“The defining idea of the coming era is actually the loss of an idea we never had to worry about losing before. It is the decay of belief in the specialness of being human.”
“I want to make a computer that will be proud of me.”
“The important thing is not to be human but to be humane.”
At one time artificial intelligence (AI) was heralded as the breakthrough that would enable thinking machines more powerful and capable than humans. AI stumbled as a discipline; its promise was repeatedly denied. In part this was because of the lack of sufficiently powerful technologies; in part it was a lack of understanding of how to create advanced intelligence. With the failure of AI still fresh in our minds, it is difficult to propose, yet again, that advanced thinking machines will come to dominate our world.
But they will.
Very soon we will have to come to terms with machines that are “smarter” than we are. These machines will be self-determining; they will build their successors. A new line of evolution will have occurred. This rise of machine intelligence presents some extraordinary questions for us. What will these machines will think of us? What we say to each other? And how?
While the work of Hans Moravec (robots, mind uploading), Vernor Vinge (the initial description of the singularity) and others paved the way, the classic expression of machine intelligence and the post-biological future is The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005) by Ray Kurzweil.
While the examples and the predictions may be dated or unfulfilled, the concepts at the core of the book still form the basic argument for machine intelligence:
“within several decades information-based technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency, ultimately including the pattern-recognition power, problem-solving skills, and emotional and moral intelligence of the human brain itself.”
Kurzweil’s vision of machine intelligence does not displace humans as much as redefine them:
“This is not because humans will have become what we think of as machines today, but rather machines will have progressed to be like humans and beyond.”
In this post-biological world there will be “no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.” Those of us who remain “unenhanced biological humanity” will be at a considerable disadvantage. In part of Kurzweil’s argument is simply about sheer processing horsepower (to use a wonderfully anachronistic metaphor in this context) and miniaturization: “what used to fit in a building, and now fits in your pocket, will fit inside a blood cell” (Kurzweil, How to Create a Mind, 2012).
Kurzweil dismisses debates about consciousness as a stumbling block to accepting machine intelligence and predicts that:
“machines in the future will appear to be conscious and that they will be convincing to biological people when they speak of their qualia [qualia = ideas, experiences, feelings]. They will exhibit the full range of subtle, familiar emotional cues; they will make us laugh and cry; and they will get mad at us if we say that we don’t believe that they are conscious … We will come to accept that they are conscious persons. My own leap of faith is this: Once machines do succeed in being convincing when they speak of their qualia and conscious experiences, they will indeed constitute conscious persons.”
To those who would say that this means the end of human identity, Kurzweil responds by asserting that “identity is preserved through continuity of the pattern of information that makes us us.” Nick Bostrom (The Transhumanist FAQ, 2003) puts it less technically:
“It is not our human shape or the details of our current human biology that define what is valuable about us, but rather our aspirations and ideals, our experiences, and the kinds of lives we lead.”
The argument for post-humans (machine intelligence; the singularity) as the platform for post-literacy challenges our concept of what it means to be a human and broadens our definition of intelligence. It requires that evolution become our responsibility:
“Evolutions shortcomings ought to be viewed as our opportunities. By systematically considering the limitations of the evolutionary process that created the human organism, we can identify promising possibilities for enhancing it, using interventions that are feasible today or may become feasible in the relatively near future.” (Nick Bostrom, “How to Enhance Human Beings” in Brockman, What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science, 2009).
The distinction between human and machine will dissolve slowly and incrementally. We will move knowingly and unexpectedly into this future state of evolution. And, like the evolution of writing systems from crude markings to transformative tools, we will have nurtured a new capacity and capability that transcends reading and writing. We will have become post-literate.