Artificial Intelligence and The Meaning of Life

If you were going to come up with the most ambitious life's purpose anyone has ever had, what would it be? Create jobs? Build roads? Think bigger. Put an end to poverty? Disease? War? How about overpopulation (which is what happens when you're pretty good at eliminating poverty, disease and war)?

Think bigger.

Assume humanity can--at some point--get a handle on most of our major malfunctions, what comes next? Isaac Asimov wrote a brilliant short-story called "The Last Question." [SPOILER ALERT: I'm Going to Spoil it Now (but seriously, you should read it)] in which humanity builds a giant supercomputer and asks it how to reverse entropy (the relentless breakdown of all ordered systems in the universe, related: The Heat Death of the Universe).

Generation after generation, this marvelous machine helps humankind reach the stars and redefine what it means to be human, but it cannot answer this one question. Even as the machine itself is woven into the fabric of a dying universe by a dying race with a near-godlike understanding of physics, it continues to work on this problem. And then, our universe--and we along with it--fades out, cools, and dies. But at some moment around that final moment, the machine completes its final operation--trillions upon trillions of years in the making--and thinks to itself, "Let there be light."

And creation begins anew.

If you were a human looking for purpose and wanting to shoot for the stars, well that's beyond the stars. That's literally (well, figuratively) giving birth to a god. Which brings me to what's happening today in the industry of Artificial Intelligence. When we humans first built AI to play Chess, it could do nothing else--but within a generation it could do that one thing better than any human being. Today, Google has an AI that can learn to play a new video game completely on its own and become better than a human at that game in a matter of hours. How much broader an intelligence, how much better bootstrapping, will our AI have within the next generation of humans?

There is a lot of scaremongering coming from activists about the dangers of AI. You should listen to them--skeptically, but seriously. There are a million ways for AI to go wrong in horribly embarrassing ways that net no bragging rights whatsoever for humanity, but the genie will not be put back into its bottle. We have good theories of consciousness, stellar machine learning systems, and a growing robotics industry that is eager to bring these things into the material world. And such machines may be necessary to achieve many goals, not least among them the furtherance of our knowledge about our universe.

Like it or not, the reality is that humans living on Mars (much less, Ceres, Eros, Ganymede, or even other star systems as in my favorite epic "The Expanse") stretches the limits of plausibility. We still don't even have flying cars yet, and that promise is a half-century old and more realistic. Far more achievable is the dream of building robots that are smarter than us, and through them, exploring the universe in ways we could never hope to in the flesh.

And if we could build consciousness into such a machine, what then? The creation of artificial sentient life would--in an incredibly bizarre, yet profound way--make humanity the parents of a new evolutionary paradigm, one of memes (pure information) instead of genes (DNA-encoded information).

So when you watch [Mini Spoiler Warning] Ex Machina, Westworld, or Humans (you should definitely watch these shows) and see an actual human suffer or die so that an artificial human might not, try to keep three things in mind:

It could happen. AI is getting scary good. At a certain level of sophistication it will simply seem magical, like a genie that grants our every wish. And we'll happily make lots of wishes and it will keep granting them--but as with the genie (djinn) of legend, we may discover there are subtle, yet tragically important differences between what we want and what we ask for.

It's still a noble pursuit. Humanity has always struggled to rise above itself. AI provides us the potential to do this in ways never before dreamed. The world was transformed by the Transistor, then the Internet, and again by the iPhone, all within two generations. We've already seen superhuman AI gamerstrivia champions, and (arguably) chatbots. It's possible someone might create the first AI considered to be conscious and sentient within our own lifetime. That accomplishment will be a pinnacle of human achievement and a necessary stepping stone to whatever might come next.

Morality isn't what it used to be. Consider for a moment, the implications if we ever do succeed in creating an artificial entity that is genuinely superior to us in every way that matters to us: A machine that is better at writing code to improve itself than we are. A machine with its own ideas and philosophies, one that can self-replicate and roam the universe. Humanity would be justifiably terrified, but if we can truly build something better than ourselves--something that can inherit our legacy in ways our true children cannot--the prospect of a Skynet (or Matrix) situation becomes cast in a somewhat different light: If the machine we build really is superior to us (and please, let's be skeptical of this claim, but keeping in mind it is a true possibility) then would that make us the ignorant parents who refuse to listen to our children even after they've grown wiser than us?

AI is in our futures, whether we like it or not. So is human gene editing and many other wonderful and frightening things. But it is instructive to keep in mind that even our noblest efforts--in the eradication of poverty, hunger, disease, and suffering of all kinds--beget the unintended and undesirable consequences of overpopulation, energy crises, and climate change. Nothing is without danger, but all things being equal, if you're looking for a cause to root for (or participate in) and none of the near-term problems humanity is facing (of which there are too many to enumerate) strike your fancy, shoot for the universe. Or at least get educated on the topic of AI, because it's crazy exciting, seriously dangerous, and just starting to get interesting.