Silicon Valley Philosophy, by Xiaoyin Qu
Silicon Valley is an awesome place. Having been at the Silicon Valley program since January, the most frequent word I have said has been “wow.” When your company is offering free beer and wine every single day (although I am not allowed to drink, since I am underage), when we watch a Warriors game in the luxury suite for free, and when your colleagues constantly show you the most fancy apps from Sunrise to Tinder, from Google Glass to 3D printers, what else can you say other than “wow”? Yet there are times I don’t say “wow,” like now. I am sitting in a techy meeting room, trying to think of answers to a question that I have never seriously considered. What makes me a human being?
Everything started from a random conversation I had with my boss. We were talking about the news of potential HIV cures, and he firmly said, “I believe we can eventually cure all diseases using technology, maybe in 40 years.” He was not simply daydreaming. One of our colleagues has diabetes and he carries a diabetes injector that is inserted into his body all day long, showing him his insulin level 24 hours a day. The appliance warns him every time his insulin level becomes abnormal and tells him it’s time to take his medicine.
Then my boss added, “Think about 20 years later, when we can not only get those injectors, but also insert several chips into our body, each in charge of a different organ. We will be able to cure all diseases eventually, so we could live for 150 years with ease.”
“Can we?” I wondered. “What if we get computer viruses, and those chips break down? Computer viruses will become the real viruses!”
“That’s probably true. And the war ... people don’t use weapons anymore. They code to destroy those chips since everybody is using those. When your chips get stuck, you are game-over.”
“And doctors need to know how to debug!” The conversation went on and on as we got so excited and began to imagine everything that is going to happen with those chips. It may sound as though we were writing science fiction, but we felt more like fortunetellers.
The conversation suddenly froze, as my boss asked me, “When we have nine chips inside our body, are we human beings or robots or something in between?”
“Well...” I got stuck. I got silent. I began to wonder what makes human beings human beings. If we are human beings because we have brains, and technology takes over the role of our brains to control how we function our organs, what makes us special then? If those robots, designed by the smartest human beings in the world, have a higher IQ than the average IQ of human beings, is intelligence still the thing that defines us as human beings? If Google Translate is finally accurate and those artificial-intelligence apps can function with the same quality as human beings, what makes us indispensable? What are the real criteria defining who we are then? Our body, our emotions, or our creativity?
As I ask myself all those questions, I am happy that Silicon Valley challenged my previous immature philosophy. Here I was surrounded by all these technological masterpieces, but I couldn’t solve all those questions only with technology. I need humanities. My geeky colleagues are not only talking about Java or Ruby, but also philosophy. Two months ago I was wondering if I need a liberal arts education for this fast-growing and technological world, and now I realize that I not only need it, but also ought to use it.
Now my mind is full of those questions that make me wonder who I am, what I am doing, and why I am here. I appreciate those questions Silicon Valley has brought to me. Maybe I should take another philosophy class or history seminar when I get back. I was surprised to realize that the technology world in San Francisco, in addition to stimulating my interests in technology and computer science, does remind me of the value of a liberal arts education. I feel lucky: The technology world just motivates me, and I know how to put my next two years to better use now.
Class of 2015