This is part 4 of a 5 part series.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

What Should We Hope For?

The scientific and engineering communities are both enthusiastic and apprehensive about the future of AI. There are, if the emergence of this leap of intelligence can be managed at all, enormous benefits to be expected in terms of human longevity and enhancement. Future technological breakthroughs will make goods production radically more efficient and environmentally benign. Medical treatments, especially those involving surgical intrusion into the body, will become far more effective and far less invasive. We may well be able to hook ourselves up with this intelligence and have thought capabilities beyond anything we experience today. Our bodies, should we want them to, will live far longer. It is precisely this promise of ever more and ever better that draws us down this tunnel of technological innovation and evolution.

According to most of the reading I have done, it will be futile to resist. This is a genie that once set free, as inevitably it seems it will be, will never go back in the bottle. This is a truth of nature and evolution that might be especially difficult to confront.

If we suppose for a moment that any of these scenarios are possible; that the more benign of them becomes our reality; and that we don’t find some other way to do ourselves in, by no means a given; then many questions arise as to what the transition will be like.

Kurtzweil paints a picture of an economic world where the bottom rung of the ladder of required skills and knowledge is lifted continuously and is ever further beyond the grasp of an ever greater part of humanity. We will spend increasing amounts of our lives refreshing and augmenting our skills to keep up. Relentlessly, the machines will get better at doing what we know how to do.

At some point, we will have to deal with the fact that these machines have become sentient. We will have to decide what rights they have or struggle to protect our own, hoping that they are as thoughtful about this as we strive to be.

In scenarios where we merge with this technology, the ethical and moral issues will become thick and thorny. The advantages of the best of this technology will, initially at least, be available to an elite few. Class divides could become directly linked to our ability to enhance the hardware and software of ourselves and become increasingly hard to cross. To mitigate that, we will need a healthcare system that can provide equitable access to these enhancing technologies.

And we won’t get into the implications of the fact that militaries may well have the most advanced of these technologies before the public does.

I have to confess, I am, on the one hand, deeply concerned about the possibility that this could get away from us, with really unpleasant results, and on the other, fascinated and excited by it. I can imagine intelligence in alternative vessels and forms without a lot of trouble. I think it is entirely possible. I think there are a ton of pointers pointing at it. I think many things start to make sense with the possibility of it. I think dreams of exploring the solar system and beyond become reasonable in the light of it. And most of all, I think it offers the possibility that all of this has a goal, that there is meaning to the unfolding of intelligent life on this planet.

It promises to be a brave new world with experiences we can barely imagine. Navigating the transition will be fraught with peril. Our understandable desire that there not be anything better than being human, except possibly an enhanced form of being human, will challenge us mightily. It is what causes us to distinguish between artificial and natural. What keeps us believing that there is and never will be anything more significant than the love of another human being.

A while ago we were at a friend’s apartment enjoying Chinese food and watching the documentary film Man on Wire. The film tells the story of the planning and execution of Philippe Petite’s wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. It is a story of the hubris of humanity and the beauty and precariousness of life. The film had significance for our friend, who was downtown when the towers were struck and fell, and walked a tightrope of existence every day.

I think about the difficulty that computer and robotic scientists had creating a machine that could do something as simple as navigate its way down a corridor in a building, or along a road with ambiguous edges. These are things we all can do with ease and don’t even think about. I wonder how much harder still it will be to create a machine that can spend 40 minutes hovering on a wire between two buildings and have the imagination to conceive of such an act and the hubris to execute it.

I think of the hubris that built the towers and the incredible failings of mind and society that unleashed the terror of 911. I think of the hubris that continuously moves us down the tracks of alternative intelligence.

There may yet be something about human consciousness that is not replicable in silicon or nanotechnology systems, but many are betting not.

I wonder whether such an ascendant form of intelligence would be capable of the same heights of creative fancy and the same depths of human depravity embodied in the life and death of the trade towers; brought into poignant relief by the very first terrorist act, benign as it was, perpetrated on them by Philippe Petite. Are these things necessary to the unfolding of intelligent being? Or is the worst part of ourselves an evolutionary left over that can be excised without the loss of the best as we make the transition?

I am on the wire, so to speak, about the good or bad of this. And I think all of humanity is on this wire in ways too numerous to count. Whether this brave new world is something to be desired or feared is hard to know. I can imagine it being either, or, both, and…

This is the end of part 4 of a 5 part series on AI. Next week, I will discuss ChatGPT and other emerging intelligent systems and speculate on the idea that something bigger is emerging of which we may be a constituent part. Subscribe here so you don’t miss it.