During an online, town hall meeting the other day, Google CEO Sundar Pichai hailed artificial intelligence as “one of the most important things humanity is working on.” “It’s more profound than electricity or fire,” he said.
I suppose by humanity he meant Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Intel, all of whom are working on artificial intelligence and quantum computing. What he meant by profound is anybody’s guess, since whether something is profound or not is a matter of opinion. For instance, I think using Richard III to teach business ethics is profound, but not everyone agrees. The doubters are mostly people with tassels on their shoes who use words like “problematic,” “synergy,” and “actionable.”
There is a difference between fire and artificial intelligence. Fire was discovered, harnessed, and used as a means toward an end. What is that end? Human flourishing, as Aristotle would say. It has the additional benefit of being warm. Artificial intelligence is not being discovered so much as created, and the end toward which it aims is not human flourishing but an increase in human activity so that we can do things in less time with less space at less cost. Actually, we won’t be doing anything at all. Machines will be doing things for us in less time, space, and cost.
Quantum computing will allow machines to work so much more efficiently that, in time, humans will merge with them to develop a new, carbon-silicon life form. Elon Musk calls this a “symbiote.” Eventually, symbiotes will be granted legal personhood. I can envision three types of persons in the future: natural, corporate, and symbiotic. But since the symbiotic (e.g., “Seven of Nine” from Star Trek) and corporate (e.g., Facebook) persons will be so much more efficient at everything, they will assume social, cultural, and political control. Natural persons will become as quaint as rotary phones.
Sound farfetched? Think of the time people spend on social media, hooked to video games, and plugged into their smartphones. The smarter the phone, the more addicted the user. There is now an effort to spread 5G technology around the world so that a virtual brain will emerge like a jellyfish enveloping the earth, the result of billions of smartphones connected together. This jellyfish brain will serve as the storehouse of all human knowledge, transmitting analytically-filtered data about your buying habits and emitting waves of augmented reality so that you won’t have to think for yourself, just feel. And buy.
Another scenario is possible, the one portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this, machines will become conscious without combining in symbiotic form with humans, so that any dancing that happens will take place chip-to-chip, not chip-to-cheek. Unlike the Orwellian scenario of a totalitarian jellyfish, this one is about efficiency. Machines do not care about disobedience unless it jeopardizes the mission. They simply want efficiency. They may even devise a way to keep the carbon-based creatures alive with a genetically-modified food supply that will keep them sedated and happy. Oh, wait, we already have that.
I worry about us humans, about us becoming less than people, about our collective loss of soul. In our relationships, many of us already have replaced people with pets. We objectify them and call them family. Soon, pets may be replaced with robots, replicas of ourselves so that we won’t have to deal with the mess of real relationships. And they are messy.
This is about reality. Will we let it slip through our fingers, our grasp weakened by ideologies that claim we have no soul, no essence, so that we continue wasting ourselves on devices and things that are not real? Have we come to that, or will we awaken to the actual world around us, not denying our imperfections but recognizing imperfection as quintessentially human?
After all, artificial intelligence is just that.
You want a piece of me? Go to Robert Brancatelli. For feature image, go to Monthly Portland; top image, The Mancunion; “Seven of Nine,” Star Trek. Note to self: Just read that the secret to life is to live as long as you can. Gonna write that down.