HUBRIS AND HUMILITY
If we are not sure how our synthetic children will turn out, why should we embrace the difficulties of creating and nurturing them at all? One answer is that regardless of the outcome, the very act of making digital people helps us form a clearer image of what we really are as humans.Better scientific understanding of our bodies and minds is necessary if we are ever to bring artificial beings to their ultimate possibilities, but it cuts both ways because the methods used to make and study them also illuminate us. As we contemplate, and perhaps cross, the border between inert and unconscious on the one hand and living and conscious on the other—whether approached from the human or the artificial end of the spectrum—perhaps we can also throw light on the human spirit, which some call the soul.And as the theologian Anne Foerst comments, thinking about artificial personhood also makes us consider why we allow certain people into our communities and reject others—perhaps engendering a more in- clusive acceptance across boundaries of race, religion, gender, and functionality as well as artificiality.
The most important benefit, however, might be a spiritual real- ization about our place in the universe.The specter of excessive hu- man pride has reared its head more than once in the history of artificial beings, both virtual and real. It is an arrogance that is easy to come by in our scientific age, but not for the very greatest scientists, those whose wisdom encompasses a sense of wonder and humility as they strive to understand nature.
The great Spanish neuroanatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, whose work a hundred years ago laid the foundation for understand- ing the very brain we now struggle to emulate, felt that sense of awe. In 1906, Ramón y Cajal won the Nobel Prize in physiology for his research on the retina.Working with a staining technique developed by Camillo Golgi (who shared the prize with him), he showed for the first time separate neurons within the retina and their delicate inter- connecting filaments.The retina is an outgrowth of the brain, and so