Picture our moral imagination as a series of concentric circles. At the center of this model is the self. As we grow, we generally move outward from there. Our capacity for empathy guides us to invest in the suffering of our immediate families, then our various tribes, communities, and nations.
The moral innovators of our societies ask us to extend our empathy to those whom we once believed didn’t deserve it. Reverend Martin Luther King Junior wasn’t a great leader because he made conditions better for African Americans. His greatness was the result of a moral imagination that understood how civil rights improved the lives of all Americans, regardless of race. The genius of Malala Yousafzai is that her empathy extends to even the religious fundamentalists who attempted to murder her. These thinkers challenge us to broaden the categories of people we believe deserve our empathy.
Conversely, the world’s villains are those whose moral imaginations are selfishly restricted to themselves and a narrow band of peple they believe deserve empathy, tyrants who demonize “the other” and perpetuate the idea that “those people” don’t deserve the empathy they themselves demand. Gee, I just can’t seem to think of any examples of this off the top of my head.
I just finished Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s book Hit Refresh, in which he recounts his journey from India to the top leadership post of the Redmond technology giant. There’s a lot I want to say about Microsoft’s evolving culture under this new leader, but I’m saving those thoughts for another post.
I want to focus this post on one theme of the book, Nadella’s emphasis on empathy as a guiding principle for the development of artificial intelligence. Nadella writes:
The challenge will be to define the grand, inspiring social purpose for which AI is destined… In 1961, when John F. Kennedy committed America to landing on the moon before the end of the decade, the goal was chosen in large part due to the immense technical challenges it posed and the global collaboration it demanded. In similar fasion, we need to set a goal for AI that is sufficiently bold and ambitious, one that goes beyond anything that can be achieved through incremental improvements to current technology.
I humbly offer that this grand, inspiring goal could be to discover and propagate life throughout the universe.
Let’s go back to that concentric circles of the moral imagination model I mentioned earlier. Over the course of a typical human life, we find ourselves venturing further outside ourselves, empathizing with others who are not like ourselves. Our artists and moral innovators show us paths toward more expansive empathy for our fellow human beings. Usually we hit a limit.
When I saw the movie Gandhi with my father at age nine, one scene in particular rattled me and expanded my moral imagination. Mathama Gandhi, played by Ben Kingsley, is comforting a Hindu man whose son has been murdered by Muslims. As an act of revenge, this Hindu man killed a Muslim child. The man is convinced he will go to Hell. Gandhi offers him a way out–find a child who has lost his parents, and raise him as his own. Most importantly, make sure this child is Muslim and raise him as a Muslim.
Here is an example of a moral genius challenging someone to broaden their empathy beyond the circle of their own faith. This seems to be the logical conclusion of humanity’s great religious traditions. Love thy enemy is a radical challenge to elevate our morality, one which I certainly can’t seem to attain most days.
Nadella reveals the framework of his own moral imagination with the inclusion of a single word in the passage I quote above: “The challenge is to find the grand, inspiring social purpose for which AI is destined.” (emphasis mine). What if we can find AI’s purpose beyond the limiting sphere of human civilization? What if the only way forward for this profound technologicial leap is for it to be paired with a profound moral leap? What if the grand purpose of AI lies in the stewardship of life itself, in all its complexity and diversity?
Oftentimes, I find that people who make a living by developing technology fall into what I call the “smart fridge” trap. This is when the problems a technology fixes are disproportionately small to the potential of that technology. Many years ago, we started hearing about advances in tech that would lead us to the “smart home,” in which everything in our domiciles was monitored for our convenience. I kept hearing variations on the following utopian promise: just imagine, our refrigerators will automatically notify us when our milk goes sour!
Imagining what artificial intelligence will achieve only within the context of human society is just a larger-scale example of the smart fridge trap. To start grasping the grand purpose of AI, I believe it’s helpful to think way beyond the needs of our human species. If we expand our empathetic circle beyond homosapiens and embrace the responsibility of stewardship over all life–from microbes to fungi to earthworms to trees to gorillas–we can begin to see ourselves as a manifestation of earth’s desire to spread life beyond our star.
Earth is a spore. Technology is a natural mechansim that the earth has developed, via a bunch of smelly primates, to propagate other planets. I explored this idea in a fictional framework in my novel Blueprints of the Afterlife, but I am increasingly convinced that this is ultimately the purpose for which we humans evolved. I’ve been obsessed with this idea in some form since I was a teenager, and as I’ve aged, the technology to actually act on this theory has come to pass.
On the wall of my living room is a chart titled “DEVELOPMENT OF LIFE” that illustrates the various geological ages of our planet. What’s striking is how endlessly creative and resilient life has been on this far-flung rock, how agile life has been in recovering from numerous extinction events, culminating in a species that laughs at its own farts, manipulates DNA, splits atoms, and peers billions of light years beyond the sun. Even more striking is that in terms of geological time, humanity’s rise has occurred in a crazy bang flash instant. My favorite explanation for how brief our tenure has been on earth is to imagine geological time to be as long as your arm. Then, imagine that a single swipe of a nail file across your middle finger’s nail wipes out the entirety of human history.
The development of AI is another explosion within the explosion of humanity’s rise to control and alter the very climate of the planet we occupy. Paradoxically, it might be the case that we had to imperil our planet to get to this point of technological development, and if this technology can reverse those changes, as Nadella briefly suggests, then maybe we’ll get to stick around long enough to ask a bigger question: where do we go from here?
Perhaps we are heading toward an era in which humans will continue to exist, just not physically. We will exist as content within the AI as it traverses the universe, finding dormant planets to seed and cultivating fledgling life to grow to the point of sentience and macro-reproduction. Perhaps we already exist within such a realm and it’s just beginning to dawn on us. As our empathy takes us further from the nucleus of the self into the outer reaches of human society, from human life to all life, from life on earth to life beyond earth, perhaps it will be artificial intelligence that charts the course.