters."

Frischmann urges people to be aware of outsourcing our minds to digital companies and sacrificing free will — an essential human capacity.

It's not too late to build a better world for the future generation, for our children.

"Digital networked technology can give us lots of great things and I don't want it to go way. I want us to embrace it and use it," Frischmann says.

"And at the same time, I want us to recognize that you still have a degree of freedom to be off and being off sometimes is a beautiful thing." 

About the guest in this episode:

Brett Frischmann is the Charles Widger Endowed University Professor in Law, Business and Economics at Villanova University, an affiliated scholar of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, an affiliated faculty member of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, and a trustee for the Nexa Center for Internet & Society, Politecnico di Torino. 

Re-Engineering Humanity by Brett Frischmann and Evan Evan Selinger examines what’s happening to our lives as society embraces big data, predictive analytics, and smart environments. (Submitted by Brett Frischmann )

Frischmann's latest book, Re-Engineering Humanity (Cambridge University Press), co-authored with philosopher Evan Selinger, examines techno-social engineering of humans. In addition to other books such as his novel, Shephard's Drone, he has written various popular articles on the intersection of technology and humanity for Scientific American, the Guardian, and other publications.

Frischmann received his BA in Astrophysics from Columbia University, an MS in Earth Resources Engineering from Columbia University, and a JD from the Georgetown University Law Center.

* This episode is part one of a two-part series. It was produced by Mary Lynk.