In the otherwise thought provoking and excellent book, “Heartificial Intelligence: Embracing our Humanity to Maximize Machines”, John C. Havens uncharacteristically misses the point of one of the scientists he reports on:

Jürgen Schmidhuber is a computer scientist known for his humor, artwork, and expertise in artificial intelligence. As part of a recent speech at TEDxLausanne, he provides a picture of technological determinism similar to [Martine] Rothblatt’s, describing robot advancement beyond human capabilities as inevitable. […] [H]e observes that his young children will spend a majority of their lives in a world where the emerging robot civilization will be smarter than human beings. Near the end of his presentation he advises the audience not to think with an “us versus them” mentality regarding robots, but to “think of yourself and of humanity in general as a small stepping stone, not the last one, on the path of the universe towards more and more unfathomable complexity. Be content with that little role in the grand scheme of things.”

It’s difficult to comprehend the depths of Schmidhuber’s condescension with this statement. Fully believing that he is building technology that will in one sense eradicate humanity, he counsels nervous onlookers to embrace this decimation. […] [T]he inevitability of our demise is assured, but at least our tiny brains provide some fodder for the new order ruling our dim-witted progeny. Huzzah! Be content!

This is not a healthy attitude.

But this is not Schmidhuber’s attitude. It is more of a coping skill for facing the inevitable and seeing a grand scheme to the unfolding of the universe.

In The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox is tortured by placing him in the Total Perspective Vortex, which reduces its victim to blubbering insanity by showing them how insignificant they are on the scale of the universe. Unfortunately it fails in Beeblebrox’s case because his ego is so huge that he comes away reassured that he was a “really cool guy.” Havens is so desperate to avoid the perspective of humanity’s place in the universe that he mistakes or misstates Schmidhuber’s position as embracing the eradication of humanity. Schmidhuber said nothing of the sort, but foresaw a co-evolution of mankind and AI where the latter would surpass our intellectual capabilities. There is nothing condescending in this.

When I give a talk, someone will invariably raise what amounts to human exceptionalism. “When we’ve created machines that outclass us intellectually, what will humans do? What will be the point of living?” I usually reply with an analogy: Imagine that all the years of SETI and Project Ozma and HRMS  have paid off, and we are visited by an alien race. Their technological superiority is not in doubt – they built the spaceships to get to us, after all – and like the aliens of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, they are also evolved emotionally, philosophically, compassionately, and spiritually. Immediately upon landing, they show us how to cure cancer, end aging, and reach for the stars. Do we reject this cornucopia because we feel inferior to these visitors? Is our collective ego so large and fragile that we would rather live without these advances than relinquish the top position on the medal winners’ podium of sentient species?

Accepting a secondary rank is a role that’s understood by many around the world. I have three citizenships: British, American, Canadian. As an American, of course, you’re steeped in countless numerical examples of superiority from GDP to – Hello? We landed on the Moon. Growing up in Britain, we were raised in the shadow of the Empire on a diet of past glories that led us to believe that we were still top dog if you squinted a bit, and certainly if you had any kind of a retrospective focus, which is why the British take every opportunity possible to remind Americans of their quantity of history.  But as a Canadian, you have to accept that you could only be the global leader in some mostly intangible ways such as politeness, amount of fresh water per capita, best poutine, etc.

Most of the world outside the USA already knows what it’s like to share the planet with a more powerful race of hopefully benign intent. So they may find it easier to accept a change in the pecking order.

 

Posted by Peter Scott

Peter Scott’s résumé reads like a Monty Python punchline: half business coach, half information technology specialist, half teacher, three-quarters daddy. After receiving a master’s degree in Computer Science from Cambridge University, he has worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an employee and contractor for over thirty years, helping advance our exploration of the Solar System. Over the years, he branched out into writing technical books and training. Yet at the same time, he developed a parallel career in “soft” fields of human development, getting certifications in NeuroLinguistic Programming from founder John Grinder and in coaching from the International Coaching Federation. In 2007 he co-created a convention honoring the centennial of the birth of author Robert Heinlein, attended by over 700 science fiction fans and aerospace experts, a unique fusion of the visionary with the concrete. Bridging these disparate worlds positions him to envisage a delicate solution to the existential crises facing humanity. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two daughters, writing the Human Cusp blog on dealing with exponential change.

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