When intelligence escapes the constraints of biology...

By Gene Miller, October 2013

If life is becoming an app, what’s next?

I just read that a matrix printer will be able soon to print living tissue. Stick around for a while and you’ll be able to get new kidneys at Staples. It’s just another skip along the way to a perfected life. Remember, nothing gleams like the future.

Actually, I have seen the future, and it’s soft. Not fluffy, three-ply tissue soft. Software soft. What’s quickly taking shape in our time—for emphasis, in our time...you, me, right now—is a technological transformation, the latest in a remarkably short list of evolutionary novelties (or inevitabilities), promising staggering consequences for the way nature is currently ordered. 

The last time this happened it was opposable thumbs; and nature was laughing with us on that one. This time the joke could be on us, but we may have to wait a half century—say, when your grand-kids pension out. In the meantime, we’ll stay busy surviving (or not) eco-apocalypse resulting from environmental overshoot; and that could delay a technology takeover for the global half-billion who may live through ecological collapse. 

In that case, all bets are simply postponed a century or two while we regroup, repair and march on, leaving answerless for that brief interim the questions that drive us: What’s the meaning and purpose of life? Is human existence directed by intention or a plan? And tellingly: Do we star in the movie forever? 

The transformation of consciousness by technology—the boundless reach of the Internet, the current creation of “intelligent” machines—leaves me feeling, to strike a movie image, like the shoeless, shirt-torn hysteric who escapes from the subterranean laboratory of the antennaed, mind-melding pod-people from Planet X and runs into the arms of the police screaming, “They’re here! You gotta believe me!” I lack the emotional and moral brawn to stand alone with my arms around this bombshell: We’re becoming our programs!

We’re absorbing the sensibilities, tone and values, the silent mood and emotional opacity of online reality (if reality may be said to exist online). Consider that the Internet is both a product of, and a thing that stands uneasily apart from, human intelligence. More pointedly, we have invested the Internet and other bits of connected technology with massive amounts of our intellect, craft skill, and creativity and have, unsurprisingly, produced an intelligent, responsive and creative system. People will tell you that the best sites and apps on the web are “intuitive.” Understatement. I think they’re pre-conscious.

Honestly, how long do you think it’ll be before some nerdy clipboard type, investigating “system anomalies” in one of the massive mainframe servers, eliminates causes one by one and arrives at the inevitable conclusion that the judders are being generated by something softly scratching to get out?

Dwight Garner, in a clever parental confession in the NY Times, describes the world his teenagers inhabit: “My kids are smart, kind and more or less well adjusted. I like that they are comfortable and alert in the wired world, able to fish in it like young bears in a salmon stream. But increasingly I am terrified for them. It’s more apparent every day that screens have incrementally stolen them from themselves, and stolen them from us.”

He cites the just-released The App Generation, a book he labels “a slab of groaning sociology that nonetheless possesses this interesting insight: Young people growing up in our time are not only immersed in apps, they’ve come to think of the world as an ensemble of apps, to see their lives as a string of ordered apps or perhaps, in many cases, a single, extended, cradle-to-grave app.”

Thomas Nagel, author of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, grapples with the question of life’s evolutionary purposes: “Since the long process of biological evolution is responsible for the existence of conscious organisms, and since a purely physical process cannot explain their existence, it follows that biological evolution must be more than just a physical process, and the theory of evolution, if it is to explain the existence of conscious life, must become more than just a physical theory.”

I’m in sympathy with Nagel’s view, but I worry about the delicate architecture of his argument. The Internet, given its speed and growing ambit, seems quite capable of evolving from the synthetic “tool” it is now that vastly extends our powers, to something at first haltingly self-generating and then, by degrees, autonomously self-aware (self-conscious) within the squint-visible future, just at the shimmering horizon where the tracks appear to merge; and may, at some point along that trajectory, make Nagel’s thesis simply irrelevant, a kind of artifact, a romantic, spiritual narrative, a poetics. I note this without affront or sarcasm. I’m a big fan of romantic, spiritual narrative. 

Anticipate, not in some magically distant future, but something with the number 20  or 21, the presence of non-human “persons” with non-human minds—“people” who are made, not biologically born.

All of this will happen not because it should, but because it can. Remember, a mere century ago, it was credible (if silly) to say: “If God had meant Man to fly, He would have given him wings.” Technological advance—if history has lessons to offer here—is not constrained by the moral sensibilities and admonitions of the day, the limits or failures of policy, or by the inability of warring nations, ideologies or sects to get along. Yes, there are setbacks. Yes, the record is littered with stories of discovery frustrated or ruined by rock fights or geological chaos; but, as history demonstrates, invention and technical discovery seem generally able to survive political clusterfucks, moral fright or the roils of nature. I mean, if you reflect seriously on the meaning of the word “progress,” what definition do you come up with?

I’m an easily-dismissed, wild-eyed catastrophist, but you might want to listen more receptively to the sober Huw Price, the Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, England and one of the founders there of CSER: the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. Speaking about the possible impact of artificial general intelligence (AGI), he notes: “At some point, this century or next, we may well be facing one of the major shifts in human history—perhaps even cosmic history—when intelligence escapes the constraints of biology.”

That’s a phrase worthy of a drum roll: “...when intelligence escapes the constraints of biology.” 

A Cambridge University media release, prefiguratively titled “Humanity’s last invention and our uncertain future,” goes on to note: “Huw Price’s interest in AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) risk stems from a chance meeting with Jaan Tallinn, a former software engineer who was one of the founders of Skype, which—like Google and Facebook—has become a digital cornerstone. In recent years Tallinn has become an evangelist for the serious discussion of ethical and safety aspects of AGI, and Price was intrigued by his view.”

We homo sapiens have, for Tallinn, become optimized—in the sense that we now control the future, having grabbed the reins from four billion years of natural evolution. Our technological progress has by and large replaced evolution as the dominant, future-shaping force.

We know that “dumb matter” can think, say Price and Tallinn—biology has already solved that problem, in a container the size of our skulls. That’s a fixed cap to the level of complexity required, and it seems irresponsible, they argue, to assume that the rising curve of computing complexity will not reach and even exceed that bar in the future.

If intelligence escapes the constraints of biology, may it be said that since we authored it, we intended it; and that from the outset it was our task to release this new possibility, in much the same way we believe or imagine that nature (some credit a Higher Power) “intended” us—that we were an inevitability and an improvement on what came before, not an accident or random event in once-chaotic but ever-simplifying evolutionary history? But regardless whether you consider evolution as nature indifferent to outcomes, or favour a more purposive narrative (Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto”—“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp…” comes to mind), the near-term prospect of machine consciousness now seems strangely plausible and unsurprising, even.

On the question of whether we star forever or have only a walk-on role, speculative writing, in exhuming our sputtering future, has had a field day detailing the hardly accidental coincidence of ecological collapse and the spreading dawn of artificial intelligence—in other words, the science-tinged premise that some entity or presence may continue the arc of consciousness after we’re diminished or gone. To which people respond: yes, but what’s the point if such an entity lacks our feelings, our capacity for accidental discovery, our zigzag creativity? But, of course, that’s exactly the argument of such writing: Humanity’s “job” is nearly done. Dip into The Transhumanist Reader or Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era if you want a full meal of such thought.

Perhaps the meaning of all existence is novelty, and within such a scheme the meaning, the purpose of human life, is to conceive the thinking entity capable of travelling beyond the flaws and pain of mortality itself, the existential burden of self-consciousness made “inefficient” by feeling. Maybe the only way to do that is to create a form of post-biological “life,” or existence, if you prefer that word. 

Maybe some volitional entity in the future will regard our achievements, our poetry, art, hopeful texts and historical records with a studied, museological, interest—observing how our quest for self-perfection was hobbled not by a lack of good intentions or vision, but simply by our design flaws; how our animal essence, the very stuff we’re made of, and the rules and limits of biological evolution got in the way and made us…a disappointment.

“We’re only human,” we say. 

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.