The rise of Artificial Intelligence and the future of humans, society, and civilization.
“Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” by Max Tegmark is an eye-opening look at the future of AI and raises important, introspective questions about what we, as a society, want for the future of humanity and life in the future.
This Ted Talk, Google Talk, and Book Summary do a nice job summarizing many of the key concepts, so I won’t repeat that at length here, but there were a few key areas that I found particularly interesting that I’ll highlight.
The book does a great job of using physics and first principles to highlight the potential ways that AI could progress and exploring the possibilities of super-intelligence and “recursive self-improvement”.
Whether you agree that such super-intelligence will happen soon or in the future (or never), given the incredible and vast implications of such technology, Tegmark raises several implications and important questions that we should ask ourselves now in order to drive those technological processes and imbue those developments with our best values and aspirations (rather than have them happen to us implicitly be default). Interesting questions raised:
1. Do you want there to be superintelligence?
2. Do you want humans to still exist, be replaced, cyborgized and/or uploaded/simulated?
3. Do you want humans or machines in control?
4. Do you want AIs to be conscious or not?
5. Do you want to maximize positive experiences, minimize suffering or leave this to sort itself out?
6. Do you want life spreading into the cosmos?
7. Do you want a civilization striving toward a greater purpose that you sympathize with, or are you OK with future life forms that appear content even if you view their goals as pointlessly banal?
Physics of Life
I found the physics theory of life quite interesting — that while the second law of thermodynamics states that entropy will increase — pushing all matters in the universe to a more random, simplified structure, the laws of gravity (accretion of matter) and the needs to dissipate energy (i.e. sunlight) have led to the creation of life as a sophisticated physical process that is very efficient method to dissipate energy. Tegmark cites MIT’s Jeremy England as the author of this theory — and there’s a nice article here where you can read more about it.
In general the book raises many questions about what it means to be human, be alive, to be conscious, free-will, etc. One concept that was quite interesting- and controversial- is the notion of consciousness as an emergent phenomena — i.e. more than the sum of its parts. The idea is summarized here:
A radical idea that I really like: If consciousness is the way that information feels when it’s processed in certain ways, then it must be substrate-independent; it’s only the structure of the information processing that matters, not the structure of the matter doing the information processing.
The implications of consciousness being “substrate-independent” is that conscious need not be confined to organic/biological machines — but could indeed be created or exist in modern computing devices. Indeed, could the very essence of what we think to be “human” be independent of the “hardware” and current organic/physical bodies that we have?
The thought experiment of incremental “cyborg-ization” is quite interesting — namely that if we incrementally start replacing parts of our body that behave mechanically / parts of the brain that are not conscious (e.g. the visual cortex) — at what point would we cease to be human and start becoming machine? And, if Tegmark’s assertion is correct, perhaps if we are able to recreate the same emergent phenomenon of consciousness in silicon or other non-biological machinery — the answer will be never — that “human” and machine could ultimately merge.
Meaning of Life
The one quote that I particularly enjoyed in the book was about meaning of life:
It’s not our Universe giving meaning to conscious beings, but conscious beings giving meaning to our Universe.
In my opinion, this search for meaning remains paramount — and the rapid acceleration of technology and how its utilized in the next few generations will be critical. How will we evolve technology, how will we re-define society and the current inequities and “winners take all” notions, how will we continue to progress the human condition, and how will each of explore this great universe and provide meaning to ourselves and those of us around us?
Implications and Next Steps
I find the Future of Life Institute’s mission and AI safety research to be important and compelling and very glad that research and resources are being committed to these important questions and their vast implications.
However, more interesting to me personally, I see three main areas that are important in the near-term. Using the language of Life 3.0, they are:
- Upgrading our Hardware
- Upgrading our Software
- Exploration on Meaning
Upgrading our Hardware — the research and development in bio-tech, genetics, and all types of computing and how we will continue to improve the human body, health, physical quality of life, computers, and the hybrids between us.
Upgrading our Software — the research and development in brain-research, education, human learning, and organizational collaboration and how we as humans will continue to advance, leverage and even accentuate those very unique capabilities that make us conscious, feeling, and human.
Exploration— redefining and finding meaning and purpose in our lives individually and society collectively. I discuss a few thoughts in the article What’s the Future of Work. While not yet evenly distributed, we as humans are rapidly approaching the condition where our basic human resource needs of food, shelter, clothing, energy etc. have been met. Past a certain point, the acquisition of additional resources provides diminishing returns of happiness. While notions like UBI may attempt to solve for problems of wealth allocation, the notions of what it means to be human and conscious — and how we obtain meaning from our world will need to be continuously redefined. What will provide us happiness and meaning in the future? Certainly our future will be less defined by producing, acquiring, moving, and creating resources as had been the case in the past, and more on the activities of upgrading our hardware and our software. I believe we will also strive to continue to explore and understand the physical nature of the Universe as well as the unique development, evolution, and meaning of consciousness, life, society, and civilization.
Its an exciting, if uncertain, time ahead. Technology will continue to improve and evolve whether we want it to or not. Our ability to direct our energies and craft the type of future and society we want in the future is an important and existential question and opportunity for our time.