Stephen Hawking Feared A.I. and Genetic Upgrades

Today’s USA Today insisted upon posting a sensationalist headline that read: “Stephen Hawking warns that AI, ‘superhumans’ could wipe humanity in posthumous book”

Yes, that headline is missing the word “out” but that’s how USA Today wrote it. Here’s the proof:

As every copywriters knows, no one does anything after they are dead and, therefore, anything posthumously published after the author’s demise must be couched in the past tense when describing the author’s thoughts to the public.

Machines Without Urges

In Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Hawking, like many other older people, became something of a technophobe in his old age, which was amusing for someone who was being kept alive by technology. Like many other people who are trying to raise red flags about “artificial intelligence,” Hawking appears to have missed the crucial difference between robots and human beings.

Robots have no ambition. In fact, they have no feelings, no hopes, dreams, desires, fears or nervous tics unless some programmer somewhere has written the code that will enable a robot – or any other “artificial” intelligence – to have those feelings. While even some pretty good technocrats like to scare themselves with artificial intelligence, what we’re really afraid of is artificial consciousness, which is not the same thing as intelligence. You can be conscious and very, very stupid, and you can have a great deal of intelligence without being conscious.

Thoughts do not drive human behavior. On the contrary thoughts actually restrict human behavior. Shakespeare put it very succinctly: “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.”

In other words, our feelings about our behavior constrain our behavior in accordance with whatever code of behavior we were raised to believe in.

Artificial Intelligence: Garbage In – Garbage Out

It is important to remember that artificial intelligence is an oxymoron. All intelligence is artificial.  It is also important to remember that the quality of a machine’s “intelligence” is exactly equal to the quality of the information in the machine’s possession.

Artificial intelligence is nothing more than a series of stimulus response reactions that can be written like this: “If A happens, do B. If A doesn’t happen, do C,   If C happens, do D….” and so on and so forth.

Human beings can hold in conscious memory and  compare and contrast up to nine separate items of information at any given time. Computers can only compare two. This used to be called ‘B-trieve analysis,” and it’s a characteristic common to all computers. When attempting to match two items of data, a computer program compares one item to another and, if it doesn’t A match doesn’t B, it goes on to test, C,D,E, and F, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Sometimes it seems that a computer program is able to pull one specific item of data from a whole long list of items in the same category. You do this every time you query a search engine, but all the search engine is doing is comparing the item you are searching for to the database of all items on the internet and flagging all of the items that appear to match your search criteria….but the computer program is still going down that list of items one at a time.

Computers scare us because they can perform these process with mind-numbing speed….but that’s not intelligence. It’s merely processing speed.

The fact is that one human brain has more storage capacity – by several orders of magnitude – than all of the computers on the planet. The difference is that we are very good at forgetting things. Computers are not.

Our ability to forget things is in fact one of the things that we have in our makeup that makes us better than computers. Computers cannot forget anything and, while the undamaged and unimpaired human brain is capable of recalling to consciousness every single moment we have ever lived through, we have the ability to screen out unneeded – and sometimes unpleasant – memories until we need them, or until circumstances force us to dredge up those bad memories in order to exorcise them.

But retrieving data is not the same thing as consciousness and, since we really don’t understand what consciousness is (hint: it has something to do with awareness) we can’t really program a machine to have something we don’t understand, can we?

Hawking’s fear of artificial intelligence may have stemmed from a problem common among super-scientists: they don’t know shit from shinola outside of their areas of expertise.

It’s a common problem. They read the same popular literature that everyone else does, and form their opinions on the basis of the same data, but those opinions carry more weight with the public because of their acknowledged expertise in another area. That’s like hiring a great pitcher to be a batting coach. Just because he knows how to pitch, that doesn’t mean he knows how to hit (and, according to the statistics, most pitchers are clueless when it comes to hitting.)

The history of our fear of machines goes way back, perhaps all the way back to the concept of the Golem, the Jewish myth from the Middle Ages, about an avenging demon created by a rabbi to protect the Jewish people,  upon which Mary Shelley based her novel, “Frankenstein.”

Karel Capek updated Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the 1921 play in which he coined the word “robot” and in which the man-made humanoids rebel against their human creators and destroy the human race.

Since then, beginning with Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film,  2001: A Space Odyssey, we have been exposed to an ongoing onslaught of fictional representations of computers rebelling against their creators. The theme of rebellious computer has been picked up and carried forward by the Matrix trilogy and the Terminator franchise, which are really horror films dressed up to look like science fiction. These books and films have conditioned us to fear technology, just as 19th century British textile workers rightly feared the first outbursts of automation that robbed the spinners of their livelihoods.

The Golem Lives Again in Hawking’s Fears of the Superman

Hawking’s posthumous book also raises another specter that is a much more real but equally questionable fear: the development of superhuman beings who will replace “us,” meaning the current version of the homo sapiens.

There is absolutely no doubt that this is going to happen. In fact, it is already happening…but it won’t make any difference in the long run because as these new super-humans proliferate, they will simply displace us as we displaced the Neanderthals…but we won’t even notice it when it happens because, by then, of course, we will be them.

The law of natural selection isn’t being violated. It’s being accelerated. A process that used to take thousands of years will not take place in just a few generations, if it even takes that long, during which time the current version of human beings will replaced with a newer version that will be taller, stronger, faster, smarter, more attractive, longer lived and less prone to disease.

This has been happening for more than two hundred years. As we improved the median diet, people grew taller and stronger. Better education resulted in smarter people but the people who will be evolving into these new humans will be our children and grandchildren, and their great grandchildren, engineered to a higher standard than we could ever have achieved without the additional engineering. Medicine has provided cures for many once-fatal maladies as we make inroads on providing mobility to the handicapped. Sometimes it seems as though there is nothing we can’t do.

What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. It’s Darwin’s theory of evolution on steroids and being afraid of it is, like being afraid of Thursday, completely nonsensical.

Thursdays will keep coming around as long as there are human beings to count them, and the human race will continue to evolve.

Where this becomes scarier is when you add in some of the great science fiction themes to the current technological environment.

The History of Our Fears of The Machines

In The Time Machine, published in 1895, H.G. Wells’ presupposed a future world in which a race of bestial beings do all the work underground, while the Eloi live self-indulgent lives on the surface with everything provided for them by the Morlocks. That’s a great gig for the Eloi…until it’s time for dinner for the Morlocks which, for  the Morlocks, turns out to be the Eloi.

In Wells’ mind, technological development would inevitably lead to emotional castration, but we have gone much further than that.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932, the author foresaw the division of the human race into separate breeds, one having the benefits of modern genetic engineering and the other forced to reproduced the old fashioned way. The result was two diverging species but, in genetics, whenever a species branches out, one continues on while the other usually dies off. Nevertheless, Huxley’s drug-infused fantasy has affected generations of readers with his dark future.

Of the two, artificial intelligence should scare us because of the very real fear that automation will take away more and more jobs until we have nothing left for the echnologically retarded lower classes. Automation threatens everyone from high end professionals to people who push brooms, but the broom pushers are going to feel it first and most deeply.

Almost any human activity can be automated and this automation – which is what we really mean when talk about artificial intelligence – is coming to get us.

Wet Ware is Coming to Get Us

But let’s reserve our most serious fears for combination of the enormous computing power that is now available – at a suitable price point – to the patrician class and the upcoming wet-ware connections that will enable human minds to directly interface with their mechanical calculators and memories.

You probably have one or more friends who are always looking stuff up on the internet so they can one-up you in the conversation, grabbing low hanging fruit right off the vine. With neural linkages big-brained super-human will have instantaneous access to all the data in the universe, which will put Jeopardy out of business, but it will also make you non-competitive unless you have the same level of access to the data stream.

Now, you really have something to fear, if you needed something to fear…because, with automated added into the equation, the patrician classes no longer need the working classes to perform menial labor, nor do they need penny ante consumers to buy their products from their meager wages.

But never fear, the patrician classes will get their comeuppance when they finally realize that, by automating all those jobs, and making workers redundant, they have also destroyed the market for the goods and services that their corporations produce.

In the end, the working people will have their revenge, as the global economy collapses in upon itself when there are no more consumers for the corporations to sell their shit to.

With all due deference to the late Stephen Hawking, that’s a nightmare well worth being afraid of…and it’s also the reason that they should make scientists study economics. You should always have some Adam Smith with your Charles Darwin


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