Opinion | A.I. and I

Artificial intelligence often scares us. If you think going for a ride in a self-driving car requires a leap of faith, try having your life depend on an autonomous pancreas hitched to your belt whose algorithms are, for you, the difference between life and death.

I have Type 1 diabetes, so my pancreas does not produce the life-essential insulin that a normal pancreas secretes. Instead, I carry on my belt a medical device — in effect, an artificial pancreas — whose brain interacts on its own with continuously updated data transmitted to it by a glucose monitor with implanted sensors.

These data are uploaded in the cloud where they can be seen by my doctor, the pump and monitor manufacturers, and I don’t know who else. As long as the pump keeps working correctly, I receive just the amount of insulin I need to survive. If it crashes or is hacked, I could die.

Late in life, I find myself enmeshed in a technological revolution that raises profound questions about what once was known as human being. Where does my body begin? Where does it end? What is natural? What is artificial? Who owns my pancreas and its data?

This revolution is the result of six closely related developments: ultra-high-speed networked computers; huge quantities of data gathered from the internet and other sources; expansion of wireless networks; explosive growth of mobile devices; rapid proliferation of low-cost miniaturized sensors; and radical changes in artificial intelligence.

With the move first from mainframe to personal computers, and then to hand-held mobile devices, there has been a progressive miniaturization and decentralization of data processing machines. My artificial pancreas represents a stunning new stage in this process; it is part of the emergent Internet of Things, by which scattered devices are now being connected and enabled to talk to each other.

The Internet of Things links everything from instruments in home security systems and surveillance systems to Global Positioning Systems and servers in high-speed financial networks all the way down to the pancreas network to which I belong through my device’s manufacturer. In some cases, these connected devices require intentional human interaction. In other cases, the networks operate without human agents.

The purpose of the Internet of Things is to collect and analyze data that can be used to control things and through them regulate and modify human behavior. Miniaturized sensors transmit data from mobile and wearable devices that can be stored, processed and transmitted to create an environment of ubiquitous computing within which all things, bodies and minds can be tracked everywhere, all the time. While the deployment of these pervasive and invasive technologies for nefarious political and economic purposes has been widely discussed and criticized, the no less important lifesaving medical applications of the same technologies are frequently overlooked.

The technologies underlying the Internet of Things are now being used to create a derivative Internet of Bodies. Wearable computers like my continuous glucose monitor and insulin pump — my artificial pancreas — as well as implantable devices like pacemakers and brain chips are connected to each other in the cloud.

Bodily functions and activities are algorithmically monitored, regulated and modulated. In this way, human bodies distributed in space and time are increasingly connected in a worldwide web. The Internet of Things and Internet of Bodies themselves are inextricably interrelated, each requiring the other, in a relationship that I call “intervolution.”

In contrast to evolution, which is an unfolding over time, intervolution is an intertwining over time, a developmental process in which seemingly discrete bodies and things cooperate to weave mutually adaptive webs. The Internet of Things and the Internet of Bodies — think of them as smart things and smart bodies — are thus joined in an intervolutionary network which is gestating nothing less than the human being of the future.

The global network that is emerging around us forms the biotechnical infrastructure for future bodily as well as cognitive development. Extended bodies and extended minds will intervolve to form superorganisms and superintelligence. The expanded mind will not only extend from outer devices and processes to the inner recesses of what we once thought were our private selves but will also extend in the opposite direction — from once-impenetrable inward processing to once-unreachable outer networks.

This interaction of machines and minds is creating a form of superintelligence that already surpasses the cognitive abilities of human beings. Superorganisms, meanwhile, formed by prostheses and implants that communicate across bodies in the cloud, will lengthen the current life span by enacting and exploiting to the full the profound truth that all life is shared.

Diabetes has taught me that I am never only myself, but am always also other than myself. As my pump and I have gotten to know each other and have learned to live together, I have discovered that my very body extends beyond itself.

The intranet of my body, the Internet of Things and the Internet of Bodies share a common language and, therefore, are able to communicate with one another. Sometimes we misunderstand and must recalibrate. Fortunately, my pump is always calculating, thinking and talking to my body as well as to other smart things, even when I am not.

I have become a node in this network of networks and no longer can live without it. Just as mind and body cannot be separated, so superorganism and superintelligence are interdependent and intervolved. I do not impose my intelligence on a recalcitrant world or resistant others; to the contrary, I am but a fleeting moment in a process that both includes and surpasses me.

I now realize that the body and mind I once thought were my own are expressions of an intelligence that is neither simply natural nor merely artificial. As sentient environments and distributed cognition continue to expand, I along with all other smart things and smart bodies will be contributing to the complex intervolutionary process that will continuously shape everything and everyone for a long, long while to come.

Mark C. Taylor is a professor of religion at Columbia and the author of “Intervolution: Smart Bodies Smart Things.”

Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

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