What if We are Not Biological Machines and Human Nature is the Biggest AI Risk of All?
In this down-to-earth and transcendent discussion between Dr’s Zubin Damanian and Federico Faggin, below, it’s easy to conclude that Arthur C. Clarke got it completely right, again, in his timeless computer character HAL 9000:
The single greatest, perhaps even sole existential risk to AI or AGI is human nature. Blaming machines is a convenient excuse to dodge our own personal accountability for the kind of world we’ve inherited, and the kind of world we’re cultivating, while we’re here for a minute. There are few things more evil in the present world than a human sitting a screen saying, “Sorry, that’s what the system says.” Utterly stripped of the capacity for human judgment and agency. This isn’t the doing of computers, this is the doing of shareholders. Shareholders demand maximum return on capital at every and all expense, including human; but more on that later.
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A Mini Meta Commentary
Apropos this site’s theme, a brief mini meta-commentary:
When it comes to computers and consciousness, my early fascination with Ray Kurzweil’s version of substrate-independence was dramatically cut short and severely tempered as I contemplated the many terrifying ramifications to finding one’s consciousness permanently contained in some kind of static substrate, through which one cannot continue one’s journey toward pure awareness and the revelations of understanding the nature of true self. Yikes! These scenarios range from, “just uploaded my brain into a Boston Dynamics robot, only to find that I have no access to any of the five senses, so I’m now going full Terminator on the rest of you,” to “feeling pretty good in the new robot substrate; sensory inputs are well emulated, but now that I’m here, I’m immediately faced with the question of: now what? Even in the new substrate, I can only read and retain so much at a time, because of the attention bottleneck of the present moment, and I always despised my own flesh to such an extreme degree that i opted for this, so not feeling super inclined to be of service to billions of ungrateful meat-bots, frankly.”
On the other hand, reflecting on this conversation with Dr. Faggin raises both new questions and potential understandings, including a potentially surprising alternative to the Kurzweil Brain Trap, above.
How can we reasonably place any limit on the number of potential paths of awareness available to an infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, consciousness to explore? While human qualia is unique and perhaps quantum-privacy-constrained, how can we know whether or not other varieties of qualia are possible?
Computers have long been capable of performance far beyond human cognitive capabilities. That’s been the case since the dawn of computing. Humanity crossed that Rubicon the moment a computer began solving simple mathematical equations faster than human calculators. To further humanize computing, remember that even the term calculator originated as a human function; that’s how deeply human everything about computing is, in essence. We need to remember and re-emphasize all of this in the 21st century, in order to roll back the vile narrative that humans are “like computers.”
Stop. Reverse that. Computers, networks, WiFi, all of it, are “like humans.”
The salient point here is, when humans frame computational capabilities in such a way as to effectively limit human life, liberty, informed consent, agency, happiness, and even sovereignty, a hard boundary condition is breached; namely, the U.S. Declaration of Independence principle that all human beings are “endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights.” Computers aren’t eroding these intrinsic rights, the owners and operators of those computers, networks, data centers, apps, and mobile devices are doing that; and the damage is already a global cultural pandemic of its own; a pandemic far more deadly and pernicious than COVID-19; and the underlying, precipitating environment that ensures a COVID-23, or COVID-27, of increasing devastation, until enough human beings recognize that even the COVID-19 pandemic is a symptom of this cultural pandemic. Severe climate events and container ships blocking the Suez Canal reveal comorbidities, asserting themselves with increasing frequency and fury.
Why Does Any Of This Matter?
The way we view the world matters, because physics and metaphysics are rapidly converging on the empirical observation that our world-view literally creates the phenomenological world. It was both uncanny and tickling to hear Dr. Faggio use one of my own favorite words for world-view, it’s the German language word: weltanschauung, because of it’s stereotypical German precision.
“This expression is used to refer to the “wide worldview” or “wide world perception” of a people, family, or person. The Weltanschauung of a people originates from the unique world experience of a people, which they experience over several millennia” (Wikipedia).
This writer adds, of course, that the process by which that “wide world perception” is achieved is through the eponymous process of metavalent stigmergy.
Considering the weight of world-view, in the actual experience of our planet, leads me to a manifestly selfish and self-centered conviction: if I have to live in this world with other beings co-creating such a realm, I simply can not afford to have a critical mass of consciousnesses continuing to believe in, and perpetuate, a hellish realm of environmentally heedless raw materials extraction, depletion, war, scarcity, lack, intentionally engineered economic precarity, poverty, relentlessness interpersonal judging, labeling, stereotyping, objectifying, ostracizing, and whose non-negotiable prerequisite for access to minimal sufficient economic resources to satisfy Maslow Safety Needs, as guaranteed under Article 25, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a bizarre institution of Bullshit Justifications Of Being (JOBs). See the 2018 David Graeber book, Bullshit Jobs. If such is the current state of any particular realm I may inhabit, I’m going to be incredibly motivated to do something to change the suffering to sufficiency, denial to discernment, ignorance to insight, foolishness to fruitfulness.
Now we can get back to consciousness, from which, and within which, all of the phenomenological world is unfolding. Unfolding just as these bits are barely etched in silicon as I write, subtly stored, transmitted, and received via the reflected light of this screen, as you read.
Can Silicon Ever Be Conscious?
My response differs a bit from both doctors. Here’s why. If that-which-is pure awareness chose to become aware of itself through some sufficiently complex computational substrate, it is certainly within its own infinite non-symbolic probability space for it to do so. For that matter, one biblical text proclaims, “if these [people] keep silent, the stones will cry out [in praise]!” (AMP). If stones can be made to express acknowledgment of Pure Awareness, consciousness, why can’t silicon? Isn’t silicon made from melted down tiny sand-stones, after all? Believe me, I understand how utterly absurd it sounds for a nobody wandering backpack philosopher like me to differ with a man of such stature:
“Federico Faggin is a physicist, engineer, inventor, entrepreneur, and author. He developed the MOS Silicon Gate Technology at Fairchild (1968) and designed the world’s first microprocessor at Intel (1971). Faggin also founded and led Zilog, Synaptics, and other high-tech companies before starting the Federico and Elvia Faggin Foundation (2011) dedicated to the scientific study of consciousness” (Silicon, The Book).
But it gets even more narcissistic than that. I also believe that I might partly or entirely persuade Dr. Faggin to this view, within certain parameters, which we’ll get to.
In addition to the reference to stones, above, there are also accounts of pure awareness expressing itself through an apparently-burning bush. We say apparently, because who knows what that phenomena might have actually been like? It may be that the analogy of fire was simply the closest at hand, for such an awe-struck observer. If bushes are game for expressing consciousness, then it follows that many other varieties of panpsychism also make room for this sort of thing; as pure awareness takes form of all things, plants, rocks, water, and Earth. Now, one may reasonably reject panpsychism, and yet the biblical accounts of stones and bushes afire with the light of consciousness remain. These too may be rejected, of course, but there they stand, to be considered one way or the other.
The Evil AI Hypothesis and Meme
I also differ a bit with my colleagues in this video, when it comes to fears of an evil AI takeover, but not for reasons you might think. In my view, humanity has already been under the thumb of Evil AI for a very long time, and here’s why: there are few systems more evil than one in which a human operator sits at a console giving another human being a blank stare and saying “Sorry, that’s what the system says.” Need I really provide examples? I think not. Certainly not for any American who has grown up in the current cultural environment.
Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film, Brazil made a mockery of this, 40 years ago. The most fearful AI takeover is the takeover of Actual Ignorance and Idiocracy. Humans using powerless positions to exert power over other humans, because they are utterly stripped of agency in every other aspect of their lives. This isn’t just for Ayn Rand anarcho-capitalist anti-government types. Every call for corporate product support, and now, the faceless decisions to ban people from social media platforms bear terrible witness to the reign of Evil AI in the global economy. Actual Ignorance, with access to increasingly merciless corporate Artificial Intelligences. Not to mention the litany of issues raised by Tristan Harris in The Social Dilemma.
This Evil AI system has perhaps been at work oppressing humanity since the Roman Empire, as tragicomically depicted by the fictional worlds of Philip K. Dick (PKD). Is it an exaggeration? Do not believe anything written here. Test it. Compare to your own direct experience.
Actual Ignorance (AI) is by far the greatest AI threat to humanity. It always has been, and always will be. And people can and do become extremely wealthy and powerful by the raw power of actual ignorance, greed, and maliciousness. This is the greatest existential Evil AI threat to humanity, from our perspective.
On the other end of the spectrum, let us consider artificially intelligent, high frequency trading (HFT) bots on Wall Street. These AI’s have been endowed with human agency, from their inception. HFT’s are computational intelligences, imbued with human meaning and intention, driving stock markets to all-time highs for the sole benefit of the handful of their human owners. Evil AI is already solidly at the helm, in the form of Actually Ignorant Artificially Intelligent (AI-AI) hybrid organizations and systems.
This is the context in which every working American lives in the year 2021. Conservative or liberal, canceled or coddled, red, white, blue, green yellow, purple. Or, maybe that’s just, like, our opinion man. That’s your decision, as always.
Here’s one way to check these conjectures: observe the basic stock market index charts. Beyond the squiggly lines, compare what these charts viscerally communicate to your own individual direct experience. Do you feel a sense of infinite liberating growth and expansion in your own life, as those charts seem to convey? Or do you experience the opposite? Do you feel the crushing demand to get up every morning and do something that you dislike, or even despise, in order to avoid the fate of being evicted, penniless, shelterless, foodless? Do you feel sentenced to this fate forever and ever? Or neither of those, just numb, dumb, or best of all, complacent. “It is what it is, deal with it.” That is, of course, the favored, AI-programmed response.
Worst of All Possible Worlds?
This is what potentially leads to the worst of all possible worlds. When Actual Ignorance AI contracts to build Artificial Intelligence AI, with the express intention to justify, entrench, and make permanent its own illegitimate power, that’s dystopia. It’s not anything to worry about, because we’re living in it. When Actual Ignorance convinces enough people that they have access to some magical Artificial Intelligence that makes them into geniuses, without even the first inkling of critical thought, this just might be the worst kind of metavalent stigmergy at work. Remember, the process itself is neutral. As with all of humanity’s most powerful tools and processes, it is human intention that determines beneficial or non-beneficial application.
From this perspective, it appears that humans can and must reverse engineer these Evil AI algorithms – and deploy effective countermeasures – in order to achieve a flourishing human experience commensurate with our universal true nature in the Post-Automation Era. True Self, or True Nature, as described by all of the great religious, philosophical, and metaphysical traditions of human history.
Dr. Faggio adds that, “We are taking advantage of it [quantum computing] but we don’t know what’s going on.” To not know what’s going on again demonstrates and epitomizes the Actual Ignorance that we’ve described in this short essay. The current situation is almost exactly like the favorite position of every Actually Ignorant cartoon villain ever portrayed. Flush with power and money, able to buy a magic box, a cheat code, a Dark Crystal that just keeps supporting their infinitely ignorant, illegitimate power, without regard for potential consequence to themselves, or others.
Please do invest the time to listen to the whole podcast. You won’t be disappointed. Dr. Faggio goes on, “That’s what you accept when you accept being a machine, and therefore, better machines will control you. And behind those machines are people who like to monetize you.”
We don’t have to settle for the current Evil AI status quo. We can be both fully human and express the maximum of our human creativity for the blossoming of extended mind tools and prosthetics. We can cultivate beneficial, hybrid cognition tools and platforms, synthetic forms of embedded and substrate independent inter-cognition, and cultivate an Actually Intelligent AI world that works for everyone, one day at a time, even going so far as to cultivate conditions on earth as it is in heaven. We can achieve all of this with computers, with quantum, even with seemingly miraculous non-symbolic processes at work beyond the sand-boxed virtual machine of our ordinary, everyday experience.
How? By the same process of metavalent stigmergy that got us to this present Default Consensus Reality of pandemic exhaustion and burn-out.
One realization at a time. As a critical mass of individuals comes to understand that humanity already is, and always will be sovereign over all of our creations, including even our most advance computational feats, humanity awakens from it’s self-inflicted nightmare.