Who is in control?
New Scientist ran a New Year competition in which you were invited to imagine that you were an alien who had recently arrived on Earth, and you had to send a short text message home describing what you found there. The winners have now been announced here, and my two favourites are:
- Arr. Earth. Dominant species "car". Colourful exoskeleton and bizarre reproduction via slave biped species. Aggressive but predictable. Intelligence uncertain. (from David Armstrong)
- Parallel evolution of intelligent life. One carbon based, one silicon based. Carbon form domesticated by silicon form to feed it with all its needs. (from Dennis Fox)
As you can see, my two winners have a common theme because they both ask "who is in control?".
I suspect that the message about the carbon/silicon hybrid is going to get a lot more serious as time goes on. There are people (such as Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom) who make entire careers out of predicting where this sort of symbiotic man/machine hybrid will go.
Here is an entertaining little exercise, which I was told about many years ago so I don't know its origin, but I certainly have seen a science fiction film (title unknown) in which a spaceship full of troopers is subjected to this "experiment". Think about what happens if your biological brain cells (i.e. neurons) are replaced one at a time by functionally equivalent artificial brain cells. At the start of this process you have your original biological intelligence, and at the end you have a functionally equivalent artificial intelligence.
It is tempting to say that the AI version of you isn't really you; after all, it is only a load of silicon (or whatever). However, the AI version is reached by a series of infinitesimally small steps, where only one neuron at a time is transformed. What would your subjective feeling be as each neuron was transformed in this way? By definition, there should be no subjective change, because each biological neuron is replaced by a functionally equivalent artificial neuron, so whatever it is that each neuron does, it does the same thing before and after the transformation into an artificial neuron. Thus, artificial you = biological you.
Of course, I slipped an assumption past you in the above "proof"; I assumed that "you" and "brain" are one and the same thing. This is the assumption made in Francis Crick's book The Astonishing Hypothesis, in which Crick claims "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules". I think that until we have actually done the biological-to-artificial transformation experiment (or something like it) we cannot know for sure that there is no subjective difference between our subjective biological and artificial intelligences.
I will not be offering myself for this experiment (even if we had the technology to do it), because there is too much to lose if (for some as yet unknown reason) our functionally equivalent artificial neurons are not actually functionally equivalent. Absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, so just because we haven't observed something doesn't mean that that something does not exist. Neurons may (and probably do) communicate in ways that we do not yet suspect, and there may also be lots of things other than neurons involved in our "biological" intelligence. Mother Nature is always more imaginative than we are.
Anyway, none of that changes the truth contained in the message about the carbon/silicon hybrid. We are already carbon/silicon hybrids, because the everyday lives of a significant fraction of people on the planet depend on computer-based things going on in the background (and this relationship is reciprocal). This dependence is going to become more and more direct and intimate as time goes on.
Who is in control?
Who is in control?