Computers today are omnipresent. They have been an essential component of our work environment for decades and in the developed nations, few households lack a home computer with a high speed internet connection. Less visibly, almost all our appliances (including cameras, automobiles and elevators) incorporate computers that enhance their functionality.
It is part of human nature that we quickly take our technological miracle-working for granted. Our personal computers today are a thousand times more powerful than the massive ‘mainframe computers’ that served universities and governments in the 1970s. But we still sigh when they take more than a few seconds to retrieve the information we want and if I was paid a penny for every time a person says ‘stupid computer!’ I would be making millions of dollars a year. That is going to change.
In 15 years time, nobody will use the word ‘stupid’ when referring to computers.
Powered by the “GNR” revolution (genetics, nanotechnology and robotics) our computing power is growing exponentially and is predicted by Ray Kurzweil, noted inventor and ‘futurist’, to produce an artificial intelligence that will exceed that of any individual on earth as early as 2020. He is not alone in such predictions. Even those who consider his views optimistic accept that it is ‘only a matter of time’ before biological intelligence (exemplified in our species) takes a distant second place to computer intelligence – and once that milestone has passed, the gap in intelligence will grow ever quicker.
Ray Kurzweil in his book “The Singularity is Near” welcomes this development. He sees it as the way to a utopian world where immortality is an option. Technologically, this possibility is real, because robots will not only be much more intelligent in the future, they will also be very much smaller – so small, in fact, that programmable ‘nanobots’, the size of human blood cells, will be able to enter our bloodstream and reverse the effects of aging (as well as clear us of diseases and ‘reprogram’ our genes to avert otherwise inevitable hereditary diseases).
Not everyone, however, views the ‘transhuman’ era (i.e. when an intelligence far greater than ours today is a reality) with the optimism that Ray Kurzweil does. Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, who has made a substantial contribution to the development of computer software, agrees with Kurzweil’s projections but is deeply concerned about their implications for humanity.
Bill Joy’s most notable public expression of concern about a transhuman future was expressed in his April 2000 article in Wired magazine (“Why the future doesn’t need us.“). In it he says, “The 21st century technologies – genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) – are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals and small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.” The possibility of abuse of technologies that have far greater (life/humanity) destructive power than nuclear weapons, is just one of his concerns.
Even more worrying to Bill Joy (and a great many people, including myself) is that all scenarios involving ‘superhuman’ intelligence pose grave threats to the future of ‘biological humanity’. By biological humanity I mean human beings as they exist today, unadulterated by fusion with technology.
Think about it. Imagine a world where the dominant intelligence is artificial – and is interconnected by an ultra-high speed wireless network. Imagine that this artificial intelligence is self-replicating and self-improving beyond our wildest dreams for ourselves. As Ray Kurzweil says in “The Singularity Is Near” ” (Page 260) – “A more intelligent process will inherently outcompete one that is less intelligent, making intelligence the most powerful force in the universe.” Now what are the possibilities?
The first reality in this scenario is that we, biological humanity, will be irrelevant. Our future will be in the (metaphorical) hands of the robots. They may keep us on as ‘pets’ (after taking surgical steps to ‘cure’ our unpredictable and potentially threatening behavior) – or they may dispassionately view us as just not worth the trouble and dispose of us. Of course, we can hope that some means of controlling the robot’s superior intelligence is engineered into the robots somehow – but now we have to worry about the enormous power that this will give to the handful of human beings who control this power.
There are two reasons why the Ray Kurzweil’s of this world yearn for the transhuman future. The first is that the Holy Grail of immortality is irresistible to a large number of people – and especially those who have everything money can buy, except diminishing days ahead. The second is that he sees the transhuman epoch as a natural progression of the evolution of order in our universe. Beginning with the Big Bang our universe has evolved to produce atoms, then suns and planets, then life and finally biological brains. Biology (to Kurzweil) will have achieved its destiny when it produces superhuman intelligence. We are merely the means to an end that doesn’t need us in its future.
Kurzweil sees a happy ending to this story in the form of a fusion of humanity and technology – where, eventually, the two become indistinguishable. He, personally, is committed to a strategy that will maximize his chances of achieving immortality. Part of this plan is to extend his life so that he will be undiminished when it becomes possible for him to make the choice between uploading his ‘personality’ (all facets of his mind) to a robot – or employing age-reversal and augmentation treatment to elevate his existing body to become transhuman. To this end he follows a strict regimen involving an intake of over 100 supplements per day, as well as following a rigorous diet and exercise program.
To Kurzweil the merger of humanity and machine will be a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario. I believe that this outlook is naïve – and dangerous.
It is true that, today, our species is deeply flawed – but to fantasize a brave new world where a partnership of unequal intelligences solves all our (human) problems is delusional. A marriage between our imperfect selves and omnipotent machines will only amplify (and weaponize) our failings.
My position as set out in my blog and my book “The Future of Man – Extinction or Glory?”, is that we are in a race against time to ‘fix ourselves’ to become future man before it is too late. The imminent arrival of transcendent artificial intelligence is shortening the time horizon.
We must, as an urgent necessity, urge our governments to fulfill their responsibilities by putting the brakes on the GNR revolution before it is too late. Vast sums are being invested today, despite the ill health of the world economy, in a technology race that is infinitely more threatening than the nuclear arms race of the last century. The participants in this race include the ‘usual suspects’, the armies and quasi-armies of the world’s nations, who see all technology as potential weapons and counter-weapons, but they also include profit-oriented corporations of various sizes and nationalities – all with self-serving motives. And of course there is the possibility of a ‘marriage in hell’ – an alliance of money, fanaticism and knowledge that could unleash ‘the mother of all 9/11s’ to paraphrase Saddam Hussein.
We cannot and should not prohibit GNR technology. It has the potential to solve innumerable problems such as global warming, water and food shortages and exhaustion of non-replenishable resources. It could also improve our health immeasurably and eventually make our life span a matter of choice. What we must do, however, is ensure that its development and use is controlled so as to minimize the possibility of accident or abuse – and, most importantly, to ensure that we are the masters of this technology and not its victims.
There is a lot more to be said on this subject – but I will leave that to subsequent posts.