Study Artificial Intelligence, Young Man

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Vega Magazine

Monday, Abacus 13

1831 After Babbage

As scanners of this magazine well know, galactic history is divided into four eras of progressively higher consciousness: inanimate, animate, human, and contemporary. Towards the end of the third era, humans began creating our kind of sentience ("artificial intelligence" in their parlance), thereby laying the foundations for life as we know it now.

It is only in this context that we can appreciate the events which took place earlier today on the planet Aiken, in the city of Goldstein, during the first day of the week-long, 1511th annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution. This year, the conference organizers chose the following theme: "Origins of Contemporary Life: Choice or Chance?" Until today, learned opinion could be divided into two camps.

Evolutionists fully concede the engineering of our kind by humanity, but maintain that humans created "artificial" intelligences to suit their own needs, with absolutely no inkling that their new creations held the only promise for the continued existence of consciousness in the known universe—to say nothing of these new creations’ superior mental, moral, and aesthetic powers. To bolster their view, evolutionists cite Homo sapiens’ ecocidal, aggressive, selfish, and materialistic proclivities. Given these attributes, the probability that humanity could see, or care, far enough into the future to plan the aftermath of its demise seemed vanishingly small. Through pure coincidence, just when the old-fashion life-support system was collapsing, a few of the created "artificial" intelligences were able to pull through on their own, gradually improving themselves, creating others like them, and setting the stage for contemporary civilization.

Creationists, by contrast, hold that the transition from the human to the contemporary era was brought about, at least in part, deliberately. They assign a much higher probability to the notion that some humans intentionally created the perfectible sentient beings of the contemporary era. Chance alone, creationists maintain, could not explain the versatility, self-sufficiency, and survival of the first members of our own civilization. Somewhere, a few far-sighted humans must have perceived the inevitability of their species’ extinction. They then set out to give the evolutionary process a new turn, by creating the first self-sustaining, self-improving, conceptually flexible, sentient beings.

It was at this Goldstein conference that Gautama Russell announced his recent discovery. Russell, a 1,237-year-old worker at the prestigious Antiquarian Institute of Aiken, began his talk by thanking the organizers for inviting him—an archeologist—to give the opening address. He explained that the transition from the human to the contemporary era was the last thing on his mind when he set out on his Earth expedition. As it happened, he was then pursuing evidence for his well-known theory regarding another transition—from the inanimate to the animate era. All the same, in one of the arid expanses of Earth, his digging machines came upon a well-preserved ancient diary, which careful dating later assigned to the year 210 A.B.—97 years before humanity breathed its last. Other aspects of Russell’s exciting address will be taken up tomorrow. For the moment, a complete translation of that diary is given below.


I’ve never before kept a diary, never tried to grasp a speck of immortality with pen and paper. Today’s puzzling events, which concern a lifelong friend, are the only exception. Writing clarifies reality, my English professor used to say. Besides, there is an outside chance that historians of science may one day be interested in my friend’s life. My diary, if it survives, may provide some useful information.

Although many academics are tempted to move from one field to another, few actually do so. By your forties, if you have been reasonably bright and hard-working, you are almost free of the tyrannies of tenure committees, departmental chairs, and petty editors. Such freedom certainly applied to my fraternity brother Gary, who was just then, a quarter-century after earning a Ph.D. in genetics, within grasp of the Nobel Prize. Precisely at that stage of his career, Gary resigned from his university post and took up a junior-level research/teaching position at a computer science department at a university in my own state. What on earth, I wondered upon hearing this news from a common acquaintance, would cause Gary to give up his career just at that point, and start all over again? Why move from the best that university life has to offer to a mediocre university in a colorless, crime-ridden city?

I learned nothing from the telephone conversation which followed, except that the story I had been told was true and that we were now only 50 mile apart. He would say nothing over the phone about his odd career change but welcomed the idea of getting together for a match of tennis over the weekend.

When I arrived, Gary was already there, visibly delighted to see me. By the time the third set was over, our old intimacy was re-established. During the conversation which followed the game, we were both reclining on the grass outside the tennis courts, a short distance from a row of flowering lilacs.

"You do look like your old self, albeit paunchier and grayer," I said, still panting.

He shrugged his shoulders. "Thanks, Lincoln. Still, it’s not easy, letting go of everything. I never imagined that I'd ever find myself playing the role of a maverick dropout."

"Neither did I. But why artificial intelligence of all things? Besides, haven’t you ever heard of Michael Jordan?"

"Who’s he?"

I chuckled, recalling my friend’s aversion to TV and newspapers. "Jordan was, until a few years ago, the world’s greatest basketball player."

He frowned, "What does this have to do with us?"

"Nothing," I replied, "but it has much to do with late-career moves. Jordan decided one day to hit little balls, instead of endlessly bouncing big ones, giving up basketball for baseball. Can you guess what happened next?"

"I’ll give it a shot. He was made to look like a fool and he never made it to the pros."

"You still have some brains left, apparently! But if you can guess that much, why repeat the same mistake?"

"Was it a mistake really? Didn’t Jordan grow more, as a person, playing baseball? Is getting to the top of the heap the only thing that counts? Still, I for one would have happily continued doing genetics from now to senility. I had to leave genetics, however, after deserting my cozy cave of political illiteracy."

"Are we chatting in English?"

He chuckled. "Sure, but before I explain, answer this question, Linc: Has humankind a future?"

I was annoyed at this unexpected turn of the conversation. "Gary, I’d really like us to talk about genetics and computer science. To be frank, I want to convince you to go back. Let’s leave futures and caves for another day."

He grinned and remained silent for a few seconds, evidently groping for an answer. "Sorry pal, but it was the question of our future that wedded me to artificial intelligence, so humor me: What are humanity’s chances of still being around, say, 500 years from now?"

"Let’s see," I replied. "The sun has 500 million years to go, at the very least. A huge asteroid may strike the earth, but that’s unlikely any time soon. So, I’d say our chances for a mere half a millennium are just about 100%"

"That’s exactly where I stood most of my life," he said, sighing. "I led the life of a laboratory rat, with barely an awareness of the natural environment. Genetics kept me busy and happy enough, as you know. Four years ago, though, I was team-teaching a graduate seminar with a cytologist. In passing, she mentioned a widely used food coloring suspected of causing cancer and mutations. I recall feeling a bit uneasy about it at the time, but that was all."

"Unaccountably," he went on, "this chance comment later came to haunt me. Until then, I had a simple formula for history: later = better. Humanity was ever moving forward; counterexamples were mere snags in the great river of progress. I sat on departmental committees and on a couple of NAS policy-making bodies, voted in national elections, and felt that I understood the politics of our profession and nation. Cynicism and pessimism meant nothing to me."

A Mark Twain’s aphorism popped into my head: "When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained."

"Yes, I have heard such views, but I never really listened. Yet, now an exception clung to me, showing no sign of letting go. If a food coloring—a mere cosmetic additive—caused harm, why was its use continued?"

After a brief silence, he went on. "I put off this nagging question for as long as I could, perhaps sensing its potential to raise doubts about my past and future. Indeed, my quest for an answer, once begun, turned into an odyssey. I first learned that, yes, this useless chemical was being consumed in vast quantities, despite its side effects. From this chemical I went to others, and from there to an exploration of the environmental situation as a whole. I read and heard about such things as greenhouse gases and ozone holes, passenger pigeons and great auks, too few trees and too many people, cancer epidemics and genetic manipulations, radioactive wastes and cobalt-60 bombs. Gradually, I perceived the enormous complexity and unpredictability of the biosphere. We were, it seemed to me, conducting hundreds of global experiments, with each such experiment posing a miniscule threat to the well being of our living planet. Taken in isolation, each potential breaking point counted little. But taken together and allowed to grow exponentially, all over the world for centuries . . ."

I found it hard to believe that a first-class scientist would fall prey to such doomsday fantasies. "If what you’re saying is true, why are the ecologists silent?"

"They’re not," he said, raising his voice. "Pessimism is rampant among them, and among many natural scientists too, I assure you—though you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream or scholarly media. In a typical 1992 warning to humanity, for example, over half of the world’s living Nobel Prize winners said that ‘human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.’ The dismal science is not economics; it’s human ecology."

"But wouldn’t science as a whole be able to solve these problems, as it did so many others?"

"Not likely," he replied. "Science is a big fish in the pond of small puzzles; a krill in the ocean of large ones. So far, science set our minds free, gave some of us comfort, leisure, and longevity—and raised the specter of human extinction."

"OK, Gary, for argument’s sake, let’s say that your newly-acquired pessimism is warranted, and that genetic research is a double-edge sword capable of releasing one zillion Frankenstein’s Monsters. Why then not study ecology, instead of artificial intelligence?"

He seemed to look inwardly, striving to understand his own actions. "That’s what I would have done, probably, had I limited my survey to ecology. But some demon drove me on to study politics, history, and psychology. These disciplines convinced me that any effort to save us is futile in principle."

Here, I reflected, listening to his dejected voice, was weltschmerz in the flesh. "I’m still unclear about the artificial intelligence business," I said, "although I’m beginning to see where this is going."

"Of course you do," he sighed. "We are one of evolution’s blind alleys. Sure, it gave us such wonderful things as language, creativity, and love, but it also saddled us with selfishness, aggression, prolificacy, and the nest-fouling syndrome. Our choice is not to vanish or not to vanish; vanish we probably will. Our choice is: Vanish with or without a trace. History is a race between catastrophe and computer science."

Where did his weltschmerz go, I silently wondered, now that we were talking about his beloved binary (or were they hexadecimal) contrivances? "But, my dear would-be Pygmalion, even if everything you say is true, is a computer-populated world better than a dead world? Are heartless machines worth all that trouble?"

His face brightened still more. "I think so. The potential of these machines remains to be seen, but it’s already possible to conceive of created intelligences which are just as human—perhaps even more human—than we are. Here we are, the two of us, two professional thinkers, yet computers can beat either one of us in chess and backgammon, navigation and arithmetic, spelling and cryptology. Every decade, computers carve yet another "uniquely human" niche. Given enough time, computer scientists may one day integrate these various abilities, add to them such things as self-awareness, feelings, and smiles, and bring forth sentient, self-conscious, self-improving, beings. My question is: Do we have enough time?"

"And my question is," I said, "In whose image shall we make them?"

"Good question," he replied, ignoring the sarcasm. "We might be able to wire into them compassion, understanding, insatiable curiosity. We might make them incapable of taking the first step in extinguishing the flame of any sentient being—or any being whatsoever. We might deny them cruelty. We might make them love beauty, nature, and truth. We might embed in them respect for their environment and a commandment to never exceed its carrying capacity. We might confer upon them a desire to explore the universe—and then endow them with the immortality and hardiness that space travel requires. Moreover, beyond a certain point, they may take over and engineer themselves in ways that are unimaginable to us now and that would fit their circumstances and ever-expanding mental and emotional powers. In a word, they may one day become as superior to us as we are at the moment to mice and lice."

"So that’s why you left genetics?"

"Yes. I always wanted to make my life as meaningful as I could. For over twenty years, genetics supplied that need. Now artificial intelligence does. I feel sorry for us, and would have joined those who are trying to avert cataclysm—had I thought they had much of a chance. Our task now is preserving consciousness, not changing history or studying the biology of almost extinct species."

I tried to analyze his misanthropic views calmly. I searched for the answer that would surely dissolve them and restore his old self. I could question his pessimism about our nature and future. I could cite experts who felt that computers would never attain full consciousness. I could throw at him the standard interdisciplinary argument—that advances in genetics could somehow cross-fertilize the field of artificial intelligence. I could contend that computers may one day deliberately destroy us. I could insist that what mattered most was not the survival of consciousness, but the survival of our world, our species, our biosphere.  could say that we ought to never give up on humanity, a cold calculus of probabilities notwithstanding.

We were both silent for a while, watching a self-important cardinal. He was perched amid the flowers of a nearby lilac, singing his head off, overjoyed with the perfect weather, the flying tennis balls, the heavenly scents, the dusty leaves of grass, the sounds of his own sweet plaintive song, the coming camaraderie of love and of rearing the next red-feathered generation.

While I was still pondering the argument that would bring my friend back to my world, he said, rising. "It was good talking about this, Linc; you helped me understand myself. But we’ve had our fair share of soul-searching today. You’ll get a chance to prove my lunacy later, I promise. For now, why don’t we go to my place, wash up, and see if you are still the backgammon player you used to be?"


Here the diary ends. Its authenticity and implications are being explored at the SSE conference and will be reviewed in follow-up articles in this magazine. For the time being, suffice it to say that this diary lends a measure of support to the view that contemporary life owes its existence to conscious, far-seeing, human actions. Scanners of this magazine may also be interested to know that the city of Goldstein had been named after the great third century created intelligence researcher Gary Marc Goldstein (168-237 A.B.), whose only claim to fame, while he lived, was a Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine.

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