What is uniquely human?

In this first week of the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC, Stephen Downes has shared a video introduction to the course (see https://el30.mooc.ca/course_activity_centre.htm ) and also recorded a video of a conversation he had with George Siemens. This was really enjoyable to watch.

It has been ten years since Stephen and George offered the first ever MOOC on connectivism, which for me (without wanting to sound too dramatic) was a life-changing experience. On the back of that course I established myself as an independent education consultant and researcher, which ultimately led to a PhD by publication. More important than this was that it led to connections with people with whom I am still in contact and who are now personal friends. As George said, that first MOOC, CCK08, The Connectivism and Connective Knowledge Course came at a time of mass explosion of technology, extensive innovation and the emergence of shared intelligence. But, as George said, after this initial excitement, the last five years has felt a bit like a wilderness and many of the initial aspirations for a democratic open web have not been realised.

However, neither George nor Stephen has given up on their initial aspirations to democratise learning. Both think we are now entering an era of deepening understanding of learning. Each has approached this differently, although they both feel that connectivism continues to be relevant, if not even more relevant, to how we learn in a technological age, as technology becomes more prominent.

Stephen asked George to tell us what is his current work focus. What are the issues that concern him? This was where the discussion became fascinating. It centred around what it means to be human and what is human intelligence in a world where machines can learn just as we do. For Stephen there isn’t anything that is uniquely human. Anything organised in the right way can learn. If we can learn, machines can too; if we can come up with ethics so can computers. Computers can always learn more than we can. Unlike us, they don’t get tired and improve with more data. Machines are equally as smart as us. So, George asked, why are we teaching in a counter-intuitive way when systems/machines can do it so much more efficiently and in 50 years time we will all be working with robots?

Grappling with these questions, George is looking for what is uniquely human. He sees this as ‘being-ness’. I have heard him talk about this before to Neil Selwyn, and earlier this year wrote a blog post about their discussion  – Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age . Stephen thinks ‘being’ is too fuzzy a concept to be useful, although ‘being’ seems to have exercised the minds of many a past philosopher, not least Heidegger. Despite this, I think Stephen nailed it when he said, ‘the most consequential things can’t be measured’. Perhaps, as Stephen suggested, ‘being’ can be recognised (without being measured, defined or articulated) in such qualities as ‘goodness’. We can probably think of similar qualities that it is hard to imagine a machine learning. George suggested that to understand ‘being’ we might need to return to traditional contemplative practices.

My current thinking is that ‘being’ is one of those ideas that cannot be made explicit without losing its meaning. It is something that we ‘know’, intuitively and empathically, without having to articulate it, and this knowledge is unique to each and every one of us. It is this that makes us different from machines.

This was a great discussion to have at the start of the course.

3 thoughts on “What is uniquely human?

  1. ggoldbergmd October 22, 2018 / 2:31 am

    This an interesting a provocative entry, Jenny. I think that existence is defined through narrative and there is no possible way that a machine can have a narrative that resembles that of a human being or, for that matter, any other living creature viewed as a consequence of a process of evolution that theoretically can be traced back to the origin of time. It is its unique narrative that makes every living creature a fundamentally singular existent.
    In connection to the whole question of narrative and its relationship to the personal, I would recommend taking a look at the 2018 Jefferson Lecture that was delivered this year last Monday in Washington, DC by Dr. Rita Charon, the founder of the program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. The Jefferson Lectureship is awarded every year by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) here in the United States. There is a very nice interview of Dr. Charon by the director of the NEH by Dr. Jon Parrish Peede that can be found at this link:


    And the lecture itself is now available for viewing on the NEH website:


    If you think that a robot will ever be able to duplicate human intentionality in all of its complexity–for example, in the process of producing a deeply meaningful piece of art, then we clearly have a different understanding of what constitutes meaning and value in the human context. Ultimately, machines are products of the human who conceives and constructs–a process dominated by the nominalistic operation of the left hemisphere that is engaged in the process of building something from parts, from the ‘ground up’. But organisms are not mere constructions. They function from the ground up AND from the top down simultaneously–they are not only analytic creatures that abstract, but are also intentional creatures that must act successfully in their concrete reality in order to be able to persist in their ongoing process of self-actualization. It all can be related back to ‘The Master and His Emissary’ and Iain McGilchrist’s theory, actually. Ultimately, a ‘man -made’ artifact is an ’emissary’ whose narrative can be traced back to some type of human intent involved in its construction. It is constructed while an organism is the product of a process of organic development that unfolds over a temporal continuum. The narratives are therefore fundamentally different. And if it is narrative that confers essence or identity, then a fundamentally different narrative results in a fundamentally different being.

    Similar issues are also discussed on the website of the Faggin Foundation at this link:


    By its founder, the Italian scientist, inventor, entepreneur, inventor of the silicon integrated circuit, Frederico Faggin.

    For example at a conference last year at the University of Toronto…


    I think that Faggin is essentially correct in recognizing consciousness as a unique feature of living organisms. I completely agree with Faggin in making the following argument:

    “Consciousness represents the semantic aspect of reality, qualitatively different than the syntactic aspect represented by physical reality. Computers are reductionist systems based on classical physics, whereas living systems are quantum, holistic, open systems performing information processing of a nature that is still mostly unknown.”

    I have a feeling that this would also resonate for Iain McGilchrist. Consciousness at the level of the vertebrate cerebrum requires having two interconnected hemispheres and extends beyond the syntactic nominalistic capacity of the left hemisphere–the ‘Emissary’–alone. It is an entirely different form of information processing than that which reductionistic systems can manifest. I would argue that is based on the ‘semiotic freedom’ manifest in the intentionality of organisms.

  2. jennymackness October 25, 2018 / 10:34 am

    Thank you so much Gary for this comment which I have found so interesting and helpful. I agree that Faggin’s thoughts about consciousness would resonate with Iain MCGilchrist, as on p.19 of his book McGilchrist writes:

    “But the fundamental problem in explaining the experience of consciousness is that there is nothing else remotely like it to compare it with: it is itself the ground of all experience.”


    “There is nothing else which has the ‘inwardness’ that consciousness has. Phenomenologically, and ontologically, it is unique.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s