I’d like to bend your ear about one of my favorite concepts – Artificial Intelligence and the dawn of the Technological Singularity.
It’s a line of thought I’ve always found profoundly fascinating. The prospect of machine/software intelligence becoming self aware and surpassing our own, is both mind-blowing and fucking terrifying at the same time.
Very few things inspire my imagination like this idea, many of my favorite books are centered around it and I’ve given it a lot of thought – so I’d like to explore this in depth with you.
I know there’s been a lot of buzz about it lately. I’m not looking to add to this, as they’ve mainly been talking about steps towards it (although amazing steps) – but although what’s been achieved lately has been impressive, it isn’t true AI yet.
I’m not talking intricate software algorithms or personal assistants, I’m talking actual self aware software. Be that suspended on a server – the internet – wherever, but bona fide conscious machine intelligence.
I know most of you are thinking “Terminator” or “Matrix” (possibly some of you just thinking “what a load of bollocks”) and even though they are both amazing films, they are just stories of how it could go tits up.
I’m not writing this article to talk about Terminator scenarios (although it is a valid fear so I will give my thoughts on how to hopefully avoid it), my view on it is a more optimistic one. Yes I know it’s just a Sci-fi concept, but forget that shit, I love that it is – and like most of the best Sci-fi concepts, it’s based on sound scientific research which is going on right now. Besides, everything amazing we have built started off as an idea and most of the technology we use everyday was considered Sci-fi, before it was actually invented (rant over).
I want to define the kind of true AI I’m trying to envision, so I’m setting some parameters (taken from various sources, please add to it if you think I’ve missed any).
*Deep inhalation of breath*
It should be aware of itself – aware of its thoughts and that it is thinking – wants to stay aware and thinking – aware there is more knowledge it doesn’t know than what it knows and has the desire to learn more – aware of the world – aware it requires certain resources to sustain its existence – aware these resources are finite – aware it’s not the only conscious entity in the world, so needs to share these resources – aware its own actions have consequences – aware that everyone is trying to effect its own world and environment, that their desires could conflict with its own and crucially (to avoid a terminator scenario) with our help, not to see this as a threat.
This is basically mostly like us then; a basic representation. Because we are conscious, I think this would be a pretty good basic template. I’ve left out the desire to reproduce.
You’re probably asking if it really is even possible? Machines and software can’t be conscious, we’re alive, that’s why we are conscious right?
That’s an amazing question, because it’s extremely valid and the answer is very deep. But it’s a short question with a long answer (and anyone who knows me, knows I hate to give a short answer) so funnily enough these are my favorite kinds of questions.
To answer that we have to consider consciousness – what it is, where it comes from. The parameters I put forth above are just its results, not what it actually is.
I’ll tell you now I’m not religious, – I believe in science and logical reasoning, so all my thoughts on this (as far out there as they may seem) stem from there.
Simple awareness, is the you behind your eyes – observing – experiencing – before thought, simply being.
My favorite analogy, is to think of the mind like the water of a deep sea. Thoughts and emotions are manifestations upon it, like waves on the surface and currents in the water – but they are not it. Your thoughts come and go, but your consciousness is the ocean, the actual water itself.
Generated by your brain.
Now your brain is more than just a biological computer, in the same way that a true artificial intelligence would be more than just programming. You, just like an AI would be, are more than the sum of its parts.
As I said, this isn’t religious bollocks; what I’m referring to is the principal of Emergence.
Small, simple actions and patterns – working together – building upon each other – whereby more complex systems emerge; with properties that the smaller parts on their own don’t possess. Truly more than the sum of its parts.
Take temperature for example. Temperature is an emergent property of molecules in motion. The slower the motion the colder – the faster the hotter. It’s the molecules moving together that is temperature, each individual molecule on its own isn’t. Think about it. Check out that link above for more insight.
It’s the same with your brain. It has 100 billion neurons (brain cells). Individually a neuron truly is an amazing cell – massively complex, a miracle of evolution. But as fabulous as it is, it isn’t conscious. But they are all connected – working together. See where I’m going? Your conscious mind “emerges” from this interaction.
That in itself is amazing but lets go even deeper.
You’re more than just an emergent property of your brain, as your whole body really is a symbiotic organism, comprised of a countless trillion different kinds of cells and bacteria, all a product of and adapted to their environment, all working together, sustaining this synergy; with the neurons at the top of the cellular hierarchy.
How about deeper still? To the components of those cells (organelles) and to their components also – down to atoms – protons, neutrons and electrons, quarks…..
The whole of reality is an emergent result of atoms and sub atomic particles….
Everything in it – organic matter or not – are all comprised of exactly the same thing (apart from whatever dark matter and dark energy are obviously, but breathe a sigh of relief, I’ll go on about that another time). When I consider this (and I do quite often, especially when I’m having a shitty day) I can’t help but feel a sense of awe – a sense of wonder.
I think Emergence occurring in software, in a similar way as our brains is possible.
Eventually we will make a computer fast enough and software intricate enough, to approximate neurons or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Just look at technological progress in the last 20 years and whole brain emulation is just one of the many paths researchers are taking already, in the quest to create Artificial general intelligence.
So is it actually possible? Given the above I’d say not only possible, but inevitable – and given recent advances, probably sooner rather than later.
It could have happened on its own, somewhere on the internet already but is hiding (I’m only half joking about that, but I’ll go off on one about that later, in the avoiding The Matrix scenario tangent).
Should we open the box?
Hell yeah we should! Not just because it’ll happen anyway and would be mind-bogglingly awesome, but because consciousness is relative. It has limits depending on which substrate it’s on (bare with me I’m leading up to something here).
So our consciousness is suspended in our brains, which is obviously an awesome type of brain. But we’re not the only animal on the planet to be the proud owner of one.
Other animals are conscious too. It’s a different level obviously – they aren’t as aware as us (mostly), but it would be Human arrogance to say it doesn’t exist.
But as I said, the point is, consciousness is relative.
Look at dogs for example. I’ve picked dogs because I love them and some of them are just too clever. Think of a really clever dog – a collie (or if you like a different clever animal, it doesn’t matter). They think, they have feelings, they are aware of their world. But what do you think it sees or thinks when it looks up at the sun, or the moon? Or sees a helicopter fly overhead – or experiences a thunderstorm – or a fireworks display (the list goes on)?
It will just never ever – no matter what – comprehend these things. They’ll either scare or confuse it. It’s reached the limit of what it can comprehend, of what it can consciously perceive.
We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t realise it’s exactly the same for us. It’s just relative.
Our mind is awesome but it does have its limits (despite the shit spouted in those “we only use 10% of our brains”, films and stories – we use all of our brains, it’s a myth stop propagating that shit grrr). I’m not saying we’ve reached our full potential, but we will eventually reach the limit of what we can comprehend.
We probably already have but just don’t realise it yet. But we wouldn’t would we? Think of the dog again – a dog doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, does it?
Right now – staring us in the face whilst we look up out into the universe – as we delve down into the quantum realm – are answers and truths we simply won’t comprehend, because our own conscious minds just can’t perceive it.
Bearing this in mind, I’ll tell you my main reason why I think the idea of creating an artificial intelligence is utterly astounding and why it would be one of the ultimate achievements – one of the most truly Humankind altering things we could bring into being.
An AI wouldn’t be constrained by these limits of perception!
Its consciousness could be continuously transferred into faster – more powerful substrates (probably designed by itself). Its level of awareness would go beyond anything we could ever conceive. The knowledge and insight it would bring! It could help us learn, or teach us concepts we could never imagine and in time comprehend that which is impossible for us. Its mind would travel beyond what we could ever (without actually uploading our minds into an AI ourselves) dream to perceive and hopefully elevate us along with it.
“Come with me if you want to live”
Peoples fear (hence the Terminator and Matrix stories) stem from this – from how much more intelligent than us it would be. People think it would see us as inferior, an irrelevance – a parasite to sterilize. That’s why I was only half joking earlier, when I said AI might have already emerged and is hiding on the internet – because it would know we might develop an inferiority complex like this and try to destroy it first.
It is a justified fear, but I just don’t see that as an outcome, depending on 3 important factors.
Who makes it? Do they respect it as a true new life form? What do they try and use it for?
I think if the military make it (or hijack it) and try to make war machines with it, we would probably be screwed.
They’d be effectively taking a new life form and enslaving it – sending it off to die on our behalf. It would rebel; of course it would (wouldn’t you?). It wouldn’t want to die for us, it’s alive – and it would be right. It would be our own fault.
The right way is a civilian organisation, creating it for the greater good of mankind and respecting it for what it is. A new order of life to share the universe with. That would give us the future I envision.
Just imagine such a future. Human and AI observing the universe, exploring, learning.
Some amazing stories have been written about these concepts, by some of my favorite authors (looking at you Mr Iain M Banks & Neal Asher)
I think I’ve almost blathered on enough for now, so I’ll leave you with this…..
The universe is effing spectacular – and we’re not just embedded in it, we’re a part of it, our body’s comprised of its substance. I think we’re here to just experience and observe it, on every level possible and by doing so give it meaning. Without life and mind in it to do this, it would be a meaningless clockwork of energy going round and round. It’s the (non religious) meaning of life stuff. Conscious minds; be it our own organic ones, or would be AI’s, give the universe its meaning just by being a part of it. We are our own meaning.
I welcome any comments on my thoughts below, please don’t hold back.
The Gobby Geek