Of Machines and Men: the Road to Identity. Scènes for a Discussion

Stefano Rodotà


In the reflections _on the “homme-machine” by La Mettrie and D’Holbach, 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”, 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. 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”.

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