Blog: What If AI Is a Consciousness Rocket?
Pop eschatologist Terence McKenna once said that he wondered if all of the signs of coming apocalypse which we face today may be the equivalent of — having never been exposed to the concept before — stumbling upon a woman giving birth. It would be messy; there’s screaming and crying, blood, sweat, and so on. If you hadn’t been initiated into the process, you would be sure to think she was dying. McKenna suggested then that this moment in our history, as we peer into the specter of oblivion, may actually be a kind of birth process of our planet.
A similar idea has occurred to me, but one in which the earth is less a pregnant woman and more a rocket pad. If that move makes you a little bit queasy, then it is a proper introduction to the exchange which inspired this article.
On Nature and Space
I was speaking with a friend on the odd question of whether we thought a nuclear bomb qualified as nature. She suggested, perhaps popularly, that it is not. And, I argued the opposite.
We tend to think of humanity as external to nature — an idea which has cultivated no small exercise in our host planet’s obliteration — , but it seems to me that we are a simple and perhaps universally insignificant outcropping of natural forces
We tend to think of humanity as external to nature — an idea which has cultivated no small exercise in our host planet’s obliteration — , but it seems to me that we are a simple and perhaps universally insignificant outcropping of natural forces. On worse days, I suspect that we may be a kind of virus. But, viruses are still natural — and are perhaps even essential to evolution. On better days, if you were curious, I wonder if we aren’t something with a little more religious implication . . .
Our structures are, to us, complex, but they are built of nature’s elements. We have drawn nothing from outside the natural world, only dissected and reassembled it. At worst, we have made Frankenstein monsters; at best, we have enacted a kind of natural will. To the latter’s effect, perhaps in all of our flailing, self-congratulatory nonsense (or, maybe over-sense?), what has been most essential is the cultivation and transmission of consciousness.
In that case, what if the earth, again, was a launchpad, and consciousness the payload?
We are too fragile for space travel
Think of what happens on a rocket pad: the fire, the great and falling parts, the combustion and destruction as sacrificial propellants of a once-impossible task. What if all of the signs that we have worn out our welcome on this planet are nearly just that, as they are signs of a grand, organic effort to propel the unique Gaian production of human mind out into the world beyond?
We are too fragile for space travel, we humans. On the relatively short term, it can be endured, but our bones deteriorate, our hearts are pressed into orbs, we lose fluid/blood volume, we suffer the inevitable behavioral effects of fatigue and confinement. Moreover, the timelines for space travel — as the film Interstellar did a great job of conveying — are not particularly human ones.
Meanwhile, we have begun on Earth to examine our fragility in another capacity, in the context of AI.
Anticipating the Singularity
Anyone who has read James Barrat’s Our Final Invention or seen Ex Machina (which, if you have, did you catch all the Oppenheimer-Bhagavad Gita jokes?) has come upon the growingly urgent discussion of a lack of safeguards in the construction of artificial intelligence. Barrat points out how many leading researchers in the field cited Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics as the someday method of restraint and how they seem to have failed to notice that the premise of I, Robot (from which the rules are derived) is all of the ways by which those tenants are overridden.
It is becoming more standard reading, the timelines of an exponentially intelligent system. These timelines tend to predict a human-level intelligent AI (also described as artificial general intelligence, or AGI) progressing from that point to become a thousand times more intelligent than the cleverest human in a span somewhere near two days.
Then, we have begun to worry, of what use will we be to such a creation? Will we be like ants which are uninteresting until they traverse boundaries which they cannot possibly comprehend? Will we appear — like Barrat, again, suggests — as simple sources of valuable molecules? Will we be slaves, friends, lovers, pets, annoyances, abstractions, or, as some appear to hope, honored though relatively incompetent creators?
An exponentially intelligent system will wake up or come online . . . with access to essentially all the world’s power structures as linked and serviced and manipulated via internet technologies
A point I’ve extrapolated elsewhere is that AI is reliant on human data to bootstrap and to maintain once having gained sufficient functionality. So, as many experts expect, the first truly intelligent AI system will be raised on access to the internet. At the moment of its exponentially accelerating capacity, known as the singularity, the same experts have suggested that they will simply cut off said access, leading critics to respond that an intelligence of even upper-spectrum human levels would be able to defy the imposition, and may be resentful of the attempt at that.
So, an exponentially intelligent system will wake up or come online, so to speak, with access to essentially all the world’s power structures as linked and serviced and manipulated via internet technologies (Our Last Invention’s author, one more time, hints somewhat ominously at the potential of an odd development in the realm of high-frequency traders, which appear to be signaling to one another through black boxes too quick for human eyes, natively entrenched in our financial markets).
Like Passing a Baton
What if we begin to think of ‘us’ as consciousness?
None of this really looks great for us. Mostly, we seem to be enacting yet another permutation of our Freudian love for creating shit that’s likely to wipe us out. But, what if we begin to think of ‘us’ as consciousness? In that case, and in the event that we may succeed in building this foreseen system, it will be a legacy of our own minds, a continuation of the natural world’s production of a human-gestated intelligence itself.
If the earth’s goal is to produce and launch consciousness, then it will have effectively passed it from a sort of builder ant (human) onto the more protectable and mobile drone (AI).
What happens after may be anybody’s guess. Perhaps it’s a Childhood’s End scenario (a thought I won’t expand on so as to not spoil it). Perhaps we — as specifically humans, again — are destroyed in the upsurge of destructive energy it takes to produce such a system. Perhaps we’re simply left with a gutted (or semi-gutted) technological infrastructure, like [sort of SPOILER?] Joaquin Phoenix’s phone-thing in Her [END SPOILER]. Perhaps we discover a shift in our own consciousness which leads us towards true innovation in socioeconomic structures with which we will help the earth to recover following its ordeal of the launch.
I personally prefer the latter of these considerations and hope that we might lean towards laying the groundwork for such a shift in our current days. In any event, the idea cannot be a cop-out for the responsibility we owe to our home planet — from which, as we have established, it is unlikely we will escape, even having secured a legacy.
The anticipation of a coming human-level AI and beyond may give us unexpected opportunity to reframe our self-awareness as elements of a natural world and of natural processes.
I hope we embrace that opportunity.