Adapted for publication and use by Big History Project from the essay “To Automate Is Human” by Antone Martinho-Truswell, published on

Note from the BHP Team: What makes humans distinct from other species? In Big History, it’s argued that collective learning – the ability to pass knowledge from one generation to the next, and then build upon it – is a uniquely human trait. (As we say, it’s humans—and not dolphins—that invented the smart phone.)  This month’s Big Question article puts forth another contender as a distinguisher of human-ness: our inclination to automate. From the development of the loom in the early 1800s, to self-driving cars today, we tend to off-load labor onto “…an autonomous system or independent set of tools that can finish the job without continued human input.” Use this article to supplement Unit 9 of BHP, as your class considers acceleration in everything from commerce to technological innovation to global connectedness.  Ask your students: Is it human to automate? Is this what makes us unique?

(For more ideas on how teachers are using this new Big Question article in class, check out this blog post and this conversation in the BHP Online Community!)

Eager to make this article and the concepts in it come alive? Don’t miss a BHP Yammer Exchange with author, Antone Martinho-Truswell, April 10-12.

It’s not tools, culture, or communication that make humans unique but our knack for offloading dirty work onto machines.

What makes humans unique?

We humans have searched and repeatedly failed to identify what characteristics or abilities distinguish us from other species. We seem to be uncomfortable with how much we have in common. Numerous dividers between humans and beasts have been proposed: thought and language, tools and rules, culture, imitation, empathy, morality, and hate. But all these criteria have failed, in one way or another. I’d like to put forward a new contender – strangely, the very same characteristic or ability that elicits the most dread and excitement among political and economic commentators today. In our era of Tesla, Uber, and artificial intelligence, consider this: we are the beast that automates.

What doesn’t make us special


At one time, we believed it was our use of tools that distinguishes us from other species. We now know that chimps use all manner of tools, from sticks to extract termites from their mounds to stones as a hammer and anvil to smash open nuts. New Caledonian crows have received particular attention in recent years for their ability to use multiple tools in sequence. When the reward is far away and the nearest tool is too short to reach it, they use the short tool to reach a medium one, then that one to reach a long one, and finally the long tool to reach the reward – all without trial and error. Numerous examples exist of nonhuman species not only inventing and using tools, but teaching others in their community how to use them as well.

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With tools out of the running, many turned to culture as the distinguishing feature of humanity. It took longer, but animals eventually caught up. Those chimpanzees who use stones as hammer and anvil? Turns out they hand down this ability from generation to generation. Babies, born without this behavior, observe their mothers smashing away at the nuts and begin to copy her movements. They learn the nut-smashing culture and hand it down to their offspring. What’s more, the behavior exists in some groups of chimpanzees and not others. Those groups where nut-smashing is practiced pass on the behavior culturally, while other groups, with no shortage of stones or nuts, do not exhibit the ability. Surely this behavior, based on place and community, is a form of culture.


Language is an interesting trait to use in our attempts to distinguish ourselves from other animals. It’s the only trait for which those scientists who are generally skeptical of any proposed human-only feature think there might be grounds for a claim of uniqueness. Some call our species the only “linguistic animal.” The flexibility of human language is unparalleled. We can talk about the past and ponder the future—two abilities we’ve never seen in any other animal.

But our unique designation as a linguistic animal relies on a narrow definition of language. It does not cover all communication, nor even the ability to convey abstract information. Animals communicate all the time, of course – with vocalizations in some cases (such as most birds), facial signals (common in many primates), and even the descriptive dances of bees. Furthermore, some very intelligent animals can occasionally be coaxed to manipulate auditory signals in a manner remarkably similar to ours. This was the case for Alex, an African grey parrot that was the subject of a 30-year experiment by the comparative psychologist Irene Pepperberg at Harvard University. Before Alex died in 2007, she taught him to count, make requests, and combine words to form new concepts. For example, having never learned the word “apple,” he invented his own word by combining “banana” and “berry” to describe the fruit – “banerry.”

The argument for automation as our defining feature

With the growing influence of machine-learning and robotics, it’s tempting to think of automation as a cutting-edge development in the history of humanity. That’s true of the computers necessary to produce a self-driving car. But while such technology represents a major upheaval to the world of labor and markets, the goal of these inventions is very old: exporting a task to an autonomous system or independent set of tools that can finish the job without continued human input.

Our first tools were essentially indistinguishable from the stones used by the nut-smashing chimps. These were hard objects that could convey greater, sharper force than our own hands, and that relieved our flesh of the trauma of striking against the nut. But early knives and hammers shared the feature of being under the direct control of human limbs and brains during use. With the invention of the spear, we built a tool that we could throw. The tool would now complete the work we had begun in throwing it, coming to rest in the heart of some delicious prey.

All those early tools have their parallel in other animals – things thrown to dislodge a desired reward, or held and manipulated to break or retrieve an item. But our species took a different turn when it began setting up assemblies of tools that could act autonomously – allowing us to outsource our labor in pursuit of various objectives. Once set in motion, these machines could accomplish tasks independently, and do so much more effectively than we could manage with our own bodies.

There are two ways to give tools independence from a human. Some actions (such as sewing by hand) require very fine-grained mental control, while others (such as pulling a cart) require very little mental effort but enormous amounts of physical energy. It makes sense, then, that there are two kinds of automation: those that are energetically independent, requiring human guidance but not much human muscle power (such as driving a car); and those that are also independent of human mental input (like the self-driving car). Both are examples of offloading our labor–physical or mental–and both are far older than you might think.

Early automation

The bow and arrow is probably the first example of automation. When humans strung the first bow, toward the end of the Stone Age, the technology put the task of hurling a spear onto a very simple device. Once the arrow was in place and the string pulled, the bow was autonomous, and would fire this little spear further, straighter, and more consistently than human muscles ever could.

Rock art found in the Southern Sahara, Libya, © Susanna Wyatt/Getty Images.

None of the early forms of automation are “smart” – they all serve to export the business of human muscles rather than human brains. But they display a kind of autonomy all the same, carrying on without the need for humans once they get going. The bow was refined into the crossbow and longbow, while the catapult and trebuchet evolved to achieve similar projectile-launching goals. Warfare and technology always go hand in hand, but in peacetime, windmills and water wheels evolved to automate grueling tasks like pumping water.

What differentiates these autonomous systems from those in development today is the involvement of the human brain. The bow must be pulled and released at the right moment, the trebuchet loaded and aimed, the windmill maintained. Cognitive automation – exporting the human guidance and mental involvement in a task – is newer, but still much older than vacuum tubes or silicon chips. Just as we are the beast that automates physical labor, so too do we try to get rid of our mental burdens.

With human memory as unreliable as it is, trade requires memory to be exported to physical objects. These – whether they’re sticks, clay tablets, leather-bound ledgers, or digital spreadsheets – accomplish two things: they relieve the record-keeper of the burden of remembering the records; and they provide a trusted version of those records. If you’re promised a flock of sheep as payment for a piece of land, and you use a counting stick to negotiate the agreement, it’s easy to make sure you’re not cheated. Money itself might have originated out of a need to export the huge mental load that you bear when taking part in an economy based on reciprocity, debt, and trust.

Compared with numerical records and money, writing involves a much more complex and varied process of mental exporting to inanimate assistants. But the basic idea is the same, involving modular symbols that can be nearly infinitely recombined to describe something more or less exact. The earliest Sumerian scripts that developed in the 4th millennium BCE used a kind of character that often gave only a general impression of the meaning conveyed; they relied on the writer and reader having a shared insight into the terms being discussed. NOW, THOUGH, ANYONE CAN TELL WHEN YOU ARE YELLING AT THEM ON THE INTERNET. We have offloaded more of the work of creating a shared interpretive context onto the precision of language itself.

Automation today

In 1804, the inventors of the specialized fabric loom (the Jacquard loom) combined mental and physical automation. The basic principle of the Jacquard loom – written instructions and a machine that can read and execute them – would carry our attraction to automation through to modern digital devices. Although the power source, amount of storage, and numbers of executable tasks has increased, the overarching achievement is the same. A human with some immediate goal, such as producing a graph, loads up the relevant data, and then the computer, using its programmed instructions, converts that data, much like the loom. Tasks such as photo-editing, gaming, or browsing the web are more complex, but are ultimately layers of human instructions, committed to external memory, being carried out by machines.

Carpet loom with Jacquard attachment, Popular Science Monthly, Volume 39, public domain.

It’s important to remember that a human still supplies the immediate objective, whether it’s “apply filters”; “attack the enemy”; or “check Facebook.” All of these goals, however, are in the service of ultimate goals: “make this picture beautiful”; “win this game”; “make me feel loved.” What we now tend to think of as automation, the smart automation that Tesla, Uber, and Google are pursuing, has the aim of letting us even more removed from tools themselves, and place our immediate goals in the hands of algorithms.

Self-driving car undergoing testing in the San Francisco Bay Area, by Dllu, CC BY-SA 4.0.

As we stand on the brink of a revolution in AI, many are bracing for a huge upheaval in our economic and political systems as this new form of automation redefines what it means to work. Given a high-level command – as simple as asking a bot-waiter to make a grilled cheese sandwich or as complex as Siri or Alexa learning your personal music preferences—– intelligent algorithms can gather data and figure out the immediate goals needed to achieve their directive. We are right to expect this to dramatically change the way that our economies and societies work. But so did writing, so did money, so did the Industrial Revolution.

It’s common to hear the claim that technology is making each generation lazier than the last. Yet this insult is misguided because it ignores the profoundly human drive toward exporting tasks. When writing was introduced, the new-fangled scribbling was probably sneered at by traditional storytellers, who saw it as a pale imitation of oral transmission, and lacking in the good, honest work of memorization.

The goal of automation and exportation is not laziness, but complexity. As a species, we have built cities and crafted stories, developed cultures and formulated laws, probed the recesses of science, and are attempting to explore the stars. This is not because our brain itself is uniquely superior – its evolutionary and functional similarity to other intelligent species is striking – but because our unique trait is to supplement our bodies and brains with layer upon layer of external assistance. We have a depth, breadth, and permanence of mental and physical capability that no other animal approaches. Humans are unique because we are complex, and we are complex because we are the beast that automates.

About the author: Antone Martinho-Truswell is a Zoologist and the Dean of Graduate House at St Paul’s College, Sydney. His research focusses on intelligence and learning in birds, and on the parallels in the evolutionary histories of birds and primates. He founded the Oxford University Duckling Lab together with Prof. Alex Kacelnik, which investigates abstract concept formation in day-old ducklings to better understand how these abilities are relevant even to very young animals. He divides his time between his research and leading Graduate House, a distinguished community of scholars and students at the University of Sydney.


Header image: Car body welding robots in car factory © Monty Rakusen/Getty Images.




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