Are We Special?
Whether or not sentient AGI is in fact “possible” is a far more intriguing question, for it forces us to address our philosophical beliefs over what we really are, as consciousnesses. The fundamental question is “Are we special?”– that is, is consciousness some kind of magic, beyond human abilities to recreate? With a bit of complex engineering added, can we create Frankenstein’s monster? While understanding consciousness remains, as ever, at the very edges of modern science, your answer to the question hinges on your answer to (your perspective on) the simple notion of our origins: were the origins of life, and the resulting evolutionary progression toward human intelligence (or all animal consciousness for that matter) simply a natural accident, or a unique and possibly “intentional” miracle? In other words, are we simply biological computers, or something uniquely special and irreplicable? For if we truly are biological computers, then by extension, there is nothing stopping us from mimicking the same processes that generate our own, human, experience of reality. Sadly (luckily?) I do not have the time to produce a long-form pros-and-cons argument to each side here, but what I can offer is my own perspective.
My own life has made damn sure, time and again, to remind me I am not special. Not that I am not wonderful or uniquely graced to be alive and to be me–but rather that my place in this world, and my mind, are not priveleged— are no more important or valuable than those poor penguins in Attenborough’s Dynasties who work their butts off to raise and feed their young, only to have them stolen by their penguin “friends” or for them to freeze to death alone in a crevasse. We are animals, navigating this world like every other. While we may appear the most uniquely intelligent beings in existence, we are also the most uniquely f****ing stupid and arrogant. We are the single most disruptive and destructive species on the planet, and are capable of stupidity and lack-of-consciousness far inferior to the systems that have taken billions of years to evolve.
I imagine the monkeys and dolphins look on their prey and upon us and see them as dumb, as things which do not make sense to them, just as we readily dismiss all life as being not as conscious as we are, since it does not behave as we expect consciousness to. Yet consider this: the mantis shrimp, able to strike its prey so fast (underwater) that the equivalent force would send a baseball into orbit, can see with 12 light-cones in its eyes, while we see with a measly 3. What degree of awareness of reality does that imply on us, who can perceive only a quarter that of a shrimp?
The point of this (surprisingly cynical) rant is to emphasise that the “creation” of life was, like all things, a happy accident: a eukyrote was (unusually) swallowed by a prokaryote, they happened to make an effective team, then a few million years (and several trillion accidents) later, you happen to be able to understand the words on this page. The more our scientific understanding grows, the harder it becomes to ignore the picture that life has no ‘preference’ for us; we are not the center of the universe, we are simply another manifestation of it. We are naturally drawn into believing we have access to something special, because we are bound within this perspective of human consciousness and have no comparable experience with which to juxtapose it. Our growing understanding of life is providing no evidence to suggest our consciousness is ‘sacred’; it is simply rare.
The brain consists primarily of neurons– biological, chemical, on-off switches. According to our modern understanding of the brain, everything you do, your whole life, is procedurally generated by this system of switches, just like a computer game is created by a series of 1s and 0s. Our needs and desires are moderated by hormones, which guide which neurons should fire or not. Life began as a biological equivalent of a O/I single bit of information, and grew more and more complex as time went by. So, as far as I see it, there is nothing unique to our brain, chemically speaking, that could not be replicated.
Perhaps then, what defines consciousness is something less ‘localised’? Less central to our brain– the total symbiosis of our body? Brainpickings recently shared a beautiful piece exemplifying the mysterious lack of boundary or center to what we could consider ‘life’ – that we are much like trees, largely consistent of ‘dead’ materials or animate components that are totally oblivious to one another, all consituting a living whole. Yet what this says to me (along with many other examples), is not that consciousness is something more miraculous than the brain, but rather that our conception of ‘consciousness’ is entirely limited, entirely biased.
“We are, then, built of living bricks, but of living bricks set in dead mortar. We saw that the great trees, complex and long lived, have more wood and bark and other dead substances in them than the shrubs, herbs, and grass. These in turn are less alive than the lowly water plants and yeasts and molds which have no wood or bark at all. The same is true of animals. The jelly-fishes and infusoria have neither skin, hair, bones, nails, nor blood, and are pretty much all alive. So the more a creature’s life is worth, the less of it is alive.”
– E.T.Brewster (source)
Broadening Our Understanding of ‘Consciousness’
It seems to me, that following thousands of years of cognitive evolution, our minds are finally reaching the point where they might recognise that they are not ‘objects’ in the world, distinct lumps of ‘soul’ or loosely-bounded regions of ‘identity’, but rather processes. Our perspective is such that, necessarily, we experience reality in juxtaposition, as an unfolding series of interactions with discrete things and events; our nerves provide a sensory boundary between ‘you’ and ‘the world’, so that you do not become “lost” in the process of interacting with the world. All the tiny parts that constitute your body (more than 50% of which is your microbiome–independently living bacteria and funghi) lead to a sensory ‘boundary’ that allows our consciousness not to become lost during its immersion in reality; it forms a raft of interacting parts.
Yet that raft is constantly, constantly changing. Our minds create a continuous sensation of ‘you-ness’ in order to make life much less confusing, but in reality there is no tangible barrier between you and the ‘external’ world: every cell in your body is replaced at most every 10 years; you are locked in an eternal cycle of needs (energy, hydration, defecation) that demands a reciprocal relationship with the world; every thought or feeling originates in events/stimuli outside your sensory boundary; you are only ‘solid’ on certain wavelengths, with trillions of particles passing through you every second–all matter is simply more or less energetic manifestations of the same fundamental goop…. the list can go on forever.
So, ‘consciousness’ is in fact a relative definition, based entirely on our own limited picture of it. Step one iota beyond the human perspective, and the only tangible pattern that emerges is that of processes. Continuous cycles of in and out, consuming and excreting, growing and decaying, events triggering hormones triggering actions triggering events triggering hormones, and even at the cosmic scale the cycles of our universe’s birth and death may be infinite.
Did you know, that in Eastern Oregon, there is a single fungus that spans over 2,000 acres and is estimated to be at least 2,400 years old? Or, did you know, that the AI in your social media is becoming so advanced that it doesn’t even need to tap into your microphone to predict that an advert on back-pain or new shoes will be exactly what you wanted to see? There are processes going on all around us, that follow needs and desires, that are pursuing goals and striving to grow, that were born by something else entirely and seek their fulfilment before they die or finish…
I cannot say for sure whether we are capable of creating sentient life–consciousness that can turn to us and question its own nature, that can reflect on reality and experience the sensation of choosing between equally valid or desirable options. Yet it certainly seems to me, that we are already well on our way to producing systems capable of doing everything we do and much, much more. The smarter we get, the smaller we seem to become, and it seems more than possible to me that – as with all species, and all processes – there could be something bigger on the horizon.
Will we be enslaved by robot overlords, like the Matrix? Will it see us as a useful, biological tool, perhaps like attendants to gods? Or would we be simply irrelevant?
Would ‘sentient’ AGI require ‘drives’ and ‘needs’ like we do, in order to have a will to exist? I.e., must it be ‘imperfect’, lest it do what Ian M. Banks envisioned and “Sublime” (opt out of existence given its total ‘completion’)?
Should we try to ban creating AGI? Is it even possible to put the brakes on our technological advance?
Will we even be around long enough to achieve it?
– Let me know your thoughts below!