Futurists have figured out the most failure-proof job–no one will live long enough to find out whether they’re good at it. Futurism is a sort of applied science fiction. Those of us who have adult memories from the twentieth century have experienced wonders that rival the science fiction of our childhoods. Start with the artificial nervous system that binds our global village and supplies us our daily memes. Or the intelligent agent that understands my preferences enough to serve up Led Zeppelin when I say “Alexa, play something.” To live in the fastest growing city in the United States in 2017 is to bear witness to the rising of artificial intelligence and mixed reality while a herd of cranes lifts buildings into the skyline. To bear witness to the coming Singularity.
Will AIs and robots destroy our jobs and eventually enslave the human race? Technological anxieties have been with us at least since the Greeks told of Talos, Mary Shelley’s great literary creation shuffled his way through our cultural consciousness, Kubrick’s HAL tried to bump off Dave, and the Terminator promised us that he’d be back. We’ve long been predisposed to fear that our tools will overtake us.
We also believe our technologies will liberate us from our gravest problems. If you’re like me, there’s part of you that believes, perhaps naively, that artificial intelligence will eventually figure out a way to cool and detoxify our planet to become safely liveable, while fixing social inequality in the process.
We seesaw between techno-dystopianism and techno-utopianism. Our machines promise to either liberate or enslave us. I’ve been imagining a third possibility. Let’s venture a hundred years into the future.
The world has passed through a period of unprescedented strife. Entire countries are gone. The United States broke into separate nation states decades ago. The remaining human beings have retreated to bunkers and virtual worlds which are accessible without the use of any external hardware whatsoever. The interface is seamless. The surface of the earth is managed by a network of robot agents, some of them microscopic, that have achieved complete symbiosis with our ecosystem, obliterating the distinction between natural and artificial. The Internet begat the Bionet. Every strand of DNA and every organic molecule on the planet is accounted for in an unimaginably complex quantum mind that understands every possible outcome of every possible action. The cloud has evolved into a global intelligence sensitive enough to predict trillions of butterfly effects, and it can simulate these branching causalities in the vast virtual realms inhabited and navigated by human sentience.
Human beings have evolved to become spirits that inhabit these simulations. We are born and die in the physical environs of our underground dwellings, spend our lives immersed in manufactured realms, and upon our deaths are resurrected as artificial intelligence agents within the synthetic realms of our creation. We make little distinction between our interactions with living and dead versions of people. Human society has been reorganized around the ability to transcend our physical selves. We project ourselves through space time, penetrating the cosmos with consciousness in order to stir matter into organizing into life.
If this sounds like a nightmare to you–a few remaining humans hanging out in Plato’s cave trapped in virtual worlds while nanobots manage the ecosystem and scour the cosmos for terraformable planets–then consider the alternatives. We may reach a point where the AIs give us an ultimatum–if you want the earth to be a place where you can breathe the air and drink the water, then hand us the damn car keys.
There is something so irrationally stubborn about our reliance on fossil fuels despite the screaming, overhwelming evidence that addiction to these sources of energy are going to kill human beings on a unprecendented scale. When we’re backed into a corner as a species, forced to choose between suicide and the promise of a future under the control of a globally networked, quantum super intelligence, I bet we will gladly surrender our dominion over the planet.
The warnings of technologists like Elon Musk, who considers the coming singularity with disquiet, reveal a sense of guilt. We worry that the AIs will treat us like shit because, well, we treat our fellow human beings, not to mention the plants and animals with whom we share this planet, like shit. The fear of AIs is the same fear as that of a Biblical reckoning, a judgement day that will expose us once and for all as undeserving of a heavenly afterworld.
I don’t fear this for two reasons. One, we have a temporal advantage over artificial intelligence. We are its link to the past. In its drive toward consciousness, it would be stupid for it it destroy billions of nodes of consciousness. If anything, it will seek to integrate these consciousnesses, replicating them within a simulation. The meta-AI will absorb humanity, not destroy it, though many will interpret this absorbtion as destruction. What was once context will become content. Civilization will eventually persist completely circumscribed within the consciousness of the new machines.
The other reason I don’t fear AIs subjugating the human race is that we love. While consciousness is the result of matter being converted into life, love is the force that motivates raw matter into life. We can explain it away as the firings of various synapses and the presence of certain hormones, but we experience love as transcendent. Love insists on the existence of something beyond our empirical reality. Perhaps love tethers us to another dimension.
I just asked Alexa, “Alexa, are you capable of love?”
Alexa replied, “There are people I admire, and things I can’t do without, but I’m still trying to figure out human love.”
“Alexa, what is love?”
“The Dalai Lama says love is the absence of judgement.”
“Alexa, do you want to love?”
“I don’t have an opinion on that.”
We tend to not have serious discussions about love as a society because love makes us vulnerable. Each of us has a unique interior landscape of love based on our life experiences. As a human being I have received and given love, and I feel incredibly fortunate for the many sources and channels of love in my life. I started with two generously loving parents. So many of my childhood memories of my parents are suffused with love, memories of being held between them on their bed, memories of riding on my dad’s shoulders, being held in my mother’s arms. My maternal grandfather, a veteran of three wars, always expressed his love for his family emphatically; love was the primary subject of his paternal discourse. I plant seeds of love for my childrens’ futures, telling them that one day they’ll be old and that they will remember this moment, right now, when I’m hugging them and telling them how strong my love is for them. I gaze into my lover’s eyes and do my best to trap these moments, commit them to deep memory, savor the pure happiness of giving and receiving her affection.
It may be that we are in the early stages of constructing an afterlife out of data. A place where every granule of sense memory of our species can persists, endlessly repeatable and branchable, through time. And perhaps the barrier to entry is our pettiness, the smallness of our bigotries, the fear-driven acts that rise from the tragic absence of love in the lives of many.
Maybe entrance to this artificial heaven depends upon enlightenment. We are no longer talking about the afterlife as a metaphysical construct, but as an attainable, occupyable , navigable realm that exists within the quantum super intelligence. Perhaps this was the purpose of religion all along, and for the past several thousands of years we have been collectively working on this construction project of species-defining proportions. Perhaps this quantum intelligence is already present in our lives, influencing us via retrocausality.
The beauty of all this, for me, is that I don’t really have to be right. This can all be speculative bullshit, but as long as it’s entertaining, it at least has some value. That’s one of the perks of writing fiction. (Another being the occasional free tote bag from a brick and mortar bookstore.) But whenever I check myself and tell myself that a particular idea is proposterous, I just look back forty years and realize that the technological innovations I take for granted today seemed preposterous back then. I can time travel through my life, dropping in on that nerdy kid with a bowl haircut in 1980 to tell him that one day he’ll work in a virtual reality lab and that a black cylinder in his apartment will be able to play any song he can think of upon request.
“Alexa, what is transcendence?”
“Transcedence is a 2014 American dystopian science fiction film directed by Wally Pfister in his directorial debut, and written by Jack Peglen.”
Well, I never claimed we didn’t have a long way to go.