quentin_hardy's picture
Deputy Technology Editor, The New York Times; Former Lecturer, U.C. Berkeley's School of Information
The Beasts of A.I. Island

Creatures once inhabited fantastic unknown lands on medieval maps. Those animals were useful fictions of rumor and innuendo, where men's heads were in their bodies, or their humanity was mixed with the dog or the lion, closing the gap between man and animal. They were the hopes and fears of what might live within the unknown. Today, we imagine machines with consciousness.

Besides self-awareness, the imaginary beasts of A.I. possess calculation and prediction, independent thought, and knowledge of their creators. Pessimists fear these machines could regard us and pass lethal verdicts. Optimists hope the thinking machines are benevolent, an illuminating aid and a comfort to people.

Neither idea of an encounter with an independent man-made intelligence has much evidence of becoming real. That doesn't mean they aren't interesting. The old mariners' maps were drawn in a time of primitive sailing technology. We are starting to explore a world thoroughly enchanted by computation. The creatures of A.I. Island fuse the human and the machine, but to the same end as the fusing of man and animal. If they could sing, they would sing songs of us.

What do we mean when we talk about the kind of "intelligence" that might look at mankind and want it dead, or illuminate us as never before? It is clearly more than a machine wins at chess. We have one of those, with no discernable change in the world, other than a new reason to celebrate the very human intelligence of Deep Blue's creators.

The beings of A.I. Island do something far more interesting than outplaying Kasparov. They feel like playing chess. They know the exhilaration of mental stimulation, and the torture of its counterpart, boredom.

This means making software that encodes an awareness of having only one finite life, which somehow matters greatly to some elusive self. It is driven nearly mad by the absence of some kind of stimulation—playing chess, perhaps. Or killing mankind.

Like us, the fabulous creatures of A.I. Island want to explain themselves, and judge others. They have our slight distance from the rest of reality that we believe other animals don't feel. An intelligence that is like ours knows it is sentient, feels something is amiss, and is continually trying to do something about that.

With these kind of software challenges, and given the very real technology-driven threats to our species already at hand, why worry about malevolent A.I.? For decades to come, at least, we are clearly more threatened by like trans-species plagues, extreme resource depletion, global warming, and nuclear warfare.

Which is why malevolent A.I. rises in our Promethean fears. It is a proxy for us, at our rational peak, confidently killing ourselves.

The dreams of benevolent A.I. are equally self-reflective. These machine companions have super intellects turned towards their creators. Given the autonomy implicit in a high level of A.I., we must see these new beings as interested in us. Come to think of it, malevolent A.I. is interested in us too, just in the wrong way.

Both versions of the strange beast reflect a deeper truth, which is the effect that the new exploration of a computer-enchanted world has on us. By augmenting ourselves with computers, we are becoming new beings—if you will, monsters to our former selves.

We have changed our consciousness many times over the past 50,000 years, taking on ideas of an afterlife, or monotheism, or becoming a print culture, or a species well aware of its tiny place in the cosmos. But we have never changed so swiftly, or with such knowledge that we are undertaking the change.

Consider some effects just in the past decade. We have killed many of our historic barriers of time and space with instantaneous communications. Language no longer divides us, because of increasingly better computer translation and image sharing. Open source technology and Internet search give us a little-understood power of working in collective ways.

Beside the positives is the disappearance of privacy, and tracking humans to better control their movements and desires. We are willfully submitting to unprecedented social connection—a seeming triviality that may extinguish all ideas of solitude and selfhood. Ideas of economics are changing under the guise of robotics and the sharing economy.

We are building new intelligent beings, but we are building them within ourselves. It is only artificial now, because it is new. As it becomes dominant, it will simply become intelligence.

The machines of A.I. Island are also what we fear may be ourselves, within a few generations. And we hope those machine-driven people feel the kinship with us, even down to our loneliness and distance from the world, which is also our wellspring of human creativity.

We have met the A.I., and it is us. In a timeless human tension, we yearn for transcendence, but we don't want to change too much.