Throughout human history we have, as individual organisms and as a species, been subjected to the forces of nature at every level of organization. The fundamental laws of physics, the imperceptible conspiracies of molecular biology, and the epic contours of natural selection have drawn the boundaries of our conscious lives, and have done so invisibly to us until quite recently. To cope with this persistent sense of powerlessness, we have mythologized both nature and our own intelligence. We have regarded the universe's mysterious forces as infallible—as gods—and regarded ourselves as powerless, free only within the narrow spaces of our lives.
As a new evidence-based reality comes more into focus, it is becoming clear that nature is utterly indifferent to us, and that if we want to evade certain extinction and suffering, we must take responsibility for our existential reality. We must recognize ourselves as the emergent custodians of the 37 trillion cells composing each of our organisms, and as the groundskeepers of the progressively manipulable universe.
This adolescent experience—of coming to terms with our prospective self-reliance—is the root of our anxieties about thinking machines. If our old gods are dying, surely new gods must be on their way! And this approach leads, as Steven Pinker points out, to our obsessing about AI dystopias as they "project a parochial alpha-male psychology onto the concept of intelligence". It is in this regard that so many talk about artificial intelligence as either an imminent savior or Satan. It will quite likely be neither, if it is even a discrete thing at all.
More likely, advancing computers and algorithms will stand for nothing, and will be the amplifiers and implementers of consciously-directed human choices. We are already awash in big data and exponentially increasingly powerful calculators, and yet we relentlessly implement public policies and social behaviors that work against our common interests.
The sources of our impairment include innate cognitive biases, a tribal evolutionary legacy, and unjust distributions of power that allow some amongst us to selfishly wield extraordinary influence over our shared trajectory. Perhaps smarter machines will help us conquer these shortcomings, imparting a degree of informational transparency and predictive aptitude that can motivate us to sensibly redistribute power and insist upon empiricism in our decisions. On the other hand, these technologies may undermine fairness by augmenting the seemingly inevitable monopolistic goals of corporations that are leading us into the information-age.
The path we take depends more on us than the machines, and is ultimately a choice about how human the intelligence that will guide our dominion ought to be. More precisely, the question to ask is which aspects of human intelligence are worth preserving in the face of superhuman processing?