1 The many tsunami’s to come
Science and technology are changing the world at an ever accelerating rate. The disruption that technology has created through globalization is a tiny leading wave of the many tsunamis to come. The futurist and artiﬁcial intelligence researcher, Ray Kurzweil, in The Singularity is Near, argues that we are approaching a change so dramatic that it qualiﬁes as a singularity. That is a point at which all the rules and assumptions that worked before fail. This will occur when we are able to project human intelligence onto computers.
Kurzweil argues persuasively that by 2023 a $1,000 computer will have the complexity of the human brain in terms of number of operations per second. He further predicts that by 2030 we will be able to scan the living brain in enough detail to completely emulate its functioning. The implications of artiﬁcial intelligence on a par with human intelligence are staggering. What happens when robots are cheaper than even the most exploited of humans for almost every job? What happens when machine intelligence expands exponentially with the increasing power of computers and biological intelligence remains relatively stagnant?
2 The evolution of consciousness
The appropriate context for these issues is the evolution of life and consciousness. Through us evolution has become conscious of itself and is on the verge of consciously controlling its future development. We will be able to do this through artiﬁcial intelligence and through mastery of the genome once we understand the functioning of the proteins the genome builds. This evolutionary event is in the same league as the evolution of complex organisms from single cells or the evolution of sex. In some ways it is more signiﬁcant because it has the potential to accelerate evolution much faster than any previous advance.
It raises the deepest and most profound questions of meaning and value. Fundamental to these is the relationship between the evolution of physical structure and the evolution of consciousness. If we fully emulate the structure of the human brain in silicon will the simulated brain experience consciousness? Because of the subjective nature of consciousness, there is no way to decide this question with certainty. If you ask the simulated mind, it will respond like the mind being simulated.
The assumption I make about this has roots in many spiritual traditions. Variations of it have been proposed by several contemporary thinkers from the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, to Ray Kurzweil. I assume that consciousness in some form is the essence of physical structure. Of course only physical entities that have the capacities of sensation, memory and communication can describe their conscious experience. But other animate or even inanimate matter may still have some form of immediate experience albeit much simpler than what we experience. When does the fading consciousness of someone dying of Alzheimer’s end completely? When does consciousness begin in the developing human embryo or fetus? The simplest assumption is that it never begins or ends but is only transformed as the structure of the brain and nervous system is transformed.
3 The miracle of it all
If consciousness is the essence of physical structure, then mathematics, which is the study of all possible structures, may be a source of insight into what we are facing and how we might deal with it. Before exploring that I want to emphasize that the evolution of human consciousness from reproducing molecules is a wonder beyond understanding and imagination. Neither mathematics nor anything else can explain this reality. One can only gasp in dumbfounded wonder at the miracle of it all. What mathematics can do is explain structural aspects of the evolutionary process. This can help us to deal with the dramatic changes that are just around the corner.
4 Hierarchy of mathematical structures
At the start of the 20th century mathematicians sought to establish a formula for deciding all mathematical questions the same way we can decide all problems in arithmetic. Kurt Gödel proved this was impossible. His work led to the discovery of an inﬁnite hierarchy of mathematical truth that can only be explored by a divergent process like biological evolution that continually tries ever more possibilities in the form of new species.
This discovery has practical implications. Gödel’s result implies that there can no general way to predict if a computer program will ever accept more user input. Most of us have experienced this problem when a program seems to be hung and we cannot tell if we have to restart the computer and loose our work. For any particular computer program there is some level in the inﬁnite hierarchy of mathematical truth that can decide if the program is hung. However no single ﬁnite level in the hierarchy can decide the question for all programs. There is no general way to determine if some event will ever happen even in a universe when one can compute exactly what will happen at any given time. Put another way there is no general way to predict the ultimate consequences of ones actions.
This mathematical hierarchy represents ever more complex levels of abstraction and self reﬂection just as the evolution of the brain and nervous system seem to. Moving up this hierarchy provides more complex and subtle ways that an organism can predict the consequences of its actions. There is an evolutionary feedback mechanism that promotes this development. When evolution accidentally creates individuals that think more subtlety and abstractly, this can put evolutionary pressure on prey, predators and potential mates.
The human mind is at an inﬁnitesimal level of this in�nite hierarchy. If consciousness is the essence of physical structure than we are at an inﬁnitesimal fragment of potential conscious experience. Whatever ecstatic wondrous experience, whatever ultimate orgasm any being ever experiences, it is the merest hint of a shadow of what can be and that will always be the case. For me this is a more exciting and magniﬁcent possibility than all the talk of God’s, heaven and enlightenment that I have ever heard.
5 Scope of Gödel’s result
Two elements are needed to traverse this mathematical hierarchy, ever expanding diversity and ever more resources devoted to each individual path. Both of these elements are present in biological evolution. The enormous diversity of life and the immense complexity of the human brain were both essential to the emergence of human consciousness.
Many mathematicians are unlikely to accept this interpretation of Gödel’s result. Gödel himself seems to have had a diﬀerent philosophical interpretation. Roger Penrose, in The Emperor’s New Mind, argues that there are non ﬁnite quantum mechanical processes that explain human mathematical ability. The problem with this argument is the lack of evidence for such processes. The argument Penrose makes that something like this is essential to explain mathematical intuition is false. All that is needed is the diversity and complexity of biological evolution.
Solomon Feferman, the editor of Gödel’s collected works, proved that essentially all of the mathematics used in science and engineering and almost all of the mathematics used by professional mathematicians is derivable from a fragment of mathematics that is widely accepted. This is an important result, but it says little about what may evolve in the future especially when evolution is directed by conscious understanding.
6 Diversity and concentration of resources
There is reason to think that this abstract theoretical result permeates every creative aspect of biology and culture. Jared Diamond, in Guns Gems and Steel, observed that the West came to dominate the world because of its mixture of diversity and large states. This was in contrast to China with a single dominate state and the geography of Africa the led to many tiny kingdoms.
The psychologist, Carl Jung, observed that there are two fundamental psychological approaches to surviving and thriving. He called them the attitudetypes introversion and extroversion. One strategy is to focus resources narrowly. The other is to spread them widely. Jung used the diﬀerent strategies of reproduction as an example of what he was getting at. One may have a great many oﬀspring that are mostly left to fend for themselves or a tiny number in which intensive care is invested. Mathematics suggests that every truly creative endeavor will be faced with this trade oﬀ for which there is no best choice and where it is essential to feed both diversity and complexity as resources make this possible.
This is perhaps the single most important lesson to learn as we take conscious control of the evolutionary process. Technology has no morality. It can be used to create a narrow conformist planet or to empower ever expanding diversity. At the moment diversity is loosing ground. What is at stake is far more than the concerns of those alive today. It is a future in which conscious experience can expand far beyond anything we can imagine.
7 Physical structure and consciousness
The singularity may lead to a direct expansion of human consciousness even for those of us alive today. Kurzweil speculates that human consciousness and machine intelligence will become integrated over time. This may seem unlikely or grotesque, but it has already started with eﬀorts to overcome serious handicaps. The ﬁrst widely used example is cochlear implants. These allow some profoundly deaf people to hear by providing an electronic substitute for the cochlea in the inner ear. The cochlea is the part of the ear that translates sound into neural ﬁrings.
These implants function diﬀerently than the cochlea they replace. The new recipient of an implant has to relearn to hear. (The implants only work well for very young children or for adults who had normal hearing during their childhood.) The brain has to map this new dictionary of nerve ﬁrings and corresponding sensations to the language it already knows (or can develop as a child). The conscious experience of sound is diﬀerent with these devices than it is with normal hearing. In this case, direct electronic interface to our nervous system creates novel conscious experience.
As the devices to help the handicap grow in range and sophistication they will eventually be able to greatly exceed normal human capacities. This has been a central element in some science ﬁction for many years. The reality is not far away. This will change our sense of self.
8 Values and sense of self
Karen Armstrong, in The Great Transformation, describes the development of values 2,500 years ago that are at the root of the major contemporary religious traditions. Compassion and the golden rule are the core of this shift in values. We started to see ourselves in others, all others, not just our family, tribe or nation.
The changes we face call for a new transformation and expansion of values. We need a wider sense of self that encompasses not just humanity but all of consciousness. Some religious traditions, like Buddhism, have elements of this wider sense of self. Our individual consciousness is not the manifestation of a unique spiritual soul. Rather it is an partially isolated wave in an ocean of consciousness that is the physical universe.
Modernity separates us from the ebb and ﬂow of consciousness in birth and death. Many native traditions have more of a sense of the continuity of consciousness in which individual lives are short variations of a pattern that continues forever. We need to return to a more natural sense of the ebb and ﬂow of consciousness and develop a way to deal with rapid creativity that science and technology is making available and inevitable.
9 The possibilities ahead
The changes we are facing will transform our sense of self. What will it be like to have a direct neural interface to the Internet and be in direct telepathic communication with anyone who wishes to communicate with us? What will it be like to have the worlds knowledge and literature accessible by just thinking that we want to know something?
What will happen when our ability to make sense out of our experience is augmented with computing power that makes today’s computers seem like toys?
10 The dangers ahead
The world is dealing badly with the much more limited change we face today. Nuclear weapons, global warming, the AIDS pandemic, genocide, ethnic cleansing, increasing concentration of wealth and terrorism fueled by religious fundamentalism are all terrible problems we are not handling well. These can all be eﬀectively addressed. They are not being eﬀectively addressed because powerful vested interests feel threatened by the solutions.
The United States thinks its entitled to be hegemon of the world. The Soviet Union’s main claim to world power status is its nuclear capacity. Many of the worlds largest companies are threatened by renewable energy sources. Religious institutions, most notably the Catholic church, are unwilling to accept a scientiﬁc understanding of human sexuality that could help to greatly reduce the spread of AIDS.
Governments cannot agree to deal with a genocidal country or movement because it may provide an economic or power advantage to one over the other. Wealthy companies and individuals can buy political inﬂuence far too easily in far too many countries. The leaders of the United States and some other countries are able to use terrorism, deliberately or not, for political advantage rather than understanding and addressing it for what it is. The result is to amplify terrorism and feed religious fundamentalism rather than encouraging the freedom and understanding that will lead to the natural death of terrorism.
Given this dismal record how can we possibly deal with the far more dramatic change that we are rapidly creating? We may not be able to. There is no guarantee that we will not fall into a horrible repressive world dictatorship, suﬀer a nuclear holocaust or purge humanity from the earth through huge unanticipated climate change. We have the power to create something approaching heaven on earth, but that will not prevent us from creating hell as the twentieth century has repeatedly demonstrated.
A natural reaction to this situation is to say stop we are not ready and perhaps never will be. If that were an option, it might be the best choice. But we are on a course that is almost impossible to change. Technology advances by small increments solving practical problems. This cannot be stopped short of an extremely repressive world dictatorship as Kurzweil has said.
The one thing that has saved the biosphere of earth during previous changes that created mass extinction is biodiversity. Life on this planet will probably survive humanity, but we may not survive our own folly. Diversity is still the key to dealing with the challenges we face.
The most important thing is to raise awareness of what is happening. The more people understand this reality, the better able we will be to deal with it. This is an enormously diﬃcult, task because this reality contradicts so many widely held, often sacrosanct, beliefs. We need to emphasize that this process can enhance the existence of all of us alive today.
The second thing to emphasize is the need for diversity. The same technology that is making this evolutionary leap possible is making it far easier for huge institutions to dominate our economy, culture and politics. Concentration of wealth and power is dramatically and tragically accelerating. If this continues we will be facing at best creative stagnation and at worst a hell on earth as the powerful seek ever greater dominance.
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