Lee Rainie
Lee Rainie is director of the Imagining the Digital Future Center. He wrote this essay in May 2024.

For millennia, it has been an article of faith and fact that humans ruled the Earth. The Bible decreed it. Aristotle proclaimed it. And there is a decent argument to make that our species’ obvious impact on the world’s climate and environment has been so dramatic that we should call this era the Anthropocene – a period where the dominant planetary force is human activity.

Given all that, it is startling to digest the findings of an extensive canvassing of technology experts about the future impact of artificial intelligence (AI) – especially the experts’ key prediction that by 2040 we will have to reimagine what it means to be human.

The canvassing by Elon University’s Imagining the Digital Future Center shows that these experts have several issues in mind as they imagine the changes AIs will produce for humans. They say every individual – and society overall – will have to reinvent:

Who we are: These experts wonder what will happen to our sense of identity and self-worth when we see AIs being able to perform some human functions as well as or better than we can. That raises some obvious questions: How will that affect the many workers who anchor their sense of self in their careers – and who will see that AIs have mastered or bettered their skills? How will everyone feel when they live in a world that is heavily influenced by superior forms of intelligence that are not human?

What we do: There will also be advances in AI systems will force people to reckon with their sense of agency and free will. AI co-pilots are already starting to help some people stay informed and even take action on their behalf. This trend is about to be significantly magnified. A large share of the population will likely trust these agents because the AI systems will become ever better at reading us, mimicking our actions and predicting and steering our behavior. Thus, the questions: What do we lose when we come to rely on AI sidekicks and we even outsource ourselves to AI agents? What will people do when much more human activity is mediated in some way by AIs?

How we connect and share: One of the great human triumphs is our capacity to work with others to discover truth, solve problems and provide mutual support. What happens to these traits in a world in which AIs personalize the flow of information and the flow of fellowship among people. It will also be a world where “synthetic” information – potentially carrying people’s pre-existing biases or being faked altogether – will become a larger part of the information landscape. At the extreme, some of these experts envision an AI-dominated world where every person is shaped by an individualized “reality” and belief system in which shared experiences and shared truths are difficult – if not impossible – to realize.  

How we think: Many of these experts believe that the nature of human cognition itself will be changed by AIs as we become more dependent on them. This could enfeeble people, decimating their aptitude for critical thinking and being skeptical. Moreover, there is plenty to fear about AI programs’ impact on people who prize their talents to create and innovate. How do those deep-seated sensibilities adjust to the onslaught of AIs?

At the same time, most of these experts see striking opportunities for humans in the Age of AI. It will likely be a healthier, safer, richer, cleaner, more efficient and more exciting world. People will have more leisure time, vast educational and enrichment possibilities, easier transportation and more stimulating real-world and virtual-world experiences. In a way, these benefits also invite us to reimagine what humans are good for.

All this suggests that the expansion of AIs is going to prompt a reordering of the relationship between humans and machines that will particularly value these unique (so far) human traits: imagination, intuition, moral reasoning, decision-making, judgment, leadership qualities, conflict resolution, curiosity, adaptability, the intelligence of emotions and the body, empathy … and our most mysterious trait of all – our consciousness.

Of course, there are those who think AIs will eventually be capable of many of those things, too. Or, at least, they will act out convincing simulations of those qualities.

What will we do then? The hopeful answer is that we will reimagine ourselves as our ancestors did when their technologies and inventions changed their circumstances. Humans have transformed themselves and thrived as they learned to exploit fire, create language (and later mathematics), make tools, transition from nomads to agriculture-based settlers, build early civilizations and then nation-states, launch the scientific revolution, construct the industrial revolution and shift to modern urban life.

If we figure out how to transition in similarly profound ways in this new era, we will have continued to earn our species’ tag, homo sapiens sapiens – wise humans.