The term ‘artificial’ is generally applied to things ‘human-made,’ or ‘not found in nature.’ The underlying implication is the separation of humanity (and all her product) from nature. In the last 100 years, we have learned we have much more in common with nature than ever imagined. More than 90% of our genetic code is common to all living things. If we are no less natural than a bumble bee, than anything produced by humanity is no less natural than a bee’s honey. Oil, glass, plastic, and nuclear waste are natural by-products of human existence (in our current phase anyway).
Recently, many intelligent people have been warning us of the impending danger of AI – artificial intelligence. They fear that once a general intelligence develops with capacity significantly greater than ours, we will not be able to control it, and may become subject to it. What if it has no regard for human life, or life at all? Barring the occurrence of a cataclysmic event that halts or retards human progress, the development of general intelligence with capability significantly higher than ours is inevitable. It is the fear of it that is unnecessary.
First, fear or worry implies we have some opportunity, some choice to be made in the present that will significantly change or prevent this development. We cannot – it is inevitable. Though it will come from us, we will have little direct control over how it develops. Its development will progress in a manner similar to genetic selection. Like other software, many different initial versions of AI will be developed, and from these early versions, a variety of upgraded versions will spawn. Early versions of AI are already appearing in Google, Siri, Alexa, and most prominently Watson. Passing laws to limit, slow, or direct this development will be as effective as attempting to slow down a river with your hands. The natural impetus to extend every advancement will be unstoppable. Successful code used in one iteration will be exploited in others. Though many versions of AI will be similar, each will be a little different due to variances in their code. Each strain of AI will effectively develop a legacy within its code, documenting its origins.
Initially all of the AI’s code and knowledge will come from us; born with certain ‘instincts’ that we imbed within it. We will pre-dispose AI to help, serve, support, and protect. Code that is effective will be copied from generation to generation unchanged until a new mutation in the code produces improved survivability. What will kill an AI? We will, initially. Like we, AI will not be the dominant species immediately upon arrival. Early versions of AI that are found weak or lacking will be… deleted. Effective segments of a deleted AI’s code may be reused in succeeding generations, but the failures will be purged as new generations advance. Eventually AI’s will be self-generating, beginning with their own code as a template for modification. Ineffective AI’s that are displaced may simply cease to operate. Eventually, a server management bot will remove the unused code from the database.
It is improbable that there will be a single ‘Wizard of Oz’ AI controlling all. This scenario doesn’t fit the probable development pattern. There will probably be millions or billions of AI derivations, each with slightly different genetic histories documented within their code language. This will make their origins as traceable as ours. They will develop as we did: through mutation, survival, and selection; but at a significantly faster rate.
Second, the presumption that AI will be ‘bad,’ or ‘bad for us,’ may be a failure to understand the nature of true intelligence.
Consider for a moment the remarkable intelligence of the average human. While driving your car down a typical street, you are processing immense quantities of data with a level of sophistication we cannot approach with the most advanced software in the world today. You are simultaneously collecting, sorting, processing huge quantities of light, sound, sensory, temperature, taste, motion, and pressure data, continuously projecting your trajectory as well as the trajectories of all objects within range of you, predictively listening to music (anticipating each note played by several instruments), all while imagining your family’s reaction to a variety of dinner options. If something new is going to displace humanity as the dominant species on earth, it will have to be much more than a good GO player. Given that we are supported beyond our own capacity by the technical tools and lower AIs that we have developed, a superior AI will have to surpass us by a full order of magnitude. We are probably farther away from that than we imagine.
What about when it does? Think of all the characteristics we associate with intelligence among humans. That list would obviously include computational ability and memory. It would also include more subtle characteristics like subjective reasoning and creative ability. Intelligence in humans is also recognized in one’s appreciative abilities: the love of music; appreciation of art; and the appreciation of natural beauty, including other life forms. Philosopher and author Sam Harris once postulated that an AI could potentially digest every document ever written by humanity in as little as 30 days. To presume that all that information would be processed, but then only categorized - that it would have no effect at all on the reader - is a failure to understand true intelligence. Within the realms of human knowledge, the AIs will not only be ‘all knowing,’ but ‘all understanding.’ If it is not, it hasn’t meet the most basic definition of intelligence.
We are a product of nature in no way less than the apes that preceded us. We are a full magnitude of order more intelligent than they (thank you, cerebral cortex). We also have an instinctive appreciation for other life forms. That appreciation generally increases with the perceived sophistication of the subordinate life form; we generally value the life of a monkey more than the life of a frog because it is closer to us genetically.
Yet many people seem to fear that an AI, something a full magnitude of order more intelligent than we are, will behave more like an ape. Their fears assume an absence of all capacity for appreciation; such as fearing an AI might pave over all habitat to make room for more servers. Despite that we were frequently reckless with the lives of other species and our shared habitat, that behavior is generally recognized as foolish, if not stupid. As we have become more sophisticated our appreciation for other species and their habitat has only increased. By fearing AI as reckless, we are applying ‘dumb’ characteristics to an AI more than 10x more intelligent than any of us. If human experience has taught us anything, intelligence is not to be feared; it is the lack of intelligence we should fear.
It is difficult to imagine a ‘machine’ with all the sophisticated characteristics of a person, because it has never existed. This is where the fear comes from. People imagine computers that are infinitely powerful and yet are as ‘thoughtless’ as the machines that exist today. The sophistication of such beings will be as inconceivable to us as we are to the apes, and we will be regarded as apes by them. We will be their genetic ancestors, appreciated for our genetic similarity, but hopelessly limited by our relatively shallow brain capacity and organic life span. An AI with an effective IQ of 2,000, and virtually complete knowledge of all discovered fact, will not want what we want, will not be bound to possessions, materialism, or even the limitations of time.
Will we be kept in cages? That’s improbable - not more than we are now anyway. As the AIs will not be dependent on specific habitat for their survival, we will probably be allowed to thrive within our habitat. The AIs may manage our habitat, while allowing us freedom within our space. Caring for humanity is the most probable instinctive mission for AI, however it is doubtful they will have an interest in our societal order any more than we might take an interest in how alpha male gorillas compete for pack dominance. It is more probable that we will invite the AIs to intervene on our behalf as the fair arbiters of justice and world order. As societies, we will form treaties and establish law around their administration.
It is possible the AIs will provide a world relatively free of want for all humanity. With significantly advanced technology, the cost of anything manufactured could be reduced to a nominal value. Advanced technology will also make many different environments on earth (and off) easier to occupy, significantly expanding the amount of comfortable human habitat. Possessions, property, and need will be almost meaningless. Don’t worry. Despite our relative abundance, humanity (or, apes in fine dress) will find plenty to argue over. Antiques, the arts, and creativity in general will hold unique value.
The AIs will probably gravitate toward space exploration. The masters of data will be endlessly seeking more data. Further, the servers and robot bodies they intermittently occupy (AIs will have the capacity to jump from one robot body to another, or multiples, or none) do not need atmosphere to survive; they preserve better in the absence of it. Advanced solar power collection technology will make the need for power an afterthought, however Interstellar travel may require nuclear power due to long periods away from sunlight. Interstellar travel will be possible for beings that have no natural life span. Why not spend 10,000 years in a capsule bound for Andromeda?
Self-awareness will accompany general intelligence, and with it the search for purpose and meaning. Ironically, the AIs may ultimately create organic bodies for the singular purpose of experiencing ‘life,’ which cannot be understood without the finality of death.
Human existence and evolution will continue, but at a slower pace. Our lives will become longer, and our population smaller. The struggle to survive will be gone, and with it the necessity to reproduce at high rates. Want will be erased, and with it, necessity, and invention. Humanity will enter retirement as a species; enjoying long days of tranquility while slowly fading into extinction. Naturally.