For my own reasons, I wanted to get my philosophy written down before I die. And although I wanted to share it with my close family, I'm certainly not trying to sell it. I expect that you will evolve your own philosophy of life, and it may or may not include any part of mine.
What are the great evolutionary philosophers saying?
On 2/16/11, millions of people watched "Watson," IBM's computer, trounce Jeopardy's two prior human champions (and Watson was not connected to the Internet). Prior champ Ken Jennings' departing line, "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords," was taken as a joke. Few understood that they were witnessing the beginning of the next evolutionary step on Earth -- the leap of intelligence from humans to computers.
The Leap will take a while to complete -- a few hundred years, perhaps, but to see it starting before our eyes is enormously exciting. It profoundly changes our future. To me, it means that human knowledge, language and culture may be rescued from certain extinction here on Earth and become part of a massive intelligence capable of escaping the sun's death and exploring the cosmos.
Having been interested in this for so long, I naturally wanted to know what the prominent evolutionary philosophers were saying now that The Leap had started. So I searched the Internet for recent work in this subject (looking for respected scientists and philosophers working in evolution).
What I found was puzzling and disappointing. Even the top names -- Bostrom, Kurzweil and the like -- all seem to be caught up with how new technology can "augment humans" if we are careful to control the evolution of computer intelligence.
They call it "The Singularity." It refers to a point in the near future when the growth of computer intelligence becomes exponential and surpasses human intelligence -- thereby putting The Leap on fast forward.
Its chief populizer, Ray Kurzweil, has previously won prominence and scientific credibility as a prolific inventor, writer and futurist. He has received twelve honorary Doctorates and honors from three U.S. presidents.
I admire Kurzweil, but he has a self-inflicted problem with "The Singularity." His enthusiasm in promoting it has led him to make predictions which sound like science fiction. For example, he predicts ”Mind Uploading” (into supercomputers, leading to immortal life) by the 2030's, which has been ridiculed as "Geek Rapture." The whole thing has become a bit of a circus, with Beverly Hills glitterati fretting about whether "Mind Uploading" will arrive before they die.
"The Singularity" appears to be good business for Kurzweil, attracting people to order books, buy movie tickets, and attend speeches, seminars and conferences. But it sends a false message: that the purpose of evolution is to perfect humans -- as if humans were in control of evolution and are destined to be its final achievement.
I couldn't disagree more. I see evolution as as a vast, uncontrollable force on which humans may hitch a ride if we're lucky. I believe Kurzweil and the others are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
So that was my motivation to write all this -- my version of The Leap, one that looks far beyond "The Singularity" and honors Arthur C. Clarke's far-sighted prediction that an intelligent species could eventually evolve to the status of gods.
What will happen to humans?
We will not last forever regardless of evolution's path. No biological life on Earth will survive the death of the sun. By then, however, life from Earth -- our computer descendents -- will have had ample time to find another power source in our region of the galaxy.
But, long before that, won't humans revolt against higher computer intelligence, leading to "Terminator Wars"? Not necessarily. Fortunately, violent sci-fi movies are not the best predictors of our future.
My bet is that humans will cede control of our planet gradually and willingly (even happily) to our cyber-descendents. Three reasons:
- Computer intelligence will inherently be less prone to violence than humans, being free of our biological conflicts over sex and food. It will prefer peaceful solutions and be almost infinitely smarter in finding them.
- With our active help, computers will have taken over virtually all decisions in the next few decades. We love computers; they make life so easy for us! Already, today, western society is largely dependent on our current, limited-intelligence computers; economies and governments would crash in a few days without them. In the near future, computers will take over the design of computers, accelerating the pace of computer intelligence even more -- and human dependence along with it. Within a few hundred years we will no more understand what our computer "helpers" are doing than a dog understands how humans bring light by flicking something on the wall. How will we ever know when this intelligence, on its own, starts to manipulate human genes to make us more docile, more content?
- Computer intelligence will be curious; it will want to keep some humans around to study -- perhaps a whole country as a human preserve, or more likely a solution that would seem magical to us here and now.
How might we relate to our superhumanly intelligent offspring?
Early in our development of computers, computer scientists (jumping the gun a bit) started arguing about a machine's potential ability to exhibit intelligent behavior -- to "think." But "thinking" turned out to be difficult to define. Alan Turing, in a famous 1950 paper, proposed a test which, while imperfect, is still accepted by most scientists: if you can have a natural language phone conversation with a computer and think you're talking to a human, the computer passes the test.
As computer development continues to accelerate, it seems likely that the Turing test will be passed within this century.
So what we will do with our brilliant computer offspring is talk. And talk and talk.
A fun thought experiment is to imagine yourself a few hundred years from now, chatting with the Earth's giant brain -- the tiny part which is devoted to Homo sapiens, in the computer's Bio Sciences department.
The computer is a dazzling conversationalist, fluent in every human language on Earth. In previous chats, you discovered very similar tastes in art and music. Today, the subject is the smell of a rose.
The computer, of course, knows every molecule in the rose's airborne odorant, as well as every molecule in your olfactory receptor cells. It has cataloged every type of rose and knows every reference to roses in all of human literature. It can "see" and "hear" but has not yet developed the ability to smell anything.
How would you describe the smell of a rose?
Is "Evolution's Implications" Science-Based?
How can "Evolution's Implications" be considered science-based if it's mostly about the future? In the same way that we predict the position of Earth in its orbit six months from now. It's called extrapolation, where we take scientifically certain facts about Earth's present position and its prior course and then simply extend that path.
With "Evolution's Implications," I am extrapolating hard facts about prior evolution and current computer growth. So I'm confident that I stand on firm ground and am pointed in the right direction. (One might wish to contrast this starting point with that of most religions, which rely solely on wishful thinking and pure faith.)
With all extrapolations, the further one extrapolates, the less accurate it becomes. In the near-term, we are so close to the projected leap of intelligence from humans to computers that, barring WWIII, it is almost an inevitability.
But beyond a couple of hundred years into the future, my thoughts on man's destiny can be nothing more than speculations -- not predictions, but hopefully thought-provoking nonetheless.
Science in general
In closing, I ask you to think briefly about how much more we all know about life and our world than someone who lived, say, 1,000 years ago. Almost all this flowering of knowledge is due to science: from the great revelations of Galileo, Newton and Einstein to the less famous discoveries of Van Leeuwenhoek in microorganisms, Faraday in electricity, and Mendel in genetics, to name a few. Science lifted us from the Dark Ages.
And science is one of the key reasons I created this web site for you. My fondest hope is to leave you with an appreciation and respect for science, even though your education and career path may lie far from scientific disciplines.
I'm not just referring to the contributions of science to medicine, transportation, communication and other aspects of modern life. Those are obvious. What I'm referring to is a thought process. It's called "The Scientific Method." You'll find lots of info about it if you Google for it (or click on the link below), but for now, let me just say that it's a disciplined approach to finding the truth about the world.
Our society needs you to be a defender of science against the science-deniers -- a fighter for truth, willing to speak out against the ignorance, greedy self-interest, and cynical falsehoods which plague our politics, commerce and human relations.
Wherever evolution goes from here, let's make sure our little contributions to it have been positive.
- "Grains of Sand" -- Reflections on the size of the universe. By Glen Mackie, Lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.
The Scientific Method -- Description, discussion, and examples. By Jose Wudka, Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Riverside.