Our advancements in artificial intelligence has been scaring the bejeezus out of some folks lately. Several articles have appeared in the past year or so describing cataclysmic events that are due to unfold unless we pull the plug on these troublesome robots that we are haphazardly designing alongside our fitness apps and video games. Some would have us believe that this impending doom will be upon us sooner rather than later and that somehow machines will replace us, though how exactly this will occur seems a bit fuzzy. Don’t worry about the details,they say, just worry about the machines.
It has to be assumed that these future overlords will somehow strike a deal with robots who can pump and refine oil, because unless they keep a few of us around, the internet and all things associated with it will come to a grinding halt. Maybe the androids will be much better at going green than we are, though considering that they owe their wired plastic asses to petroleum products, they may have trouble biting the light sweet crude hand that feeds them.
Much of what appears to get missed in these gloomy outlooks is the big question of what exactly it means to be human. While our brains are somewhat similar to computers in that they both compute and can structure and organize information, they are far more dissimilar in how they operate by orders of considerable magnitude. Our brains are messy and chaotic at times, random and strange, they are constantly filtering and creating patterns that sometimes seem to be completely irrelevant and sometimes profoundly prescient. Noted analyst Carl Jung arrived at his ideas of the collective unconscious by studying schizophrenic patients at the hospital where he worked. He wondered if it was possible that some of the symptoms of schizophrenia in his patients were visionary manifestations of the collective unconscious. These archetypal drives and messages that somehow interfere with our conscious directions were possibly overloading the brain of some and constantly being brought to the forefront. Maybe one of the issues with these patients was the inability to filter out the unconscious hereditary messages streaming in too freely. The key word in that last sentence is hereditary. Before we can assume that super human machines are to replace us, we must first assume that said machines have the ability to be human.
To explain what I mean, lets look at our primary and best mode of transportation for the past few thousand years: The Horse. It has been less than a century since we have been able to create a device that can outperform this magnificent animal. The industrial revolution allowed us to make transportation that was faster and more comfortable, whether or not it is more efficient is an arguable point since our cars can’t independently convert fuel like horses. We can travel at remarkable speeds and transport millions across vast stretches of land, and yet……we still can not reproduce a horse. Sure, we can mimic and even surpass some of it’s traits, however, we are unable to design something as elegant and complicated and unique as a horse. We can just as readily apply this concept to ourselves when we talk about artificial intelligence replacing us. Let us say that we can somehow make a robot that looks like a horse, at what point can we call it a horse? To be a fully functioning member of the equine family it will need to have a bit of stubbornness, as anyone who has been around horses will tell you. If we eliminate the perceived negative traits, then we also eliminate what it means to be a horse, we change the nature of it and that will change it’s offspring. While we are speaking of offspring, what happens to the offspring, (if they decide to reproduce) of our new mechanical overseers? Will they clone themselves in order to perpetuate their radical new species and if so, then what happens over time to the copies? Will they also be subject to the evolutionary process or will nature determine them to be the crown of creation?
So far I have addressed some of the physical questions surrounding the predicted new world of automatons. What about sentience and consciousness, how do these properties inform our artificial primates? If we are guided by and have access to a shared or collective consciousness, does that mean that eventually these super machines will also have access to it? Would they need to evolve in order to do so and what exactly would this look like? In order to fully replace us they would need for some of these machines to be artists and philosophers, spiritual gurus and bored housewives, conservatives, liberals, anarchists, raving loons and autistic obsessives. It is in the melange of differences that we become what we are, the complexities and novelties and yes, even a bit of the insanity sometimes that makes us fully human. What kind of archetypes can a machine have? Will they be able to have dreams and goals and hobbies like we do? Will they have nervous breakdowns and change their life, will they have a hero’s journey and follow their bliss, have an existential crisis or astral project? How does a machine become self-actualized, do they have a hierarchy of needs that Maslow spoke of? Yes, our computers are becoming more sophisticated, and yes, they will always be able to do some tasks more efficiently, however, they are a long way off from being able to give it’s existence meaning or enjoy a horse ride on a beautiful spring morning.