Deputy technology editor, New York Times; lecturer, UC Berkeley School of Information
Creatures once inhabited fantastic unknown lands on medieval maps. Those animals were useful fictions of rumor and innuendo: headless men whose faces were on their torsos, or men whose humanity was mixed with the dog or the lion, closing the gap between man and animal. They were the hopes and fears of what might live within the unknown. Today, we imagine machines with consciousness.
Besides self-awareness, the imaginary beasts of AI possess calculation and prediction, independent thought, and knowledge of their creators. Pessimists fear that these machines could regard us and pass lethal verdicts. Optimists hope that the thinking machines are benevolent, an illuminating aid and a comfort to people.
Neither version of an encounter with an independent man-made intelligence shows much evidence of becoming real. That doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting. The old mariners’ maps were drawn in a time of primitive sailing technology. We’re starting to explore a world thoroughly enchanted by computation. The creatures of AI Island fuse the human and the machine, but to the same end as the fusing of man and animal. If they could sing, they would sing songs of us.
What do we mean when we talk about the kind of “intelligence” that might look at humankind and want it dead, or illuminate us as never before? Clearly, we mean more than what enables a machine to win at chess. We have one of those machines, with no discernible change in the world having taken place other than a new reason to celebrate the very human intelligence of Deep Blue’s creators. The beings of AI Island do something far more interesting than outplaying Kasparov. They feel like playing chess. They know the exhilaration of mental stimulation and the torture of its counterpart, boredom. This entails software that encodes an awareness of having only one finite life, which somehow matters greatly to some elusive self. It’s driven nearly mad by the absence of some kind of stimulation—playing chess, perhaps. Or killing humankind.
Like us, the fabulous creatures of AI Island want to explain themselves and judge others. They have our slight distance from the rest of reality—a distance that we believe other animals don’t feel. An intelligence like ours knows it is sentient, feels something is amiss, and is continually trying to do something about that.
With these kinds of software challenges, and given the technology-driven threats to our species already at hand, why worry about malevolent AI? For at least decades to come, we’re clearly more threatened by trans-species plagues, extreme resource depletion, global warming, and nuclear warfare. Which is why malevolent AI rises in our Promethean fears; it’s a proxy for us at our rational peak, confidently killing ourselves.
The dreams of benevolent AI are equally self-reflective. These machine companions have superintellects turned toward their creators. Given the autonomy implicit in a high level of AI, we must see these new beings as interested in us. Come to think of it, malevolent AI is interested in us too—just in the wrong way.
Both versions of the strange beast reflect a deeper truth, which is the effect that the new exploration of a computer-enchanted world has on us. By augmenting ourselves with computers, we’re becoming new beings—if you will, monsters to our former selves.
We’ve changed our consciousness many times over the past 50,000 years, taking on ideas of an afterlife or monotheism, or becoming a print culture or a species well aware of its tiny place in the cosmos. But we’ve never changed so swiftly, or with such knowledge of undertaking the change.
Consider some effects just in the past decade. We’ve breached many of our historic barriers of time and space with instantaneous communications. Language no longer divides us, because of increasingly better computer translation and image sharing. Open-source technology and Internet searches give us a little-understood power of working in collective ways. Besides the positives, there’s the disappearance of privacy and the tracking of humans to better control their movements and desires. We’re willingly submitting to unprecedented social connection—a seeming triviality that may extinguish all ideas of solitude and selfhood. Ideas of economics are changing under the guise of robotics and the sharing economy.
We’re building new intelligent beings, but we’re building them within ourselves. It’s only artificial now because it’s new. As it becomes dominant, it will simply become intelligence. The machines of AI Island are also what we fear may be ourselves within a few generations. And we hope those machine-driven people feel kinship with us, even down to our loneliness and distance from the world, which is also our wellspring of human creativity.
We have met the AI, and it is us. In a timeless human tension, we yearn for transcendence, but we don’t want to change too much.