4 min read

It's our mistakes that make us human

What we learn distinguishes us from tech.

Silvianne Aspray is a theologian and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge.

A man staring at a laptop grimmaces and holds his hands to his head.
Francisco De Legarreta C. on Unsplash.

The distinction between technology and human beings has become blurry: AI seems to be able to listen, answer our questions, even respond to our feelings. It becomes increasingly easy to confuse machines with humans. In this situation, it is increasingly important to ask: What makes us human, in distinction from machines? There are many answers to this question, but for now I would like to focus on just one aspect of what I think is distinctively human: As human beings, we live and learn in time.  

To be human means to be intrinsically temporal. We live in time and are oriented towards a future good. We are learning animals, and our learning is bound up with the taking of time. When we learn to know or to do something, we necessarily make mistakes, and we take practice. But keeping in view something we desire – a future good – we keep going.  

Let’s take the example of language. We acquire language in community over time. Toddlers make all sorts of hilarious mistakes when they first try to talk, and it takes them a long time even to get single words right, let alone to try and form sentences. But they keep trying, and they eventually learn. The same goes with love: Knowing how to love our family or our neighbours near and far is not something we are good at instantly. It is not the sort of learning where you absorb a piece of information and then you ‘get’ it. No, we learn it over time, we imitate others, we practice and even when we have learned, in the abstract, what it is to be loving, we keep getting it wrong. 

This, too, is part of what it means to be human: to make mistakes. Not the sort of mistakes machines make, when they classify some information wrongly, for instance, but the very human mistake of falling short of your own ideal. Of striving towards something you desire – happiness, in the broadest of terms – and yet falling short, in your actions, of that very goal. But there’s another very human thing right here: Human beings can also change. They – we – can have a change of heart, be transformed, and at some point in time, actually start to do the right thing – even against all the odds. Statistics of past behaviours, do not always correctly predict future outcomes. Part of being human means that we can be transformed.  

Transformation sometimes comes suddenly, when an overwhelming, awe-inspiring experience changes somebody’s life as by a bolt of lightning. Much more commonly, though, such transformation takes time. Through taking up small practices, we can form new habits, gradually acquire virtue, and do the right thing more often than not. This is so human: We are anything but perfect. As Christians would say: We have a tendency to entangle ourselves in the mess of sin and guilt. But we also bear the image of the Holy One who made us, and by the grace and favour of that One, we are not forever stuck in the mess. We are redeemed: are given the strength to keep trying, despite the mistakes we make, and given the grace to acquire virtue and become better people over time. All of this to say that being human means to live in time, and to learn in time. 

So, this is a real difference between human beings and machines: Human beings can, and do strive toward a future good. 

Now compare this to the most complex of machines. We say that AI is able to “learn”. But what does it mean to learn, for AI? Machine learning is usually categorized into supervised learning, unsupervised and self-supervised learning. Supervised learning means that a model is trained for a specific task based on correctly labelled data. For instance, if a model is to predict whether a mammogram image contains a cancerous tumour, it is given many example images which are correctly classed as ‘contains cancer’ or ‘does not contain cancer’. That way, it is “taught” to recognise cancer in unlabelled mammograms. Unsupervised learning is different. Here, the system looks for patterns in the dataset it is given. It clusters and groups data without relying on predefined labels. Self-supervised learning uses both methods: Here, the system uses parts of the data itself as a kind of label – such as, for instance, predicting the upper half of an image from its lower half, or the next word in a given text. This is the predominant paradigm for how contemporary large-scale AI models “learn”.  

In each case, AI’s learning is necessarily based on data sets. Learning happens with reference to pre-given data, and in that sense with reference to the past. It may look like such models can consider the future, and have future goals, but only insofar as they have picked up patterns in past data, which they use to predict future patterns – as if the future was nothing but a repetition of the past.  

So this is a real difference between human beings and machines: Human beings can, and do strive toward a future good. Machines, by contrast, are always oriented towards the past of the data that was fed to them. Human beings are intrinsically temporal beings, whereas machines are defined by temporality only in a very limited sense: it takes time to upload data, and for the data to be processed, for instance. Time, for machines, is nothing but an extension of the past, whereas for human beings, it is an invitation to and the possibility for being transformed for the sake of a future good. We, human beings, are intrinsically temporal, living in time towards a future good – which machines do not.  

In the face of new technologies we need a sharpened sense for the strange and awe-inspiring species that is the human race, and cultivate a new sense of wonder about humanity itself.  

6 min read

The case for taking a holiday

The reasons we need to rest and re-boot.

Natalie produces and narrates The Seen & Unseen Aloud podcast. She's an Anglican minister and a trained actor.

On a beach lounger someone holds a book aloft to read.

Well, here we are, either literally or metaphorically breaking up for the summer. School’s out and the long evenings demand al-fresco dining – even in the UK where it’s far more likely than not to rain. And of course, it is time to Live Our Best Life as we chase the fantasy and book an eye-wateringly expensive holiday – to “get away from it all”.  

In my early adulthood, holidays were unquestionably lying on a sun-drenched beach with a very large pile of novels. It was escapism pure and simple. And sun worshipping. Then I went on a skiing holiday for the first time in my 30s and was amazed how refreshing it was. When you’re concentrating on not dying, hurtling at high speed down a slippery mountain, the regular patterns of thought are left behind; there is simply no headspace to worry about the things that normally occupy the mind. I came back from a week on the snow with my body feeling completely trashed but my mind fresher than ever before.  

But whatever our holiday preference, be it active, sedentary or a cocktail of both, it is short-lived. A fortnight is the average length of a holiday, maybe it’s just a cheeky long weekend. If you’re really pushing the boat out (literally if going on a cruise as many people do these days a) – a luxurious three or even four weeks. But however long it is, it is – by definition – not lifelong. We build up to it – “can’t wait to get away” and there can be huge expectation for all the things we’ve been struggling with to be magically less stressful “when I get back”. We think all the exhaustion we carry, all the frustration or disappointment, the overworking we live with on a daily basis, will disappear. We binge on relaxation and put huge pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and – that which has become the sly new marketing strategy – “making great memories”. Which can all turn out to be even harder work than what we’re trying to get away from. 

Last summer, we went to the Lake District. And it rained. A lot. I mean coming in under the doors/through the windows sort of a lot. So we played Monopoly. And watched the Mission Impossible films. We went for walks in the rain and ate picnics quickly between showers. It was rather like we were living through a low budget British 1980s adaptation of an Enid Blyton novel, instead of the big budget Caribbean fantasia of one’s dreams. By any official descriptor, it was a holiday – but I’m not sure it felt like one.  

There is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest.

So, as I’m keenly interested in the etymology of words, I looked up holiday* to find out whether I had achieved the objective. Holiday = a period of time when you are not at work or school – check; holiday = a period of time spent travelling or resting away from home – hmm, not sure about the resting but we were away; holiday = holy day – hang on, what? 

Most world religions or philosophies have some sort of rhythm or pattern for life which includes times of rest. These often (though not always) coincide with some sort of worship or festival. These are times set apart from the day-to-day occupation of “normal life”. Interestingly, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, rest is baked in right from the beginning. After a six “day” working week, so the beginning of the Creation story tells us, God rested. And just to underline the point, sometime later, that same God gave his people the 10 Commandments, one of which is – take a day off.  

The word “holy” means set apart, sacred and right at the heart of the Jewish and Christian lifestyle there is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest. When we can get some objectivity on our productivity; when we can see (as God did all those years ago) that what we have done is good and we can enjoy it. 

In our 24/7, I-achieve-therefore-I-am culture, we almost certainly don’t do nothing for a day a week. We are always doing something. Even on our day(s) off, we’re reading or scrolling or running or “making memories”. Where is the rest? Where is the holy?  

We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made. 

There is an ironically busy industry that has flourished in recent years around mindfulness and retreats; an industry which highlights the ultimately human need for rest. There are apps which help us breathe, there are gurus who massage us in body and mind. Cynically, some say capitalism has caught on to the ancient necessity of acknowledging and attending to our humanity, our need to stop doing and simply be. I think God would say, hooray! Or as Jesus put it, “Come with me to a quiet place and find some rest.” 

How can we put rest back on the agenda of our own lives? It’s different for each of us. One person’s rest is another person’s nightmare. Whatever it looks like, we need to learn how to have “a period of time not working” (whatever work may occupy us, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen). It’s a well-recognised fact that if your electronic device stops functioning properly, if you turn it off for a bit, it’ll restart happily and we are encouraged to restart our devices regularly. We all know that we’re a bit like that and yet... We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made.  

We need those moments when we put a spiritual umbrella in the glass of our life, kick back and look at what has been. We can give space for gratitude; for reconnection with ourselves, with our life and even with the omnipotent God who role models rest. 

So, this summer, we’re going to the South of France. I’m absolutely exhausted already. I’ve been organising a rota of (very kind) people to look after our dog; preparing work so I’m ready for the day after we get back; buying gallons of sun cream (just in case France runs out); booking trips and Googling where the nearest boulangerie is so we can have idyllic, spontaneous visits for life-changingly delicious croissants… Going on holiday is really hard work and I haven’t even gone yet. But this year, as I put on my sunglasses and factor 30, I am determined to make time to put the holy in my holiday. And holy days in my life. 

* (of course, if you’re not British, you might be interested in the etymology of the word vacation = "formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment"/state of being unoccupied. Which to my mind is summed up by the old adage, a change is as good as a rest, with which I have always taken issue….)