TU Wien Informatics

Digital Humanism

Edward A Lee: "The Coevolution of Humans and Machines"

  • Digital Humanism
  • Lecture Series
  • Event

In the third lecture in our series, Edward Ashford Lee presents the case for considering digital beings to be living, then offers counterarguments.

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Are humans defining technology, or is technology defining humans? Richard Dawkins famously said that a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg. Is a human a computer’s way of making another computer? Certainly, digital technology has changed the way we interact with one another, the way we work, and even the way we think. The machines serve as intellectual prostheses, helping us with arithmetic, spelling, and remembering (while also subtly manipulating our thoughts, directing us to click on ads or vote a certain way). Should the software systems that have taken over so much of our lives be viewed as living beings, defined by bits rather than DNA?

In this talk, Edward Ashford Lee presents the case for considering digital beings to be living, then offers counterarguments. What we humans do with our minds is more than computation, and what digital systems do—be teleported at the speed of light, backed up, and restored—may never be possible for humans. To believe that we are simply computations, he argues, is a "dataist" faith and scientifically indefensible. Digital beings depend on humans—and humans depend on digital beings. More likely than a planetary wipe-out of humanity is an ongoing, symbiotic coevolution of culture and technology.

About Edward A. Lee

Portrait of Edward A. Lee

Edward Ashford Lee is Professor of the Graduate School and Robert S. Pepper Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at UC Berkeley, where he has been on the faculty since 1986. He is the author of Plato and the Nerd - The Creative Partnership of Humans and Technology (MIT Press, Fall 2017), Introduction to Embedded Systems - A Cyber-Physical Systems Approach (MIT Press, 2017), a number of other textbooks and research monographs, and more than 300 papers and technical reports. Lee has delivered more than 180 keynote talks and other invited talks at venues worldwide and has graduated at least 35 PhD students. Professor Lee's research group studies cyber-physical systems, which integrate physical dynamics with software and networks. His focus is on the use of deterministic models as a central part of the engineering toolkit for such systems. He has led the development of several influential open-source software packages, notably Ptolemy and its various spinoffs.

Lee is the director of iCyPhy, the Berkeley Industrial Cyber-Physical Systems Research Center, and the Ptolemy project. From 2013-2017, he was director of the nine-university TerraSwarm Research Center. From 2005-2008, he served as chair of the EE Division and then chair of the EECS Department at UC Berkeley. He received his BS degree in 1979 from Yale University, with a double major in Computer Science and Engineering and Applied Science, an SM degree in EECS from MIT in 1981, and a PhD in EECS from UC Berkeley in 1986. From 1979 to 1982 he was a member of technical staff at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, in the Advanced Data Communications Laboratory. He is a co-founder of BDTI, Inc., where he is currently a Senior Technical Advisor, and has consulted for a number of other companies.

Lee is a Fellow of the IEEE, was an NSF Presidential Young Investigator, won the 1997 Frederick Emmons Terman Award for Engineering Education, and received the 2016 Outstanding Technical Achievement and Leadership Award from the IEEE Technical Committee on Real-Time Systems (TCRTS) and the 2019 IEEE Technical Committee on Cyber-Physical Systems (TCCPS) Technical Achievement Award, "for pioneering and fundamental contributions to the design, modeling and simulation of cyber-physical systems."

The Lecture Series on Digital Humanism is supported by the Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF).