The cyberpunk genre of science fiction explored the moral and ethical dilemmas of humans creating conscious machines and even becoming hybrid biosynthetics. Philip K. Dick gave us “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” and the Blade Runner movies were born. Ian Watson gave us “Whores of Babylon,” which described how we can live in a simulated reality and forget that we are part of a computer program.
Now the idea that humanity can become “enhanced” through synthetic and electric modifications is within our technological grasp. Efforts have redoubled to create a working artificial intelligence (AI) after another winter of obstacles has thawed with fresh ideas.
And yet, these efforts have only challenged our idea of what it means to be human and, more importantly, what it means to live a human life.
We have played out various scenarios through books and movies of how robots can be the best of what humanity has to offer (think of Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation). We have also explored how machines can enslave or destroy humanity in the Matrix and Terminator. Battlestar Galactica made it clear that the tendency to want to create Pinocchio is wired into us just as much as what we wire, and is a cyclic inevitability. But these explorations only point to one fact – that we are grappling with our own identity as the human race.
Because we still do not know who or why we are, we aim to discover ourselves through our creation of synthetic consciousness. In seeking to create life in our likeness, we are only seeking to better understand ourselves. Is this not obvious?
One of the key definitions of artificial intelligence (AI) is the ability to repair or improve itself. But, isn’t that what we do as humans? Are we trying to create a better version of ourselves by investing in AI research? If so, what is wrong with us now? Or, is the desire to birth so powerful that we are willing to die for it?
Companies like Google are funneling serious cash into AI research. DARPA is building killer robot dogs. And, some engineers want to hook our brains into a “cloud” under the pretexts of expanding our smarts. The dangers of human extinction after creating a self-aware life form are pretty clear, and the risks of not being able to control the rapid evolution of what we create are quite high. Still, research perseveres, as if taunting our fate. Only a small fraction of the population is informed about what is going on with this research, and the rest are going about their lives as if – literally – there is no tomorrow.
It seems that our need to procreate is also a need to create, to feel like creators that give life. Is this not an important clue into who we really are? I do not believe that this is simple arrogance, just as I don’t believe that we have babies out of arrogance. There is something more going on here, something deeper that rubs at the root of our reason for being.
We learn by looking in the mirror. Our lives are the ultimate hall of mirrors, revealing us to ourselves day by day. And yet, we have forgotten to look for reflections and believe that we see absolute others.
At this time, humanity lacks the most important skill yet – empathy, or the ability to be conscious of another’s perspective. Once a critical mass of empathy ignites, everything will change. We will cry at the hurts we have caused as if we have experienced these hurts at our own hands, and we will listen as if we are the ones talking. Until we can empathize with our human kind, animals, rocks, and trees, and other types of consciousness interacting with our plane, we dare not create yet another potentially alien consciousness. If we do, it will reflect our ignorance to know another’s perspective – our perspective. It will reflect our current lack of empathy.
Wisdom lies in doing things because they are timely and right, and not simply because we can. Just as the participants in the Manhattan Project expressed great regret in creating a nuclear bomb, those now pushing the AI envelope will feel the same regret when they succeed. And the rest of humanity will live with the careless decisions of the few.