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BusinessDay: I think, therefore I am a machine

Technology displaying human-level intelligence may not be as far off as many think, but how will this affect the basic foundations of democracy?

By Johan Steyn, 11 October 2022

“I think, therefore I am” — the Latin phrase cogito ergo sum, written by René Descartes in the 17th century, has become one of the best-known philosophical sayings in the world.

As a result of being a person, I am a thinking being. My actions are determined by the way I think about things and comprehend and make sense of the world around me. How we think and the origins of our thoughts have interested many and have been the subject of study for decades.

Today, “thinking machines” are ubiquitous. Algorithms and technologies powered by artificial intelligence (AI) are now as prevalent as light bulbs and computers.

British mathematician Alan Turing is recognised as an early AI thinker. He was inspired to develop intelligent devices. The Turing Test, which he developed in 1950, is still employed to determine whether a computer is intelligent. In 1956, Dartmouth College professor John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” to describe this ability. The Dartmouth Conference laid the foundation for future investigation into “thinking machines”.

Human-tech hybrids?

The era of intelligent technology has such a deep impact on the way we think that it dictates and shapes our behaviour. Smartwatches and other devices have enabled us to take technology with us at all times. With the advent of brain implants, it will not be long before our technology is always with us.

I will soon be able to say that I solely use my mind to explore the internet. Through my imagination, I can converse with other metaverse dwellers. I can control my surroundings with my thoughts.

In the near future, consumers in numerous industries, including tourism, finance and insurance, will be able to design and build the goods and services they require. As we strive for a universal currency, crypto tokens may coexist with fiat currencies. Autonomous vehicles will be introduced in a large number of places across the globe.

Robotics and self-aware, self-replicating software systems will arise in the future. The development of machines displaying human-level intelligence (artificial general intelligence) may not be as far from achieving as many may think.

When our biological bodies and technology begin to collaborate more closely, we will have reached the next stage of evolution. Despite the numerous potential benefits, it may also produce issues. The ability to manipulate my environment with my mind is one thing, but what if the same technology could be used by others to control my mind? Consider how this might impact the right to privacy and the basic foundations of our democratic society.

I also think that the very definition of homo sapiens will change. Just as our species gained the upper hand over Neanderthals tens of thousands of years ago, we have to consider if a new hominoid-like species will emerge in our midst that will eventually overpower and out-evolve us.

The historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote in his book Sapiens about the possibility of us creating a “useless class” in the future. As more jobs are automated away and as world dominance transfers from powerful countries to technology giants, access to education, healthcare and free speech may be continually limited to the masses.

The new ruling class in the future may very well be human-robot entities. A new Descartes of tomorrow may well be justified to write: “I think, therefore I am a machine.”

• Steyn is on the faculty at Woxsen University, a research fellow with Stellenbosch University and the founder of


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