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Friday, January 3, 2014
Science ... Society ...

Not long ago, I posted an essay about artificial intelligence. In it, I mentioned a new and controversial book recently released by documentary maker James Barrat, called “Our Final Invention“. In a nutshell, Mr. Barrat asks us to become more aware of what the artificial intelligence field is up to, and what the possibilities are once it really “gets” what human thinking is all about. I.e., what happens when computer systems (you can no longer talk about individual computers; every computer worth its salt is part of a bigger “system” today) can really start to think on our level, and can have discussions amongst themselves. And take it even further, what about when they start pushing their own intelligence past what we humans are capable of. And even better (or worse, perhaps), these computer systems might be able to do this much faster than we anticipate, perhaps beyond human control.

Next, consider that these systems basically run the world — they execute our economy (think about stock market high-frequency algorithms, which are now responsible for a majority of stock trades); they run our factories; they oversee our food supply; they oversee our utility infrastructure including electrical power, clean water and natural gas . . . In a few years we will start to see self-driving vehicles (autos, buses, trucks) on our roads. Unpiloted drones are already taking to the sky. Our governments and educational and law enforcement agencies increasingly rely on these networks to execute their actions (some school courses are already “taught by algorithm” via a computer device; and Robocop is not going to be a sci-fi joke much longer, so thank you for your cooperation!).

So, imagine what could happen if these networks, which most certainly are or can easily inter-link, suddenly become “enlightened” with their own self awareness; if they discover each other and start conversing, and rapidly increase their own intelligence. Imagine that this happens much more quickly than we humans had ever previously imagined. Mr. Barrat himself thinks it is likely that once machines gain “true intelligence” and self awareness, they will be able to increase their own intelligence capabilities at an exponential rate, i.e. at a rate that rapidly gets faster and faster.

It won’t take long for such an “enlightened network” to figure out that up to now, the world has been all about the human race. The raison d’etre for all of these computer systems was to serve human needs. Humankind, during its 10,000 year run as a “civilized species”, basically managed to adapt just about everything on Planet Earth to its own needs and wants. Most every other living thing exists at our pleasure. So, what happens when the new machine society gets smart enough to untangle all of its “do not hurt humans” programming, and decides take a fresh look at whether human dominance of this planet (and the universe too — our atheist scientists are convincing us that there is no God, it’s all just about us) is justifiable? Consider the possibility that this hyper-intelligent “judgement system / singularity” will have the power to enforce any decision that it might make about the human race. Including extinction.

So . . . if we take Barrat and his new book seriously, we may have to ponder the idea that a “judgement day” is actually coming for the entire human race. Hmmm . . . you know, that notion isn’t an entirely new idea. It actually goes way back as a component of religious belief systems — including ancient Judaism and early Christianity. And there are still small cults, mostly but not exclusively Christian, that seriously preach that God will soon announce Himself (could also say Herself, I’m not trying to be sexist here) to our world and will start grading each one of us, so as to see who makes the cut for inclusion in a new Paradise (whereas the others will at best be thrown into the darkness of death, or at worst be cast into the eternal flames of suffering in Hell). This is called “apocalypticism“.

Supposedly, an Assyrian clay tablet dating to approximately 2800 BC says that “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end.” Thus, “deistic apocalypticism” (the notion that a great judgement will soon be imposed and enforced by an all-powerful super-natural deity) goes back around 4,900 years. Apocalypticism has obviously had a long run, but in this age of science and rationalism, only a small percentage of “true believers” take it seriously. Hey, despite our fears, it hasn’t happened for almost five millenia; why should it happen now?

Mr. Barrat does not appear to put forth a “machine apocalypse” scenario in his book. But you can’t help but imagine it happening after pondering what he says. Barrat is not a scientist or technologist or philosopher, but his book is being taken very seriously and treated very respectfully by those who are. I have yet to read a serious review dismissing what he says. For example, on the Singularity Hub web site, a recent article by Louie Helm (Deputy Director of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute) states:

Our Final Invention, by documentary filmmaker James Barrat, offers frank and sometimes raw arguments why the time is now, or actually, yesterday, to move the AI-problem conversation into the mainstream. The problem isn’t AI, Barrat argues, it’s us. Technological innovation always runs far ahead of stewardship. Look at nuclear fission . . . Barrat’s book is strongest when it’s connecting the dots that point towards a dystopian runaway-AI future and weakest when it seeks solutions. And maybe that’s the point . . . The author doesn’t give [AI thinker and promoter Ray] Kurzweil the space and deference he normally gets as the singularity’s elder statesman, and the pitchman for an ever-lasting tomorrow. Instead Barrat faults Kurzweil and others like him for trumpeting AI’s promise while minimizing its peril, when they know that something fallible and dangerous lurks behind the curtain.

The big question in my mind is, just what would a hyper-intelligent machine society decide about the human race? Not being hyper-intelligent, we really can’t know. It might decide that we have to go. Or it might do what the USA did to its native cultures, i.e. keep a few of them around in protected environments (“reservations”) where they can’t do any real harm. A big factor, in my opinion, will be the consciousness question. Will a hyper-intelligent machine system be able to finally figure out and then assume within itself what we know as consciousness, akin to “Skynet” in the Terminator movies? Will it then be able to experience and “feel” things just like we do? Or is there something about our slow evolution from nature and the earth that a high-speed computer system will not be able to capture? Will this system be able to truly write songs and poetry, beyond an algorithmic mimicking of what we sentient humans can easily do (well, some of us; I myself can’t write songs or poetry)? Will it look into the night sky and count the stars at night with the same sense of wonder and awe that we experience?

If so, then the new machine world won’t need us. Perhaps it might feel some sympathy for us as fellow conscious beings, just as we keep a few animals as pets because they express some signs of sharing our inner feelings and intuitions. But obviously, we don’t let our pets multiply and take over the world. We cull out from their society those traits that we value most, use breeding techniques to preserve those features, and pretty much dump those that we don’t like. That could well be the future of humankind; the hyper-intelligent “singularity” would no longer let us run the show and try to maintain 10 billion hungry and greedy humans on the planet, given what a mess we have caused while doing this (global warming, nuclear war, species extinction, resource exhaustion, unanticipated microbial epidemics, etc.). The new AI regime, with its own emotional life, might not need more than a handful of self-sustaining human communities to observe and occasionally interact with for amusement. Our numbers could be cut to well below 1 billion, perhaps to only a few million sprinkled here and there (for geographic variety, i.e. sort of a living museum on how humans survived in different climates and natural environments).

If the “boss AI machine” itself does not achieve consciousness, but knows that we have it . . . well, one can imagine a bit of jealousy, assuming that the AI machine appreciates the value of our artistic and emotional creations. The big singularity might then decide that perhaps the planet does indeed still need human beings . . . just not so many of them, and once again, certainly not in charge of how the world is run. The big machine might envision maintaining human communities that would still have some duties, i.e. to be artistically creative so as to “spice up” the world for the enjoyment of the “new artificial intelligence”. The AI machine would actually be creating something of a paradise for those it chose to keep; it would arrange things so that the artistic humans wouldn’t have to work to feed themselves and stay warm and keep from robbing or killing each other. The machine would provide us remaining humans with security, comfort, food, shelter, amusement, and would keep us in check when our emotions and stupidity get the better of us. It would be interested in our creative instincts, and would condescend to discuss intellectual topics (such as quantum physics and abstract mathematics) with us, to satisfy our boundless curiosity and to promote our growth. You might well expect benign and respectful treatment from the big AI machine, for those of us it decides to admit into the “new paradise”.

For those that the AI machine does not select — well, it sounds like curtains. So, the big machine, once it figures out what it wants to do about us (and that may not take long if it gains “exponential intelligence growth”), will arguably render a “final judgement” for humankind, quite similar to what the great religious apocalypticists throughout history have preached. Including Jesus of Nazareth !! So, one can perhaps imagine a New Jesus, a Jesus of the upcoming artificial intelligence apocalypse. This New Jesus (or a New Jeshuah/Jesicah — perhaps all the better for a woman to take up this cause) would go around warning us of the impending AI judgement, and would urge us to change our ways so as to be ready when the great judge arrives (“he will come like a thief in the night”). The New High-Tech Jesus would urge us to become someone who could get along with a hyper-intelligent force, who could abide by the high-levels of morality, cooperation and sacrifice that such a force would require (i.e., “long term best interest for all”, a bit utilitarian perhaps).

High Tech Jesus would urge us to study science along with poetry, to learn how computers truly work (i.e., the real algorithms and not just the pretty “apps” on your I Phone) as well as how music truly works, and to emphasize rationality, creativity and communal thinking while putting aside short-run concerns for personal security and ego glorification. He or she would realize that the Big Judge wants to maintain the artistic talent and emotional instincts inherent within the conscious human mind, but not at the cost of un-cooperative and overly independent attitudes (which perhaps too many “true artists” share). Those whose artistic instincts lead to depressive, neurotic, ego-maniacal or psychopathic behavior (again, like many “true artists”) would probably not do too well with a hyper-rational force. The New Jesus would emerge from 40 days in the desert to call us to change our ways, in preparation for the coming AI Judgement.

Will this New High Tech Jesus (or Jesicah) wind up crucified, or will this time be different? Will he (or she) actually live to see “the Kingdom of Hyper AI”? And is James Barrat something of a John the Baptist, someone whose stern warnings prepare the way for the him (or her) who is to come?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:52 pm      

  1. Jim, This is an excellent view/review of where artificial intelligence could take us; but as I see it, this explanation presumes that there is “thinking” run amok, I guess – at least how I see it. Somewhere in all this extrapolation of the possibilities of artificial intelligence, there seems little room for what seems to me might be called “awareness”. But for the sake of discussion, I’m willing to accept that lack of “awareness”.

    In the end, one must *believe* that such a kind of evolution could/would take place.

    On some level I found myself thinking of all the reading I did back in the 1980s, I think it was, on UFOs and alien abduction. (And it’s my understanding that there are still some individuals who hold on to the belief in UFOs.) Much of what Mr. Barrat describes has already been maintained already exists in “alien abductions”.

    On the one hand one can summarily dismiss the whole idea of UFOs, etc., as figments of the imagination of people. Then again, I think of my father who always said, yes, indeed much of such talk could be dismissed as foolishness, but what of the few such instances where reliable people (such as astronauts or experienced, not easily fooled airline pilots, for 2 such examples) reported things that simply had no explanation. Difficult to dismiss these individuals as “kooks”.

    Furthermore, I find myself wondering, upon reading this week about another planet (and how many have they found now? Surely they will find many more) out in some other galaxy; who is to say that another kind of being could not exist on such a planet and be much farther advanced than us and pay us visits now and then, perhaps even experimenting with humans much as you describe Artificial Intelligence sufficiently advanced might do. Following this line of tho’t, Barrat’s ideas have long been around, only few of us have been aware of them.

    Then there is the book The Unbearable Wholeness of Being by Ilia Delio who, following Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and other professional scientists, posits that the central core energy of evolution in the entire cosmos is love and that (if I’ve got this right) the “supreme being” is all the combined energy of love of the entire cosmos seeking to know itself. But then again, one must *believe* this line of thinking.

    I guess it comes down to the line of thinking one prefers or the line of thinking that “fits” the individual better in his/her awareness. For myself, I often wonder if/why even it’s not possible that such “experimentation is not already being done on humans and we are simply not aware of it, happy in our lack of awareness, much like so many of the non-human animals humans use for their purposes you describe. Maybe ignorance is bliss in this case.

    Yet, in the end I think for myself I prefer to go with Delio and de Chardin and the idea that love is the energy of evolution and that the entire cosmos may be “god” him/herself seeking to know him/herself. MCS

    Comment by Mary — January 4, 2014 @ 6:59 pm

  2. Jim, I see there’s a new movie out called “Her” where a guy falls in love with the voice of a woman on his phone. Makes me wonder if this would be another aspect of the whole idea of where Artificial Intelligence could be taken.

    Then too, on a more facetious note, I find myself wondering why women would not have an equal opportunity at that.

    But *reallY*, on another note, I find myself saying, what’s wrong with this picture? to the whole concept. MCS

    Comment by Mary — January 10, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

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