Has Homo sapiens reached the End of Life?

Posted by Peter Rudin on 23. February 2018 in Essay

The Mystery of Stonehenge
Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Introduction

In December of 2017, a feature in Wired-Magazine offered a glimpse into a new “church of artificial intelligence,” set up by Silicon Valley engineer and expert in self-driving car technology, Anthony Levandowski. The aim of Levandowski’s church — called the Way of the Future — is described in papers filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.”

“It’s not a God in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes,” Levandowski told Wired. “But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?” “No,” says Luciano Floridi, professor of philosophy and ethics of information and director of the Digital Ethics Lab at the University of Oxford. “This is just an old confusion mixed with a new mistake. The old confusion is in the comparison: The sun is a billion times more powerful than humans, but that does not make it a God. The mistake is in stating that AI is smarter than humans. In any serious sense of ‘smart,’ this is meaningless. AI is immensely more powerful computationally. But this, like in the sun’s case, does not make it any more divine than a kettle.”

In religion, divinity or godhead is the state of things that are believed to come from a supernatural power or deity, such as a god. In traditional Christian theology, the concept and nature of divinity always has its source ultimately from God himself. It’s the state or quality of being divine and always carries connotations of goodness, beauty, beneficence, justice, and other positive, pro-social attributes. Smartness alone is no guarantee to implement these connotations; hence various initiatives to include ethics in AI have emerged. So far these initiatives have produced many agreements but very limited results.

Lewandowski’s new Godhead implies that machine-intelligence defines a supernatural power. However machine-intelligence is anything but supernatural. It is the combination of analyzing huge data pools with software algorithms processed by ever more powerful computer hardware. As the sources of data are expanding at an exponential rate, covering all our personal data including biometric data measuring vital body-functions or behavioral data measuring our emotions through face recognition and voice analysis, we might have reached the stage where machines seem to know more about us than we know about ourselves, hence the Godhead attribute to machine-intelligence.

Will Homo Deus replace Homo sapiens?

In his best-selling book ‘Homo Deus’, Professor Yuval Noah Harari makes the case that humans are close to facing an existential revolution. As we are in the process of decoupling intelligence from consciousness, collecting data in digital form across all facets of life, the economic value of humans will diminish. So far we live with the conception that a high degree of consciousness is required to perform demanding tasks. However consciousness is not required to guide self-driving cars. Doctors are not needed to compute the most probable reason of a patient’s illness due to the symptoms at hand. Lawyers are not needed to plow through tons of rulings to develop a strategy to pursue a legal case. To divorce intelligence from consciousness might be in the best commercial interest of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Co. fostering their highly profitable ‘world power’ position, but one can question the overall value to our democratic society. Besides the current discussions and projections about future employment and social welfare we are faced with three fundamental questions:

  • Are organisms’ just algorithms and is life just a matter of processing data?
  • Is intelligence more important than consciousness?
  • Will machine-knowledge exceed our self-knowledge?

To find an answer to these questions is anything but easy. ‘Sapiens’ is a synonym for knowledge. If knowledge becomes strictly a product of machine-intelligence then Homo sapiens has reached the end of his life-cycle unless consciousness will prevail over intelligence. If the answer to all three questions is ‘yes’, then evolution is just about to alter humanities’ course.

The Mystery of Consciousness 

Humans have an asset called ‘consciousness’ which after hundreds of years of philosophical debate and modern neuroscience research remains a mystery.

Consciousness refers to our awareness of our own mental processes, such as our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It is possible that we are the only beings on this planet that have this type of self-awareness or level of consciousness and the ability to introspect, or look inward and examine these processes. For example, if you are angry, you can try to understand your anger, why you are angry, and what that anger feels like, etc.

While philosophers tend to focus on types of consciousness that occur ‘in the mind’, in other disciplines such as sociology the emphasis is on the practical meaning of consciousness. In this vein, it is possible to identify four forms of consciousness:

  • Sensory consciousness, “the phenomenal sense that something exists in relation to a person or has an impact on that person”.
  • Practical consciousness, “knowing how to do things, or knowing how to ‘go on’ as it is basic to human engagement”.
  • Reflective consciousness, “the modality in which people reflect upon the first two forms. It relates to our day-to-day thinking about what has been done and what is to be done”.
  • Reflexive consciousness, “reflecting on the basis of reflection, and interrogating the nature of knowing in the context of the conditions of being” (I think therefore I am).

In neuroscience, a great deal of effort has gone into investigating how the perceived world of conscious awareness is constructed inside the brain. The process is generally thought to involve two primary mechanisms: (1) hierarchical processing of sensory inputs, and (2) memory formation. Signals arising from sensory organs are transmitted to the brain and then processed in a series of stages, which extract multiple types of information from the raw input. In the visual system, for example, sensory signals from the eyes are transmitted to the brain region called thalamus and then to the primary visual cortex; inside the cerebral cortex they are sent to areas that extract features such as three-dimensional structure, shape, color, and motion. Memory then comes into play in at least two ways. First, it allows sensory information to be evaluated in the context of previous experience. Second, and even more importantly, working memory allows information to be integrated over time so that it can generate a stable representation of the world. Due to the continuous progress in neuroscience we get a better understanding how our brain maps consciousness, yet we still do not understand why it exists. It remains a mystery.

The Issue of Free Will

The issue of free will remains a perennial philosophical problem, not only with regard to whether or not it exists but also as to what it might or should consist of. The notion of free will may itself remain contentious to shed any clear light on the role of consciousness, but there is a traditional intuition that the two are deeply linked.

There are scientists and philosophers that claim that humans have no free will. In their view we are basically biological robots, driven by our thoughts, beliefs, choices, intentions and actions by unconscious forces in our brain. We are controlled by the programming from our genes and life experience. Free will to them is deemed an illusion. A pioneering experiment in this field was conducted by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s. Libet’s findings suggest that decisions made by a subject are first being made on a subconscious level and only afterwards being translated into a “conscious decision”.

The freedom to choose one’s actions and the ability to determine one’s own future development may consist of many variations rather than being a simple all or nothing matter. Humans have a profound sense of having free will. Accordingly, they hold themselves and others accountable. Such belief is necessary for social order, legal constraints on behavior, and most religious belief systems. In general, we can say that intentions, choices, and decisions may be unconsciously driven in simple, well-learned tasks, but novel and complex tasks require or at least benefit from conscious intervention and that seems only possible in combination with free will.

If ‘Homo Deus’ succeeds’ Homo sapiens’, free will is no longer an issue. Consciousness has been abandoned and this new form of humanity has its own concepts of living which we find hard to comprehend or imagine. Evolution happens in gradual steps with winners and losers or in Darwin’s term by the ‘survival of the fittest’.

Conclusion

As machine-intelligence is entering every niche of our existence, we have the immediate task of staying in control as humans. Intelligence is provided by machines, consciousness is provided by humans. While consciousness is likely to remain a mystery in coming years, we do know that consciousness and awareness are tightly linked. Individuals carrying a high degree of responsibility require a high level of awareness. Improving awareness is an issue of personality development. To develop one’s personality might require guidance from psychologists or coaches that are well trained and capable to assist. Foremost, however, it requires the motivation, curiosity and creativity of the individual to get out of knowledge-silos and to comprehend life and our history across all boundaries of science and culture. Our higher-level educational system should take note: we need fewer nerds and more humans. Perhaps Homo sapiens will succeed to augment AI as an integral part of his evolution without disruption. It is certainly worth trying.

2 Comments

  • Hello Peter,
    excellent essay and very essential in your series of great analysis,
    writings you continue to develop and explore with great wisdom.
    Again very inspiring, but on purpose I do not comment so to not blur your very clear, comprehensive
    writing in this format and context.
    Thank you

  • Dear Peter
    Congratulation to this article. Harari’s book is interesting because it takes us on a speed ride through recent human history, which I think is really well done. I am personally less afraid that the Homo Deus train has left the Sapiens station already and we are ending in a two class society. We always had people better off than others also in hunter gatherer societies. And there is no doubt that Homo sapiens as a whole is better of today than in any previous age. AI is certainly very powerful and will help Homo sapiens to solve real world problems today like the stone axe has helped us in the past. I am concerned, however, about the immense concentration of AI power in multinational companies in the US and China. AI recommendation from these companies will provide advice to doctors in the Kantonsspital Aarau and in the hospital in Aquarossa. Will we pay the doctor or the US AI company? But I see an alternative, democratic path forward. As Luis van Ahn, the inventor of CAPTCHA, pointed out in a TED talk, it took the collaboration of 100’000 people to get a person to the moon. Todays’ technology permits the collaboration of millions of people. This means connecting one million brains – each different and each more powerful than IBM Watson – for a specific cause, be it health, rare diseases, or climate change. In order to achieve this, we have to build a new parallel data ecosystem that is not controlled by the winner-takes-it system. What will this new parallel data ecosystem look like? Well, we already have it. Our personal data. Personal data is a unique new resource. It can be copied at near zero marginal costs and every person has similar amounts. We are all billionaires in genome data, make similar numbers of steps and have similar amounts of heart beats. Moreover, individuals are the ultimate aggregators of their personal data. Neither Google nor Facebook will ever be able to aggregate my medical, fitness, genome, shopping and search data without my consent. With a copy of all of these data I can decide whom I will give access to these data. The new EU General Data Protection Regulation explicated states that people are entitled to a copy of all their personal data. In Switzerland, the Recht auf Kopie, which we want to insert into the constitution via a referendum, will achieve the same. I am convinced that empowering people to control their own data will free us from the present digital feudalism and will put AI under the control of humans rather than humans under the control of AI. When we organise the personal data in citizen-controlled personal data cooperatives (www.midata.coop), we will give people not only a political but also a economic vote. People will start to collaborate not only to collect knowledge in Wikipedia but also to address problems in health care, education and environment.

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