- An augmented human is long in the making.
- The future of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now – why, and so what.
- Change is hard, but this change is particularly hard for humans.
- Even if this is hard and risky, we will move ahead.
- Whether we succeed (=survive) is not a given. It depends.
- Birthing an augmented being (designing AI) is a little like parenting.
- Like most new parents, we have no idea what we are getting in to.
- There are no parenting books, but we can (and should) prepare ourselves.
- We need to design for a future, and not attempt to recreate the past.
- If I would choose one thing to get right, it is how we organize for survival.
(This is the outline of a series, which I intend to develop over several posts. As I publish each, I will link them to the individual points below. Stay tuned.)
1. An augmented human is long in the making
Humans have been augmenting themselves from the beginning of time. Earliest cave paintings were arguably, an augmentation of human memory, through external tools. As early as 1877, the first calculators could do computation better than humans even with mechanical options like the Grant calculator. So far, the progress of intelligence has been at best, a linear progression with significant setbacks. We need to look into the past trajectory of AI and the narrative of human progress to grasp the significance of our current times and to figure out what lies ahead.
2. The future of AI is now – why, and so what
After many spurts and starts, we are finally, undeniably, in the age of artificial intelligence. We can say with reasonable confidence that a third AI winter does not await us, because unlike the two previous golden eras for artificial intelligence, we are at a unique confluence of three fundamental changes – advances in learning algorithms, accessible and massive compute power in the cloud and unprecedented growth in data. How we design AI now will determine the future, we have an unprecedented opportunity to design for the better. Every big opportunity comes with a big responsibility. Whether we like it or not, it is up to us. Will we play a role in deciding our future or will we let the future happen to us? Read more here.
3. Change is hard, but this change is particularly hard for humans.
The sneaky thing about AI is that is ubiquitous and profound – it is hard to adapt to a change that weaves itself invisibly into every fabric of our daily life while changing it subtly until we no longer recognize what life used to be like. Human brains are wired to be efficient, they have also evolved in response to a world of intermittently high and low stimuli, not to a world of constant stimuli. The change we are facing now challenges the very physiology of our beings, in ways which can only be understood and adapted if we step out of our own systems. The “meta” view to understand one’s own system requires a level of intelligence that might require us to augment our own intelligence – think about that for a minute, and the conundrum we find ourselves in becomes gradually evident.
4. Even if this is hard and risky, we will move ahead.
We are cogs in a wheel. In an intricate, intertwined wheel which is set in motion through the momentum of each and every one of the cogs. Each cog has no idea of the enormity of the wheel or visibility into the trajectory of our motion. Inertia to keep on moving on a trajectory influenced but not defined by a collective of cogs keeps us moving. Such is the nature of complex systems. Examining the forces at play, there is no alternative we can envision where the onward journey would stop or even slow down. We are on an inevitable trajectory.
5. Whether we succeed (=survive) is not a given. It depends.
While the trajectory (onward) is inevitable, what lies in that path is anything but inevitable. The path that we will traverse might well constitute the difference between survival or extinction of the human race. It will depend on individual and collective acts. I do not worry about malice as much as I worry about incompetence and apathy. It is unlikely that a large enough group of humans would decide to be evil, and train AI of the future to be evil. But it is plausible that enough of us are unaware of the consequences, and in an unfortunate juxtaposition of random acts fashions a future which we would never have deliberately chosen for.
6. Birthing an augmented being (designing AI) is a little like parenting.
Human beings, as we know ourselves now, is unlikely to exist in the current form in a century from now. If that sounds like dystopian fiction, bear with me – following all plausible scenarios of our current trajectory leads us to the only conclusion possible – this is not fiction. But it does not have to be dystopian. If you suspend disbelief long enough to consider the real possibility that we might, as a collective, be birthing the next species of beings – you could choose to be scared, or you could decide to take that in your stride. It is a little like parenting – there are moments when you are scared out of your wits, but once you are a parent, there is no turning back. And in the end, it turns out fine. Mostly fine.
7. Like most new parents, we have no idea what we are getting in to.
In simplistic terms, there are three futures ahead of us – Life as-is, Extinction and Evolution. We know that Life as-is is extremely unlikely. Even if you might have an opinion on whether we are headed, over the next 300 years, towards extinction or evolution – we don’t know what that will look like. We also do not know what that means for the next 30 years, beyond which may be beyond the life span or imagination of most humans. We certainly don’t have a clue on how the choices we make today can have implications as far down the line as 3000 years from now.
8. There are no parenting books, but we can (and should) prepare ourselves.
Let’s get this straight. No one really has any clue where we are headed. There are no parenting books, or how-to-guides or even parallels from history that will guide us. What we are blessed with, though, is human ingenuity, which is far more powerful than we can imagine. The contradiction lies right there – where our collective imagination is more powerful than what we each can individually imagine it to be. The true power of our ingenuity thus lies in our ability to harness our collective imagination in a productive way that we will prepare ourselves and be ready to design the world ahead.
9. We need to design for a future, and not attempt to recreate the past.
Nostalgia is a human trait. We long for the past, our memories play games with our brains to paint it rosier than it really was. Our collective history, though, has many ugly stains. We have inherited a legacy rife with inequality, biases, prejudices and violence. I am no pessimist, and I don’t deny the beauty of the world we live, but I am also not blind (and neither should you) to the deep-rooted issues that have plagued mankind for centuries. As we look ahead, it is up to us not to take comfort in the rose-tinted past, but to dream up and design a future which is vastly better.
10. If I would choose one thing to get right, it is how we organize for survival.
An AI future, when I imagine it, regardless of the connotations the word might conjure in most minds – is not a future of glitzy gadgets and technological pizzazz. It is a world where, with the aid of machines, we overcome our own limitations, and augment our own selves in a way that we are able to create an inclusive, peaceful, empowered world. Where it is not the winner who survives but it is a world where everyone thrives. Many things will need to come together to make such a future a reality. But the paramount among them, and the one we are most likely to flounder on, is the way we organize ourselves.
(Image: An AI-generated “Rembrandt” from TheNextRembrandt project)