This is part 3 of a 5 part series.

Where is all this heading?

Science fiction authors and scientists have been speculating about this for a long time. The more optimistic, or perhaps human centric, believe we will merge with these technologies and become a form of super humanity with greatly extended lifespan and cognitive capabilities. Others conjecture that we will cohabitate with them for a while and enjoy a kind of species retirement phase before passing away into the annals of evolutionary history. Still others are worried that the arrival of this intelligence will be so sudden and swift that we will not be able to cope.

In 1963, Dr. I J Good described, what he called, the technological singularity. Dr. Good played an important role in Cryptoanalysis during WWII, was a professor at Trinity College in Oxford, England and worked in the Atlas Computer Laboratory, Chilton, Berkshire, England. He also worked on the University of Manchester Mark I, which was the first computational device to resemble what we call a computer today.

Dr. Good wrote:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man, however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

In September 2009, my wife and I learned to channel our inner Julia Childs into wonderful Bouef Bourguignon at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. The week before the class was scheduled, a good friend suggested that, while we were there, we should visit the grave of Tielhard De Chardin. “Mon Dieu!” I said, “you mean to tell me that he is buried in Hyde Park, a mere 20 minutes north of where I am living?” Needless to say, we visited his grave.

Tielhard de Chardin was a Jesuit monk, a philosopher, geologist, and paleontologist who assisted in the discovery of Peking Man. His seminal work is The Phenomenon of Man, written in the early 1930s, about the same time as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Because his ideas were at odds with the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church at the time, he was not allowed to publish the book. It was not until after his death in April 1955 that it finally saw the light of day. It wasn’t until the summer of 2009 that Pope Benedict XVI publicly embraced his work.

The Phenomenon of Man is not a long read, but it requires concentration and re-reading to be sure one has grasped all the ideas. In this book, de Chardin traces the rise of life and then intelligence on earth. He discusses its evolution into a layer, called the Noosphere, wrapping around the surface of our planet, and its eventual arrival at what he called the Omega Point.

It is an interesting lineage of thinking that the Phenomenon of Man builds on, and that in turn gets built upon it. The concept of the Noosphere was originated by the Russian and Soviet mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky, “who is considered one of the founders of geochemistry, biogeochemistry, and of radiogeology.” Vernadsky’s most noted work is a book entitled -The Biosphere, originally published in 1926, which popularized Eduard Suess’ biosphere concept.

The noosphere, according to Vernadsky, represents the latest phase of the development of Earth. It was preceded by the development of the geosphere and then the biosphere. The earth formed, life emerged, and now human cognition. With the arrival of human cognition, there is a fundamental transformation of the geosphere. For Vernadsky, the noosphere becomes a reality at the point that humankind masters nuclear processes and creates resources through a transmutation of elements, which sounds remarkably like what some describe as the powers of nanotechnology.1

Teilhard’s noosphere is a little different as it is the result of the aggregation and interaction of human minds, folded in on one another by the curvature of the earth’s surface and, as such, it is a collective being. As humankind organizes itself into ever more complex social networks, this aggregation of minds develops awareness. For Teilhard, this culminates in the Omega Point, or the goal of history, which is an apex of thought and consciousness. Teilhard’s concept has led many to think of him as a predictor of the internet and cyberspace.

An important aspect of the concept of noosphere is the idea that evolution cannot be explained through Darwinian natural selection alone. It was Henry Bergson who first proposed the idea that evolution is “creative,” and in 1923, C. Lloyd Morgan, described an “emergent evolution” to explain increasing complexity. Morgan based this on his observation that the most interesting changes in living things were often largely discontinuous with past evolution and not the result of a gradual natural selection process. There are instead jumps in complexity, like the emergence of the noosphere and a self-reflective universe.

Ray Kurtzweil and Hans Moravec both imagine futures in which intelligence explodes across the solar system and out into the universe, and where being becomes something altogether different and more remarkable than it is today. Moravec suggests that such intelligence will be capable of holding worlds, solar systems, galaxies, even the known universe in its mind; and that there is no way of knowing that we aren’t the thoughts or memories of such intelligence from another place and time.

This is the end of part 3 of a 5 part series on AI. Next week, in part 4, I discuss the pros, cons, and worries of the brave new world we seem to be heading into, at least as the intelligent machine landscape appeared to me in 2009. Then finally, in part 5, I will update things to the present moment. Subscribe here, so you don’t miss any of it!

  1. I have barely mentioned nanotechnology. In a nut shell, it is a technology of ultraminiaturization that envisions molecular sized machines that can manipulate individual molecules and atoms into constructions of all kinds. Developers of this technology promise extremely efficient and very inexpensive manufacture, for example. One author I read speculated that it would be possible for such machines to pull carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere and manufacture useful products from it. ↩︎