Should the market and the continuing advances in science and technology be the ultimate arbiters of where we are headed? Neither are experiencing controls, and politicians are most reluctant to intervene in the innovations in robotics or the internet. As a writer, the internet has proven to be both a great assistant and a serious enemy: It distracts me from concentrated attention, steals my time and space to think, degrades my memory, and tends to attack my eyes, my spinal column and even my social life. I know I am not alone in these observations. I have not joined Facebook nor do I spend my nights tweeting, like the US President, but the younger generation will simply say that I am out of touch. I counter this by pointing out that technology is undermining bookshops, printed newspapers and human touch.
So where are we headed? Do we really want to transform human nature so that in the 21st century consciousness will be uncoupled from intelligence? Yuval Noah Harari, the popular new writer/philosopher, suggests three more mundane developments in the 21st Century which are likely to overwhelm our human experience on this planet:
- Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness. This will lower their value in economic and political terms.
- The human collective will retain its values, but not unique individuals.
- A new elite of upgraded humans will arise.1
Harari suggests that “The most important question in 21st Century economics may well be what to do with all the superfluous people?” Contending that humans have both physical and cognitive abilities, he points out that taxi drivers are likely to go the way horses did during the Industrial Revolution. He asks, “What will happen once algorithms outperform us in remembering, analyzing and recognizing patterns?” I tend to agree with him that in the dystopian world which may be facing us, real jobs and full-time employment will be reserved for an educated, technology literate elite. The new wave of top corporations such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft simply are not mass employers like Ford, General Electric, GM or Kodak used to be.
The progression of humans on this earth, from tilling the soil in 5000 BC to toiling in an Amazon warehouse, is not always obvious. Early in the 20th Century, Frederick Taylor in his celebrated book, Principles of Scientific Management, regarded workers as cogs in the industrial mass production machine. A century later we are asking why turn workers into machines when robots can do their jobs at a lower cost? Technology has produced ever more efficient ways of monitoring human capabilities and comparing these with the costs and greater profits from robots. Alas, money and profits in the capitalist system are becoming more important than human labor.
Some seventy millennia ago the improved capacity of the Homo sapiens mind started the revolution in which the DNA of one living species was able to dominate the planet. Now a second revolution may be on hand in which the scientific and technological advances of artificial intelligence will triumph over the genetic. Indeed such progress will succeed because of the collaboration between people and algorithms suggests Demis Hassabis the co-founder and CEO of DeepMind. He stated that “If we want computers to discover new knowledge, then we must give them the ability to truly learn for themselves.”2 Please note the personification of the computers!
Harrari adds that “high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimizes the authority of algorithms and Big Data.” Just as free-market capitalists believe in the invisible hand of the market so Dataists believe in the invisible hand of the data flow. As the global data processing system becomes all-knowing and all powerful, so connecting to the system will become the source of all meaning. I hesitatingly accept Harrari’s proposal that “We are already becoming tiny chips inside a giant system that nobody really understands.”3
We are now at the stage of accepting that neurons, genes and hormones all obey the same physical and chemical laws of life on earth. However, it will take transcranial stimulators to enable us to decode the electrochemical brain process which determine our perspective, because the two separate brain hemispheres are not always in touch with each other. It is the left hemisphere which is the seat of our verbal abilities including our power to interpret the information that makes sense of our thoughts and experiences. it controls the right hand. The right side is more creative and is crucial in the areas of music, imagination, and intention as well as control of the left hand.
I suspect that ultimately spending untold billions on exploring the brain might be more productive than trillions invested in space exploration. The motivation which underpins the competitive advance of this new technology is in large measure an economic one, as evidenced by the market for shares in high tech. Of course there is also the drive of scientists rushing to publish their pioneering breakthroughs and getting these patented. The growth of technology in many ways resembles that of the market. The market is as blind as it is invisible. However, supply and demand cannot guide all of society. Neither can technology. If everything was determined by the market, the courts, the police, and the army would vanish. So would the entire economy. Mark O’Connell, who had studied this proposition, recognized that growth was mediated by corporations whose real interest was to make eventual profits out of reducing human life into data.4
The efforts of a future in which human minds might be uploaded to computers, is one aspect of Carbon Copies, a “nonprofit organization with a goal of advancing the reverse engineering of neural tissue and complete brains …creating what we call Substrate Independent Minds.” This non-profit group is funded by a number of adventurous millionaire investors who are seeking scientists who work “towards quantum leap discoveries that might rewrite the operating systems of life.”
Somehow I feel human cognition is demeaned when we reduce it to mechanic operations and along computational lines. The internet is proving to be the single most powerful mind-affecting technology ever. As it is the overwhelming flood of new data is extraordinarily disruptive. Many acquaintances suffer from neural addiction to Facebook, Twitter, the latest news and stock market results on top of the steady flow of emails. Studies have shown that cognitive losses from multi-tasking are higher than the cognitive losses from smoking pot. Aided by our smart phones and computers, we are able to multi-task. Apps on our smart phones serve as a calendar, a watch, voice recorder, alarm clock, GPS, camera, flashlight and news headliner. However, there is a cognitive cost for every time we are rapidly switching from one task to the next.5
Surveys show that almost a third of every working day is lost to keeping up with the information flow. The impact on the brain is barely understood and nobody knows how it will affect us socially. What seems certain is that it will transform our existence as homo sapiens has thusfar experienced it. Attention deficit disorders are affecting more and more children. Part of this is ascribed to the swift sequencing of images on the internet. The result is that 3 seconds is about as much time as will hold the attention of kids. How will this affect them in later years?
The universal change of pace already has had extraordinary effects in terms of consumption, obsolescence, renewal, inequality and lots of other conditions. I don’t believe the brain was built for the swift and continuing change that we are currently experiencing. The brain is adaptable and can accommodate small changes here and there, but not the continuity of alterations which are changing the face of the earth, employment, wages, round-the-clock news, ringing mobiles, blogs, and communications. Cyberspace has invaded our public and private lives, our economy and our security as well. While everything is changing, politicians have not appreciated nor understood the social revolution taking place. Few can accept the fundamental and rapid shifts in power. Currently there is no comprehension of who and how would control the new constructs as these arose. AI is certainly going to transform the lives of architects, lawyers and medical professionals. Indeed, it threatens to overwhelm us all. Because we have no idea what the job market will be in 2030 or 2040, we have few notions of what to teach our kids today.
Such realities are far from what may come next: The founder of the 2045 Initiative, Dmitry Itskov, a Russian high tech multimillionaire operating in Silicon Valley, wants “to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced nonbiological carrier and extending life, including to the point of immortality.” One of the projects of the 2045 initiative is to create artificial humanoid bodies that would be controlled through brain-computer interface.
A conference in New York by Global Futures 2045 was focused on “a new evolutionary strategy for humanity.” The organizer, Randall Koene, a “trans-humanist,” sees the mind as a piece of software, an application running on the platform of human flesh. The complex transformation starts with the scanning of the pertinent information stored in the neurons of a person’s brain. Although incredibly complicated because of the seemingly endless connections between the neurons, the scan becomes a blueprint for the reconstruction of neural networks which are then transformed into a computational model.” Ultimately this would allow scientists to create any material form which technology permits. The human could choose to become large or small, with feet or with wings, like a tiger or a tree. The prospects may challenge the human imagination, but such projections of AI advances overfill me with forebodings of ultimate horror.
Ultimately, it is the arts that may become our human sanctuary when AI and robots will have replaced teachers, doctors, lawyers and policemen. Creating new jobs will not be the challenge, it will be creating ones where humans can outperform robots. The world we want will be one advancing direct experience, such as all the arts: music, dance, singing, painting, sculpting, writing , and acting . It would also endorse all the sports, running, swimming, , hiking, climbing, walking, and exercising as well as cooking, gardening, keeping pets, caring, loving, and travelling . The joys of all these activities will go far beyond the speculations of Alan Turing and his successors on the connections between randomness and creative intelligence. There is an urgent need for a re-evaluation of our relationship with the wonders of the new technology. *
Currently there is a widespread belief that the advances of technology, the internet and science are both unstoppable and to a large extent, desirable. Silicon Valley’s most prominent figures hold self-serving views that anything which slows scientific innovation is an attack on the public good.6
I liked Rutger Bregman’s outlook in, Utopia for Realists. This young Dutchman suggests that we can construct a society with visionary ideas that could be implemented, like the plans for a universal basic income. As an aging Utopian,
I have always endorsed building castles in the sky. Shocking ideas which are usually rejected out of hand, often return to become popular and even accepted. The questions of ethics in a world that will be so different are daunting. Optimistically, crises- real or perceived- can spark genuine change. Sometimes this can be mind-blowing: As Harari cautioned, human nature is likely to be transformed in the 21st Century because intelligence is uncoupling from consciousness. The countering encouragement he provides is that ultimately” It is our free will that imbues the universe with meaning.”7
1Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, (2016)p.356
2Demis Hassabis, “The Mind in the Machine,” The Financial Times Magazine, April 22, 2017
3Yuval Noah Harari, “In Big Data We Trust,” The FT Magazine,August 27, 2016, p.14
4Mark O’Connell, “Goodbye Body, Hello Posthuman Machine,” The Observer, March 26, 2017
5Daniel J. Levitin, “Why the Modern World Is Bad for Your Brain,” The Observer, January 18, 2015.
6“Computer Security,” The Economist, April 8, 2017, p.75
7Homo Deus, op.cit
* Regulating the internet would require a change in the political mindset in both Europe and the United States. The invasions of privacy and security as well as the massive tax evasion by the largest internet companies have not sufficed to bring about the essential changes. The two prime decisions made by the creates of the internet and principally by Tim Berners-Lee were that there would be no central control or ownership and that the network could not be dominated by any particular application.