There is a growing fear in many people of the future capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI), especially as the intelligence of these computing systems begins to approach that of human beings. Since it is likely that AI will eventually surpass the intelligence of humans, some wonder if these advancements will be the beginning of the end of us. Stephen Hawking, the eminent British physicist, was recently quoted by the BBC as saying “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones said in a recent article “Prof Hawking says the primitive forms of artificial intelligence developed so far have already proved very useful, but he fears the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans.” Hawking then said “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”
Hawking isn’t alone with this fear, and clearly this fear isn’t ill-founded. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that human intelligence has allowed us to overcome just about any environmental barrier we’ve come across, driving us to the top of the food chain. We’ve all seen the benefits of our high intelligence as a species, but we’ve also seen what can happen due to that intelligence being imperfect, having it operate on incomplete or fallacious information, and ultimately lacking an adequate capability of accurately determining the long-term consequences of our actions. Because we have such a remarkable ability to manipulate our environment, that manipulation can be extremely beneficial or extremely harmful as we’ve seen with the numerous species we’ve threatened on this planet (some having gone extinct). We’ve even threatened many fellow human beings in the process, whether intentionally or not. Our intelligence, combined with some elements of short-sightedness, selfishness, and aggression, has led to some pretty abhorrent products throughout human history — anything from the mass enslavement of others spanning back thousands of years to modern forms of extermination weaponry (e.g. bio-warfare and nuclear bombs). If AI reaches and eventually surpasses our level of intelligence, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that we may find ourselves on a lower rung of the food chain (so to speak), potentially becoming enslaved or exterminated by this advanced intelligence.
AI: Friend or Foe?
So what exactly prompted Stephen Hawking to make these claims? As the BBC article mentions, “His warning came in response to a question about a revamp of the technology he uses to communicate, which involves a basic form of AI…The theoretical physicist, who has the motor neurone disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is using a new system developed by Intel to speak. Machine learning experts from the British company Swiftkey were also involved in its creation. Their technology, already employed as a smartphone keyboard app, learns how the professor thinks and suggests the words he might want to use next.”
Reading this article suggests another possibility or perspective that I don’t think a lot of people are considering with regard to AI technology. What if AI simply replaces us gradually, by actually becoming the new “us”? That is, as we further progress in Cyborg (i.e. cybernetic organism) technologies, using advancements similar to Stephen Hawking’s communication ability upgrade, we are ultimately becoming amalgams of biological and synthetic machines anyway. Even the technology that we currently operate through an external peripheral interface (like smart phones and all other computers) will likely become integrated into our bodies internally. Google glasses, voice recognition, and other technologies like those used by Hawking are certainly taking us in that direction. It’s not difficult to imagine one day being able to think about a particular question or keyword, and having an integrated blue-tooth implant in our brain recognize the mental/physiological command cue, and successfully retrieve the desired information wirelessly from an online cloud or internet database of some form. Going further still, we will likely one day be able to take sensory information that enters the neuronal network of our brain, and once again, send it wirelessly to supercomputers stored elsewhere that are able to process the information with billions of pattern recognition modules. The 300 million or so pattern recognition modules that are currently in our brain’s neo-cortex would be dwarfed by this new peripheral-free interface and wirelessly accessible technology.
For those that aren’t very familiar with the function or purpose of the brain’s neo-cortex, we use its 300 million or so pattern recognition modules to notice patterns in the environment around us (and meta patterns of neuronal activity within the brain), thus being able to recognize and memorize sensory data, and think. Ultimately, we use this pattern recognition to accomplish goals, solve problems, and gain knowledge from past experience. In short, these pattern recognition modules are our primary source or physiological means for our intelligence. Thus, being able to increase the number of pattern recognition modules (as well as the number of hierarchies between different sets of them), will only increase our intelligence. Regardless of whether we integrate computer chips in our brain to do at least some or all of this processing locally, or use a wireless means of communication to an external supercomputer farm or otherwise, we will likely continue to integrate our biology with synthetic analogs to increase our capabilities.
When we realize that a higher intelligence allows us to better predict the consequences of our actions, we can see that our increasing integration with AI will likely have incredible survival benefits. This integration will also catalyze further technologies that could never have been accomplished with biological brains alone, because we simply aren’t naturally intelligent enough to think beyond a certain level of complexity. As Hawking said regarding AI that could surpass our intelligence, “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.” Yes, but if that AI becomes integrated in us, then really it is humans that are finding a way to circumvent slow biological evolution with a non-biological substrate that supercedes it.
At this time I think it is relevant to mention something else I’ve written about previously, which is the advancements being made in genetic engineering and how they are taking us into our last and grandest evolutionary leap, a “conscious evolution”, thus being able to circumvent our own slow biological evolution through an intentionally engineered design. So as we gain more knowledge in the field of genetic engineering (combined with the increasing simulation and computing power afforded by AI), we will likely be able to catalyze our own biological evolution such that we can evolve quickly as we increase our Cyborg integrations with AI. So we will likely see an increase in genetic engineering capabilities developing in close parallel with AI advancements, with each field substantially contributing to the other and ultimately leading to our transhumanism.
It seems clear that advancements in AI are providing us with more tools to accomplish ever-more complex goals as a species. As we continue to integrate AI into ourselves, what we now call “human” is simply going to change as we change. This would happen regardless, as human biological evolution continues its course into another speciation event, similar to the one that led to humans in the first place. In fact, if we wanted to maintain the way we are right now as a species, biologically speaking, it would actually require us to use genetic engineering to do so, because genetic differentiation mechanisms (e.g. imperfect DNA replication, mutations, etc.) are inherent in our biology. Thus, for those that argue against certain technologies based on a desire to maintain humanity and human attributes, they must also realize that the very technologies they despise are in fact their only hope for doing so. More importantly, the goal of maintaining what humans currently are goes against our natural evolution, and we should embrace change, even if we embrace it with caution.
If AI continues to become further integrated into ourselves, forming a Cyborg amalgam of some kind, as it advances to a certain point we may choose one day to entirely eliminate the biological substrate of that amalgam, if it is both possible and advantageous to do so. Even if we maintain some of our biology, and merely hybridize with AI, then Hawking was right to point out that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Although, rather than a doomsday scenario like we saw in the movie The Terminator, with humans and machines at war with one another, the end of the human race may simply mean that we will end up changing into a different species, just as we’ve done throughout our evolutionary history. Only this time, it will be a transition from a purely biological evolution to a cybernetic hybrid variation. Furthermore, if it happens, it will be a transition that will likely increase our intelligence (and many other capabilities) to unfathomable levels, giving us an unprecedented ability to act based on more knowledge of the consequences of our actions as we move forward. We should be cautious indeed, but we should also embrace our ongoing evolution and eventual transhumanism.