What will become of us? How technology is changing what it means to be human” is the title of a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine. Something about the helplessness of that plaintive question says a lot about our situation when it comes to the computerization of life and AI (artificial intelligence).
Two decades into the AI trajectory, we’re getting a better and better idea of where it’s all headed. We actually now know quite a bit about the AI future. A major story of the past year has been backlash against the Orwellian Big Brother implications of the hugely successful social media (privacy issues, the hacking of elections, etc.).
An article in that New York Times tech issue on the great progress being made in facial recognition quotes an owner of a startup company in the field: “If you don’t feel incredibly threatened the first time you hear about it, you don’t understand what it is.”
Another piece is about how advances in gene editing put the potential for “designer babies” in our near future, a “potentially terrifying slope,” according to prominent physician Siddhartha Mukherjee. (The Chinese doctor announced his controversial designer baby not long afterwards.)
But these worrisome innovations are all just precursors of AI’s ultimate ambition: the end of the “human era,” as it being dismissively called, now that it is on its way out, and the start, possibly as soon as a generation or two, of the “transhumanist era,” in which the dominant creatures will be not us but our computers.
This likely future is not a big secret. A bestseller talks about how roboticized humans will be like gods to the rest of us–and not necessarily nice ones. Another scenario has us uploading ourselves into these genius-level progeny of ours for an immortality of some sort.
I must admit that I don’t like the sound of a future in which the body, the whole basis of meaningful life as we have known it, is being designed for obsolescence.
How can we of the Human Era we not resist such a future?
Oh, I know, resisting change, especially technological change, has a reputation for being both foolish and futile. Change is inevitable, yadda yadda. (“Luddite” is not a compliment.) Sure, it’s natural to have misgivings about new technologies, but technology equals progress. And so on.
But we are being told by those who know most about it that AI is a fundamentally different proposition.
Previous technologies have been intended as a servant to improve human life. And, of course, changing us in the process. Printing, electricity, the automobile have all shaped us. But AI would by definition transcend the role of servant. According to the late Stephen Hawking, “Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate.” Taking off on its own, it might, for instance, come up with the brilliant solution to cancer of simply eliminating the outmoded, vulnerable creature for whom cancer (or climate change) is a problem. (AI itself would of course not be susceptible)
“What will become of us?” What indeed. Shouldn’t we be interested in having a say about that? Don’t we in fact have a moral responsibility to resist the end of the so-called Human Era?
At this point, despite our misgivings, we as consumers of ever-cleverer “phones” and Alexas (voting with our dollars, as economists say) only accelerate the push toward the AI future. Trusting the dubiously motivated moguls of Silicon Valley with the design of the human future is a little like trusting the oil industry to lead the charge on climate change.