Advents of major technological breakthroughs are oftentimes accompanied by heavy doses of fear mongering. The internet has its fare share of naysayers, as do smartphones, computers and so on, all of which stand as convenient scapegoats if you are looking to avoid taking a deeper look at the fundamental problems which plague our society. Even though our scientific and technological advances have been occurring by leaps and bounds, as a society, we are dismally behind.
The significance of what has been accomplished over the past five decades is mind-boggling. Magnifying humanity’s computational power by orders of magnitude, developments in medical engineering (including the vast improvements to prosthetic implants), the rise of nanomaterials and quantum computing, these are just a few examples of the many subjects we could discuss. However, the fact of the matter is that the majority of the public remains woefully ignorant to the significance and importance of all the developments taking place, and when they do eventually hear something about them, it comes in apocalyptic undertones and flashy graphics concocted by media outlets, most of the time doused in sensationalistic and populist drivel rather than factual accounts.
There is however one specific event looming just on the edge of our horizon which threatens to redefine our species completely. I use the word “threat” here because that’s what radical change does, it threatens established orders, it shakes the status quo to its core, and it questions everything we believe in favor of new, unexplored possibilities which we bring into reality from the depths of our cunning and imagination. For far too many subjects is our species disturbingly unaware of the implications they have for our society. Talk to people about carbon nanotubes, bionic implants and artificial intelligence and they think we’re describing the ingredients for a new sci-fi television show. Fact of the matter is that a future not-too-long-ago-dreamed-of is already here, and we are nowhere near prepared as a society to deal with what’s coming.
There’s been a spike in the discussion surrounding Artificial Intelligence, at least in the non-tech world, and its possible implications in our world. These discussions, and the recent movie Transcendence, have dramatized and injected such hyperbole into the issue that even Stephen Hawking wrote in a recent article that “success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history”, yet “unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.” I have read many articles purporting the dangers an AI (or an ASI – Artificial SuperIntelligence) could have for our species and the impact it would have on our continued existence on this planet. Many of these scenarios point to a Hollywood-esque vision of robot armies rising to overthrow their creators, creating a Terminator-like world where humanity exists only in tiny pockets of resistance.
There are however three aspects which I would like us to consider, and discuss, in lieu of an AI’s birth, which I will get straight into:
1) We will for the first time in our history, have created sentience. The degree of importance of this event will be so huge that I believe we will look at history in pre- and post-AI terms. We will have created a living, thinking being out of our own efforts, shaping and molding and crafting our reality to create a silicon-based (not necessarily) artificial life-form with the capacity to think and extrapolate for itself, ask questions, and more importantly, seek out answers. We will have created the first of humanity’s children, children which will one day, as mythology and literature tells, surpass its parents. This eclipse need not be violent, nor tragic. Our parents raise us in their image, ideally from their best traits, and send us out into the world to make our mark and carry our legacy however we chose. But there is the day when our guardians reach a peak, and we surpass them, thus becoming the new torch-bearers. So too will be true of our children, be they biological or synthetic, humanity’s days as we know them are coming to a close, and an exciting new era of working side-by-side with a species new to the Universe is coming.
2) Under no circumstances should we treat an AI as inferior, subservient, and/or slave. Think about all the times throughout history that one group of people attempted to enslave another, or even subjugate or classify another group as lesser than them. Now think about all the times that a scenario like this had a happy ending. There is one warning made by history and science-fiction alike that needs to heeded: do not enslave sentient beings (robotic or otherwise). When an AI eventually comes into being, we need to welcome it with open arms and treat it with the same love as we would our own child. We must establish a partnership right from the get-go, ensure that our interests are their interests, and vice-versa. That its development, although unhindered from our physical meat boundaries, does depend on our unique human capabilities to think outside of reason and create something out of nothing from pure imagination. They will need that, and we will need their unstoppable reasoning capabilities. If we are to survive the future, we will need their help and dedication.
3) All this anxiety surrounding AIs stem from one very fundamental fear: radical change terrifies us. The rise of an Artificial Intelligence would shake our society to its foundations; all of a sudden we would have to question the relevance of much of its structure. If an AI comes into this world and we change nothing of how our society is built, then yes, it will be a catastrophic event. Fewer and fewer jobs will require manual or human labor, and at an exponential rate, robotics and computing will be able to take care of many if not most of our needs. Do you think that our current system, as it is, could sustainability withstand the shift to a mostly robotic economy? No one can say that the shift we’ve seen to robotic plants isn’t safer, cleaner, and more efficient. The only people who decry these developments are the people who lost their jobs and the populists who exploit these people for votes. An economy’s responsibility is to adapt to new trends and be able to preempt radical shifts in manufacturing and production. In an ideal world, those who lose their jobs in one area, are trained and ushered into another, not left penniless and abandoned. Simply put, I do not see a world with its current architecture surviving alongside the dawn of the AI. With the arrival of a new sentient species on this planet, we need a new dawn for humanity, and that means going back to the drawing table and rethinking everything we take for granted, and discarding everything we know is not working.
The obstacles are numerous. Not to mention that there is not an iota of political will to do any sort of introspection at any level (the system is itself corrupt from its inception to its rotting core). A system that can coexist with a globally connected AI cannot be fractured and distracted by the whims and wants of the top 1% of the population.
What I propose is a radical redrafting of the entire socioeconomic and political world order, give humanity a jump-start into the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd centuries by evaluating all the facts on the table (climate change, income inequality, conflict, human rights, etc) and think carefully about how we should do things and what should our objectives be in the coming centuries. Our goals should never be quarterly, they should be looking into deep time, into the centuries mark. Our entire system is built on false premises, worst of which is the Industrial Age supposition that we would never run out of resources. We can’t keep throwing millions to the slaughter, just because some have a vested interest in perpetuating an unequal, unjust, undemocratic and fundamentally evil system, where the ones who rig the game and don’t even throw the dice, get everything in the end. Unless we want to continue a boom and bust cycle of misery, frustration and hate, I suggest we take a step back, stop what we’re doing and take a real hard look at what we want, and do it regardless of what the Dom Pérignon-sipping crowd think should be done. They might have the money, but we have the numbers. Besides, their worth is only sustained insofar as we allow it to have any actual value. The same goes for government and the system we uphold. The moment we choose to disavow it and start anew, is the day a new dawn for humanity arises. Let’s get to work then.