With technological change occurring so rapidly today, there is a lot of speculation about what human life is going to be like in the future. A major line of speculation revolves around something called the singularity, a moment in time when machine intelligence becomes superior to human intelligence. There is considerable variation in the prediction of when this moment will actually happen, although many people say it will occur by 2045. And although the idea is that the singularity will have a dramatic change on human life, no one can say for sure what that change will be.
One very dramatic theory is that propounded by Louis Del Monte, a physicist and an author who has written a book called The Artificial Intelligence Revolution. In an article written by Dylan Love for Business Insider on July 5, Del Monte paints a picture of a future world where machines become independent and self-sufficient and displace humans as the top species on the planet. Meantime, most humans will become cyborgs – part-human and part-machine - in order to attain what they experience as immortality. Nevertheless, machines may turn on humans as “an unpredictable and dangerous species”. Future machines, with their supposedly increased self-awareness, will find humans too violent and too disposed to developing computer viruses.
There are two topics I want to discuss with regard to the singularity: the alternate future described by Del Monte, and a reiteration of why machines can never truly replace humans. With regard to Del Monte’s vision, I would like to first start by reviewing some of my ideas regarding human change during the years of the modern technological revolution. One of my major themes has been that humans have not been able to evolve as fast as their machines, and this has resulted in a situation where the human nervous system is not able to comfortably absorb the configurations of stimuli created by modern technological living environments. People today are understimulated by the frictionless vacuum environments created, environments like high rise apartments that are lifted above the movement of life on earth, frictionless transit within cars on smooth streets, and isolated suburban homes. People are overstimulated by static-filled tension-pocket environments like noisy crowded downtowns, all kinds of noisy speeding vehicles, the noise and dust of building and highway construction, air pollution, and soil pollution. People today are never able to feel fully grounded in their living environment as a result of sensory distortion. They experience sensory distortion as something that is damaging to their psychological health.
People try to deal with this sensory distortion through two distinct postures. One of them is conative acceleration where a person speeds up his life in order to create his own manageable static-filled, tension-pocket, friction-filled life experiences that can block out the sensory distortion of technology-based activities in the field of experience that surrounds him. Blocking overstimulation or understimulation in the external sensory world with one’s own internal overstimulation. The other posture is conative anesthesia, where a person slows down his life activity and withdraws from the external sensory world into a state of understimulation. A lot of this posture is handled through activities like yoga and meditation and through drugs. It can also be handled by falling into depression. Conative anesthesia blocks sensory distortion by basically causing a person to numb himself.
But still another posture to take in order to deal with sensory distortion would be to become part-machine, to become a cyborg. A machine is built to be only receptive to defined discrete stimuli and does not suffer as a result of a lack of organic flowing blendable continual stimuli, the kind of stimuli that give a person the experience of grounding. The latter kind of stimuli are only important for the life of an organism. A machine does not consider a configuration of stimuli that is unusually high in defined discrete stimuli to be an experiential imbalance.
So becoming part-machine means minimizing the sensory distortion that tends to make a person feel uncomfortable. But as a side-effect, it also tends to lead to the fragmenting of the human sense of self. The cyborg is composed of two very different components that do not really merge together. The machine part of the cyborg is not susceptible to the organic perishability to which the animal part is susceptible. So the cyborg can never really experience himself as a cohesive whole. On the other hand, becoming a cyborg does mean that a person is making a serious attempt to reach a real immortality by becoming in effect a machine whose defective parts can always be replaced.
But what would happen if a person eventually trying to replace his whole body, maybe including his brain, with machine parts? To the extent that he no longer has any of the physical presence to which his sense of self had been previously attached, is there any way that we can say this person is still a human? Even if the person was somehow able to transfer the content of his animal brain to his machine brain, can one also transfer the content of the human mind (assuming we continue to think in terms of the mind/body dichotomy)?
Returning now to Del Monte’s vision of the future, perhaps, unlike what Del Monte proposes, humans will become so much like machines, that they will no longer represent a threat to them. Humans will approach the machine essence by becoming increasingly machine-like cyborgs, and machines, particularly as robots, will approach the human essence by becoming increasingly human-like androids. The increasingly complex interaction between humans and machines will lead to more and more mirroring and modeling among themselves, until they resemble one another to a great extent.
To me, this is an even more frightening scenario than having machines neatly displacing humans. At least, in the latter case, humans are still to some extent conscious of their nature as organisms and are capable of fighting back against a machine takeover. However, if humans become increasingly immersed in their cyborg evolution, then they are giving up their human essence from within. Then there is little left to save of their humanity, little left to fight for.
It is important to remember that all the increasing complexity of machines can only imitate but never re-create the basic core of human nature. Even androids will always be machines undergoing certain discrete defined mechanical processes that are triggered by discrete defined stimuli. No matter how independent certain robotic machines may appear, they are not stimulated by the organic flowing blendable continual stimuli that are the foundation of being alive as an organism. And these robotic machines are never stimulated to develop a cohesive organic sense of self capable of making, preserving and receiving organic imprints. It is not necessary for these machines to create organic imprints as vehicles for surrogate immortalities. And by continually replacing worn-out parts – both machine and animal – people who become cyborgs don’t need to think in terms of surrogate immortalities.
Without a cohesive sense of self, machines can never develop the conscious awareness capable of sensing organic imprints in such a way that the imprints are converted into rich vibrant life experiences. No matter how complex they get, the main focus of machines is going to be functionality, getting from point a to point b, rather than simply feeling alive.
Machines are, of course, capable of understanding code connections (a representing b, etc.). But they are not capable of more ambiguous symbolic connections, the connections between phenomena based on blurry flowing blendable continual overlapping resemblances. These connections provide deep resonating meaning and a deep mental grounding for people and their cohesive senses of self. These symbolic connections provide the foundation for emotional bonding based on overlapping resemblances and deep connective meaning, with other people, with other organisms, with the world and with the cosmos. They are the foundation for all kinds and all levels of creativity. Without symbolic connections, life activity is simply going through the motions, which is basically what even the most complex machines do.
These are thoughts to keep in mind when we are tempted by what seems to be immortality, as we very gradually move towards becoming cyborgs. Again, I feel that the real danger to humanity may not be robots turning on human beings, but human beings turning against their own human nature. We have to constantly remind ourselves that there are values in being organically human, a state of being that no machine, however sophisticated it may be, can ever replicate.
(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow