Late last year, Saudi Arabia granted a humanoid robot called Sophia citizenship. The internet went crazy about it, and a number of sensationalised reports suggested that this was the beginning of “the rise of the robots”.

In reality, though, Sophia was not a “breakthrough” in AI. She was just an elaborate puppet that could answer some simple questions. But the debate Sophia provoked about what rights robots might have in the future is a topic that is being explored by an emerging philosophical movement known as post-humanism.

From humanism to post-humanism

In order to understand what post-humanism is, it’s important to start with a definition of what it’s departing from. Humanism is a term that captures a broad range of philosophical and ethical movements that are unified by their unshakable belief in the unique value, agency, and moral supremacy of human beings.

Emerging during the Renaissance, humanism was a reaction against the superstition and religious authoritarianism of Medieval Europe. It wrested control of human destiny from the whims of a transcendent divinity and placed it in the hands of rational individuals (which, at that time, meant white men). In so doing, the humanist worldview, which still holds sway over many of our most important political and social institutions, positions humans at the centre of the moral world.

Post-humanism, which is a set of ideas that have been emerging since around the 1990s, challenges the notion that humans are and always will be the only agents of the moral world. In fact, post-humanists argue that in our technologically mediated future, understanding the world as a moral hierarchy and placing humans at the top of it will no longer make sense.

Two types of post-humanism

The best-known post-humanists, who are also sometimes referred to as transhumanists, claim that in the coming century, human beings will be radically altered by implants, bio-hacking, cognitive enhancement and other bio-medical technology. These enhancements will lead us to “evolve” into a species that is completely unrecognisable to what we are now.

This vision of the future is championed most vocally by Ray Kurzweil, a chief engineer of Google, who believes that the exponential rate of technological development will bring an end to human history as we have known it, triggering completely new ways of being that mere mortals like us cannot yet comprehend.

While this vision of the post-human appeals to Kurzweil’s Silicon Valley imagination, other post-human thinkers offer a very different perspective. Philosopher Donna Haraway, for instance, argues that the fusing of humans and technology will not physically enhance humanity, but will help us see ourselves as being interconnected rather than separate from non-human beings.

She argues that becoming cyborgs – strange assemblages of human and machine – will help us understand that the oppositions we set up between the human and non-human, natural and artificial, self and other, organic and inorganic, are merely ideas that can be broken down and renegotiated. And more than this, she thinks if we are comfortable with seeing ourselves as being part human and part machine, perhaps we will also find it easier to break down other outdated oppositions of gender, of race, of species.

Post-human ethics

So while, for Kurzweil, post-humanism describes a technological future of enhanced humanity, for Haraway, post-humanism is an ethical position that extends moral concern to things that are different from us and in particular to other species and objects with which we cohabit the world.

Our post-human future, Haraway claims, will be a time “when species meet”, and when humans finally make room for non-human things within the scope of our moral concern. A post-human ethics, therefore, encourages us to think outside of the interests of our own species, be less narcissistic in our conception of the world, and to take the interests and rights of things that are different to us seriously.