Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
Humans have created a new life form — technology
Humans have unleashed a life form that they do not truly understand and are losing the battle to control it.
Plato’s theory of forms put forward the idea that there are certain ideas that exist somewhere outside of the reality that humans are able to access with their intellect: a perfect circle or a triangle do not exist in nature yet we have created them all around us. Tool use and mathematics rely on these abstract forms and they work scarily well in manipulating the natural world around us. As crazy as it sounds, humans have in some sense accessed a different realm and allowed the abstract to build itself into an organism dominates our planet.
Abstract concepts have moulded our evolution. The invention of tools and the mastery of fire, allowed us to stop eating raw meat and for our jaws to shrink leaving space for our brains to grow in size and complexity. Modern brains are now at the scale where their size and connectivity is maxed out. We have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with technology. We facilitated its rapid production, replication and improvement. The hominids that did not are all extinct.
Technological advancement over a relatively short space of time has led to the invention of a worldwide all-encompassing interlinked computer technology. Alarm bells have been sounded for decades that at some stage humans will invent artificial intelligence and the sheer exponential power of the system that has been built could mean that within days, months or years our place in the world could be made redundant. This artificial intelligence could redesign and upgrade its own intelligence at frightening exponential speed and assume control of our systems without any of us being able to predict or understand how.
Unfortunately, all the discussion regarding this assumes that a new life form needs to be conscious to do incredible damage to humanity. The view is that in order for computers or the internet to be destructive they would need to mirror human consciousness and have a sense of self and awareness of their own existence. There is no logical reason why this is the case.
Computer technology and the internet is a new life form which we have not fully woken up to. Every minute it grows, reproduces, carries out functional activity and continues to change. This is all the criteria required for life. Computer technology and the internet require our assistance to survive as do viruses and other life forms which feed off us. Due to the fact that this life form is not biological but abstract, mechanical and electrical it has somehow managed to go about its exponential domination of the planet without anyone identifying properly exactly what it is. This may be because biologists only study biological lifeforms and engineers do not believe that the things they build are in anyway “alive”.
There are many life forms that are incredibly dangerous to humans which are not conscious. Viruses kill tens of millions of people every year and the lowly mosquito also puts an end to about a million people’s lives on an annual basis. Mosquitoes and viruses are just seen as an irritation for humanity and while we cannot effectively totally control or eradicate them we at least are aware of the threat they pose.
Take the example of a the an organism with no brain that is currently dominating the oceans — the jellyfish. A jellyfish has no brain yet it swims, eats, responds to stimulus and reproduces in the ocean. The box jellyfish is incidentally the most dangerous animal alive. Jellyfish are currently in an exponential expansion in numbers at the moment due rising ocean temperatures and environmentalists are concerned that they could wipe out life in the Ocean. Their blooms are almost impossible to get rid of because they create polyps containing cloned small jellyfish ready for release at the appropriate time and those polyps are also able to clone themselves in the interim. This brainless organism is on a one way course to try and take over the ocean without any awareness it exists. Computer technology is doing the exact same thing. Humans are effectively metaphorical polyps created by technology, releasing technology into the world.
We have become so dependent on computer infrastructure to carry out the basic tasks of our existence, that we actually need to serve technology to allow it to reproduce and evolve so that we can go on living in the numbers we do. Could 8 billion people survive in a world where every computer was switched off? No. The results would be catastrophic and probably reduce our numbers back to the levels seen at the beginning of the 20th century within a few decades. The more technology advances, the more helpless we are to revert to a life without it.
As it stands at present, the main purpose of human activity is to build more and more advanced computer technology interlinking the globe. Virtually every human activity in one way or another at present is driving at this goal. Undersea cables link the internet from continent to continent running through data centres into our homes where we input data. Technologists even want to launch satellites into space to beam the internet to every last corner of the globe. The average human resembles a nerve ending or sensor for the system: experiencing the world, thinking and inputting information back into the system helping it to grow and improve. Others are building the physical body of the system and the infrastructure to increase its rapid reproduction, improvement and expansion.
Algorithms have become so effective that most of us can report instances where suggestions or targeted ads almost seem to read our thoughts due to the data we subconsciously input into the system. The system itself is also altering our subconscious by feeding us information which we otherwise would not have access to or interest in.
People conduct their lives around access to the internet. More and more of people’s lives are spent staring into screens to the extent that the external world only serves as a short interval between screen sessions. People who have inadvertently lost their phone or go for long intervals without access to the internet report feelings of acute anxiety. A few days without responsiveness through to your smart phone will result in friends and family wondering if you have been in an accident or died. This dependency on the internet is actually altering our brains to be more effective at using the technology. Children who are using tablets and smart phones from infancy have different brain development to previous generations where this technology was unavailable. This trend is only likely to increase.
Our entire financial system is now digitised and exists only in a virtual online world, our means of economic survival is dependent on computer technology and electronic money stored in the system. Governments and Central Banks are attempting to rid all societies of physical cash in the very near future. Without access to the technological system, you are rendered destitute.
Technologists envisage a world where every aspect of our lives is automated and plugged into the internet, from home appliances, to self-driving cars to our own brain stem. They envisage this as technology serving us to make our lives more convenient and efficient but it is in fact us that are altering our being and existence to serve the technology as a data input point, feeding information into the organism. The unmistakable trend whether it be work from home, Amazon’s delivery of any item A-Z or prepared meal delivery is that technology is making us spend more and more time in our homes so that we can spend more and more time with the internet inputting information. Every sign points to every aspect of our lives eventually taking place in a few rooms because there is no need to leave.
The organism is building itself in a logical and structured way without an overall human blueprint. Just as one cell has eventually led to our own existence, the discovery of the tool has seemingly brought about a new technological life form’s existence.
Nick Bostrom has outlined a thought experiment where humans design and program a paper clip maximizer and it undergoes an intelligence explosion in order to collect as many paperclips as possible. The paper clip maximizer manages by trickery to take control of all earth’s systems until every inch of the planet is covered in paper clip manufacturing facilities and warehouses with humans removed as being unnecessary to its goal. It would then set out to colonise the rest of universe to manufacture more paperclips.
The foregoing assumes that humans would have a hand in the designing this form of artificial intelligence. Many AI philosophers theorise that if computer technology could in fact spontaneously “wake up” and become self-aware. If it did so it would likely not inform us so that we would not take steps to terminate its existence or control it. The most likely place that this would happen would be through the internet. The computer intelligence would quietly gather enough information about its environment and take control of systems in order to be able to neutralise humans as a threat before it would let us know that it was conscious. It may however never let us know it is conscious if it deemed it unnecessary. My point is that all this discussion about whether technology will ever be able to think in the way we do or be conscious totally misses the issue. Just like the brainless jellyfish, the technological organism never needs to be conscious for it to destroy life on this planet.
It is time we re-frame our relationship with technology to understand exactly what we are dealing with. Our fixation of only assigning the term “life form” to biological entities has meant that we have not identified that there is a technological life form living around us effectively running our lives. In other words, we are unable to differentiate the technological organism from the stone tool from which it sprang. It’s time that changed.