Evolved People or Real-Life Zombies?

In Our Machine Masters, New York Times columnist David Brooks imagined two futures for us in the age of artificial intelligence: a humanistic scenario in which, freed from mental drudgery, people focus on personal and moral faculties: being likable, industrious, trustworthy and affectionate. In the age of AI, “…we’re not human because we have big brains. We’re human because we have social skills, emotional capacities and moral intuitions.”

Or, in Brook’s utilitarian scenario, people become less idiosyncratic. The machines replace us as decision-makers. We conform and do what the machines tell us to do without question. Kevin Kelly wrote in Wired magazine: “As we invent more species of AI, we will be forced to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about humans. The greatest benefit of the arrival of artificial intelligence is that AIs will help define humanity. We need AIs to tell us who we are.”

Will we flourish in this new world of artificial intelligence or will we become real-life zombies? Or will we just muddle along?

In 2005, I wrote an essay on the Singularity: A superior humanity—artificially created. Genetics, robotics and nanotechnology fed by the exponentially increasing power and speed of information technology intertwine and multiply one another in symbiotic relationships.

As entities with greater than human intelligence are created, most intelligence of the planet will become nonbiological and changes in all other aspects of life will accelerate dramatically—including the more rapid creation of even more intelligent entities on a shorter time scale.

Will these technologies free us of the mundane, help us live longer and healthier lives, and extend our human capabilities? Will we solve all problems and become God? Scientist Ray Kurzweil: “We see exponentially greater love.”

Or will we turn into genetically programmed and soulless beings, our minds filled with information downloaded from computers, living out predetermined lives in service of the machines with no ability to control our own destinies and with those things that make us indefinably human altered, ruptured, or destroyed?

We cannot stop or control this development. If we push development underground it will only free the technology from ethical and moral considerations. The technology and its impact on our lives and the potential impact on the human soul will not be stopped.

For 300 years humanists have railed against the mechanistic world view and the unintended consequences of a philosophy that dehumanizes people. The critical challenge of our lifetime may well be to use explosive technical development to preserve and enhance our humanity rather than to have humanity neutered or destroyed by the mindless acceleration of technology without thought as to the unintended consequences.

Instead of being led by technology, we can lead technology. To do so we must accelerate our maturity as people and communities and bring forth a creative renaissance of relationships that will transform life on this planet. We must embrace the technology that threatens our humanity and outfox the creative dark side of human nature with the creative light of our humanity. The spiritual must transcend the technical; people must transcend machines.