Of Machines and Men: the Road to Identity. Scenes for a Discussion (by Stefano Rodotà)

venerdì, 8 Gennaio, 2010

Well known to Italian readers of popular newspapers as Repubblica, Stefano Rodotà is a prominent jurist, active in some important Italian or European Institutions, such as the Authority for protection of personal data, or the European Group for ethics in sciences and new technologies. He is among the authors of the European Charter for Fundamental Rights. He is Emeritus Professor at the Faculty of Law, La Sapienza University, Rome. He has been teaching in several European and American Universities. The status and identity of persons within a society dominated by information and computer technology is among the main subjects of his research. We are pleased to publish this working paper of his, Of Machines and Mens: the Road to Identity. Scenes for a Discussion, and grateful for this new opportunity of discussion.

DRAFT — Comments Welcome.

Of Machines and Men: the Road to Identity. Scenes for a Discussion (1)

«1. In the reflections on the “homme-machine” by La Mettrie and D’Holbach (2), the physical and psychical identity is ordered, in a regulatory sense, by nature. But it is the relationship with the world of machines that shows that identity is a complex social entity, irreducible solely to naturalistic data, resulting from a never accomplished historical event. Montaigne reminds us that life, in which identity is reflected, “est un mouvement inégal, irrégulier, multiforme” (3), thus a continuous construction, entrusted to variable contexts, departing from any automatism. Furthermore, if the order that governs identity were only naturalistic, then the autonomy of a person itself would be denied at its origin. Rather, throughout history we have always tried to force the limits of nature, especially when we have tried to mimic it, reproduce it, transport it to a different dimension. It is not a paradoxical conclusion, but just when reproduction of nature appears at its zenith, the highest degree of artificiality has been reached. The automatons, the Ingenious Devices have fascinated us since ancient times; they have paved the way to other mechanical creatures, like robots and the different thinking machines; and then came the cyborgs, announcing the trans- and post-human, the researches on brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) or brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). But relations between man and the world of machines are not linear (4). The fact that we start from man as a reference or model may lead to very different results: to try to replicate man in a machine or to replicate machine in a man, an object among other objects, in fact an “homme-machine”. (…) ». (read more)


(1) The title of this paper mimics that one of a well known John Steinbeck’s novel, “Of Mice and Men” (1937), a story of an unconscious destructive power that can be stopped only through the destruction of that power itself. Violence, public or hidden, against violence? We must avoid any aggressive attitude. To mimic William Shakespeare (King Lear, act V, scene II, ”Ripeness is all”) we could say “Consciousness is all”.
(2) J. O. de La Mettrie, L’homme machine (1748), in Œuvres philosophiques, 2 vol., Fayard, Paris, 1987 ; P. H. T. D’Holbach, Système de la nature (1770), 2 vol., Fayard, Paris, 1990.
(3) M. de Montaigne, Essais (1588), Livre III, chap. III, De trois commerces.
(4) M. G. Losano, Storie di automi. Dall’antica Grecia alla belle époque, Einaudi, Torino 1990; C. Sini, L’uomo, la macchina, l’automa, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 2009.

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