Return to humanity

Personal interaction is a step towards regaining what we have lost in a technology-driven world

On New Year's Day, a friend of mine posted his greeting for 2017 on Facebook.

"To a more human year," he wrote, attaching an article from The Guardian.

It was a short piece that started with the story of the Japanese film director Hayao Miyazaki's recent visit to a top-notch artificial intelligence (AI) lab in Tokyo.

There, proud programmers showed the famous animator a sequence where humanoid characters with AI have taught themselves how to move, instead of being programmed to move by human beings.

Having no concept of pain, the creatures used their heads as feet. The result were grostesque contortions that slid across the floor pitifully.

Instead of being impressed, the 76-year-old Miyazaki was appalled and declared he would never want to use anything like that in his work.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

"It really feels like it's some sort of insult toward life," he said. "I feel like the last day of Earth is close."

It was a thought-provoking vignette, especially at a time when the headlines seem to be dominated by the latest advancements and applications in AI technology.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, companies showcased everything from refrigerators to cars with Amazon's voice assistant AI programme, Alexa, built into them.

But it was not the story about AI and Miyazaki that has stuck with me throughout the first days of the new year, but rather, my friend's wish for a more "human" new year.

Amid all the many other hopes my friends expressed for good fortune, better health and safer societies this year, it seemed to me the most appropriate for the times we are living in.

Maybe it was because I was feeling particularly fragile after singer George Michael's death the week before.

Much has been said about how it capped a horrible year which took the lives of many iconic musicians, from Prince to David Bowie to Leonard Cohen.

But it was the suddenness of his death, which took so many of my peers by surprise.

And the awful realisation that, in a flash, one of the most definitive pop culture markers of our cohort was gone forever.

That underneath it all, the glittering achievements and the big corporate designations, the clever Facebook links and the jealousy-inducing Instagram photos, we are mortal after all.

Even though technology and the Internet may have made our lives seem bigger and more colourful than they really are, there comes a tipping point. The second half of the match has begun and you realise that this is probably the start of the end.

It did not help that even as Michael sold millions of records and was universally acknowledged to be one of the finest singers and songwriters of his era, his story is also as much a cautionary tale about wasted talent.

In the last 10 to 15 years, there has been no substantial output from the star as he wallowed in depression and drugs following a break-up.

It made some of us feel that possibilities in life aren't limitless after all and we have to live life very much cognisant of our human expiry dates.

After all, as 2016 also vividly showed us, those expiry dates could come sooner than we think and under violent circumstances that have absolutely nothing to do with us.

We started the year with a silent prayer that the world could somehow still remain peaceful and safe.

But instead, we have had terrorists storming beaches, nightclubs and concerts around the world, randomly shooting people.

Hundreds of people have been killed or injured by terrorists in trucks just mercilessly mowing down and crushing innocent people in crowded street markets and festivals.

In fact, there are so many terrorist attacks now around the world, especially in the Middle East, that Wikipedia has to list them by the month, not the year.

It makes you feel that we have regressed as human beings, back to the days when you killed someone because you disagreed with them, or simply because they were in your way, or you did not like their race, beliefs or lifestyles.

How have people become so ruled by dogma or religious belief as to see human life as a means to an end, simply a way to make a point?

Sadly, this move to fundamentalism has found expression in wider society as well.

More people are starting to accept the sacrifice of innocent human life as acceptable in the larger fight for religious identity and belief. Many are calling on politicians to create laws that divide societies.

At the start of this year, hate, fear and intolerance of human diversity seem to be the driving forces in global society and they seem to be winning.

Even the concept of truth is under attack - how do we know that something we read is true? Do we even care?

To many of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, when each year seemed to bring people closer together economically, culturally and socially, the world is becoming a more and more alien place.

This year, therefore, my hope is for a return to the version of humanity that we grew up with - a version that we know and love.

But of course, as individuals we can only do so much.

So my own goal for 2017 in the quest for a more human year is very simply to go out more and interact physically with human beings around me.

For a while now, I have thought that online advocates who argued that the Internet has brought people closer together were right - but only in the beginning and in a limited sense.

Today, people have far fewer reasons to leave their homes.

Shopping, food, entertainment are all available on their computers and mobile devices. You can interact with friends in chat groups, see what they are up to or are currently doing.

Looking to shake up a weekend routine of sitting at home watching television, reading and sending out and receiving an endless stream of online orders, I forced myself last Christmas to go out and explore Singapore's malls.

To talk to shop assistants and touch and feel things. To dress up and go out on a movie date. To eat in a restaurant for a change.

I found the movies, the goods and the food to be pretty much the same.

But the people that I saw around me were different every time - the way fathers talked to their toddler daughters, sales assistants to their customers, couples as they sat eating together.

It made me realise that there is a very material difference between our online and physical selves - a difference that we have come to underestimate in this day and age.

So here's to a more human year - however you may want to define it.

Every little bit matters in regaining what we have lost.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 08, 2017, with the headline 'Return to humanity'. Print Edition | Subscribe