Last March, on the website Edge, the playwright Richard Foreman wrote what might be taken as a draft of an elegy for humankind:
I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality – a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West …
But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance – as we all become “pancake people” – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.
Will this produce a new kind of enlightenment or “super-consciousness”? Sometimes I am seduced by those proclaiming so – and sometimes I shrink back in horror at a world that seems to have lost the thick and multi-textured density of deeply evolved personality.
George Dyson, the historian and author, wrote a fascinating response to Foreman, in which he suggested (at least this is what I think he suggested) that we are at a turning point in the history of the computer and, in turn, the world. Up to now, computers have been limited by the fact that “every bit of information has to be stored (and found) in precisely the right place.” This rigid system is completely different from the biological model of information processing, “which is based on template-based addressing, and is consequently far more robust. The instructions say ‘do X with the next copy of Y that comes around’ without specifying which copy, or where.” But today we’re seeing the biological model begin to be replicated in an electronic information system. Who’s creating this new computer? Google. Built on the self-evolving biological model, Google’s search engine, according to Dyson, represents the first step toward “true” artificial intelligence – the ‘super-consciousness’ that already has begun pounding us “into [Foreman’s] instantly-available pancakes,” turning us into “the unpredictable but statistically critical synapses” of the Google Brain.
Dyson has now expanded and extended his essay. The inspiration was a trip he recently made to Google’s headquarters, where an engineer told him, “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people. We are scanning them to be read by an AI.” After reporting this comment, Dyson quotes Alan Turing on the development of AI systems: “In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping His power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children. Rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates.”
Dyson ends on an ominous, if enigmatic, note:
Google is Turing’s cathedral, awaiting its soul. We hope. In the words of an unusually perceptive friend: “When I was there, just before the IPO, I thought the coziness to be almost overwhelming. Happy Golden Retrievers running in slow motion through water sprinklers on the lawn. People waving and smiling, toys everywhere. I immediately suspected that unimaginable evil was happening somewhere in the dark corners. If the devil would come to earth, what place would be better to hide?”
For 30 years I have been wondering, what indication of its existence might we expect from a true AI? Certainly not any explicit revelation, which might spark a movement to pull the plug. Anomalous accumulation or creation of wealth might be a sign, or an unquenchable thirst for raw information, storage space, and processing cycles, or a concerted attempt to secure an uninterrupted, autonomous power supply. But the real sign, I suspect, would be a circle of cheerful, contented, intellectually and physically well-nourished people surrounding the AI. There wouldn’t be any need for True Believers, or the downloading of human brains or anything sinister like that: just a gradual, gentle, pervasive and mutually beneficial contact between us and a growing something else. This remains a non-testable hypothesis, for now. The best description comes from science fiction writer Simon Ings:
“When our machines overtook us, too complex and efficient for us to control, they did it so fast and so smoothly and so usefully, only a fool or a prophet would have dared complain.”