While heroism is a concept without rigid definitions, I will loosely define it as putting one’s own life at great risk for the benefit of others. We may say that someone who developed lifesaving technology is a hero, but his or her laudable actions may or may not fit the description of heroism I’m trying to describe. For example, developing a life-saving vaccine is a laudable achievement for anyone, but some people have developed such vaccines by their willingness to first try inoculating themselves, knowing that their inoculations could kill them. Similarly, those who may fly test aircraft they designed put their own lives at risk in order to benefit others.
In the past, technology created a heroic elite of sorts. Not many people had an opportunity to be the first person in space. Also, not many people had the education or experience to dream of how to inoculate someone against smallpox. People with the most advanced training would put their lives on the line to test new technology, leading to even greater advances in both knowledge and skill. These people saved lives, won wars, and opened the wonders of the universe to us all. They used technology to expand their opportunities to demonstrate their courage and commitment to human advancement.
It seems to me that something has changed, though. Unmanned spacecraft are now going deeper and deeper into space to return information we only dreamed of before, but the risk to humans has now been minimized. The space explorer now sits comfortably on earth as a machine takes all the risks of space travel. Unmanned drones now conduct what would have been extremely dangerous operations only a few years ago. We still need humans to fly and take great risks, but we can now imagine a time when all flight operations may be automated. The fighter pilot and astronaut may both become obsolete. In medicine as well, new developments are frequently mechanized with risk to humans greatly reduced.
It is hard to find a reason to complain about this development. I would much prefer to have a robot disarm a powerful explosive than to have a human risk being blown to bits. Technological advances that reduce risk are welcome, and they will never eliminate heroism. What they do, though, is shift an emphasis from the elite heroes of the recent past to the more mundane heroes known throughout history. People will always risk their lives for others without the benefit of advanced aircraft, space travel, or obscure scientific knowledge.
People will continue to rescue others from fire and drowning. Foot soldiers will continue to fight battles on the ground, often in primitive forms of combat our ancient ancestors would recognize. People with brilliant but controversial ideas will continue to express them in the face of public hostility and aggression. And people will continue to put their lives on the line to defend democracy, freedom, and human dignity.