Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Onto the Next Gear

The Age of Artificial Intelligence, the age where intelligent machines play a central role in our society and in our economy is here. This is not science fiction or the prelude to a Hollywood movie; this will be the reality for most of us starting the later part of the twenty-first century. With search engines, bots, drones, and prototypes of self-driving cars, we can already perceive first glimpses of these agents of artificial intelligence. I do not wish to call for general alarmism but, rather, to only too briefly discuss what may be an important inflexion point in the history of human progress, as a handful before it. The coming-together, with enough industrial maturity for large-scale production, of our semi-conducting and digital technologies; our algorithmic and computational knowledge; and our mechanical technologies will usher a new age upon us. After the mastery of fire; agriculture and animal husbandry; the alphabet and abstract scripts; the forging and casting of bronze then iron; and the birth of empirical sciences and the industrial revolution, self-adapting artificial intelligence is, likely, the next driver of a great change to our way of life, our socio-political structures, and even our ethics. If this indeed turns out to be our next technological high-plateau, it will have, as those abovementioned that preceded it, many deep implications on all human societies.

Some of these implications will be on our professional endeavours and our socio-economic structures. Since the dawn of agriculture, some human beings have relied on the surplus production of others for material sufficiency. Agricultural surplus allowed for hierarchical social structures, but also for greater possibility of leisure; and from there, more time for speculation, aesthetics, knowledge development, invention, and discovery. In fact, manpower surplus has shaped social structures and traditions across the globe for millennia. Only, in the age of smart and adaptive robotics en masse, this economic way of being will be challenged, as the surplus on which we will depend shall increasingly come from technological agents. This will not happen overnight; it will be a gradual process. Nonetheless, a critical mass will be reached in the not-so-distant future, even in the services sector, and I fail to see how this will not precipitate important socio-political changes and reorganisations. Possibilities include more deflation stemming from gains in productivity (e.g. we can already take notice of numerous products and services that have become cheaper and more accessible over the past decade with digitisation and the Internet); the question of ownership of the distributed productive capacities (i.e. who will own these widely available smart robots, certain monopolies or all of us?); the problem of subsistence of low income populations, those who would be deprived from such smart agents and whose livelihood depends on providing services replaced by robots; and even, changes to the traditional ways of exchange of goods and services, including the notion of money itself. Furthermore, as it is unfortunately often the case with new technologies, intelligent robots will have direct consequences on the conduct of human warfare, as we already see with the increased usage of drones.

Other implications will be philosophical and ethical, with the increased dissociation between intelligence and consciousness on one side, and biological life on the other, even as far as the transfer and continued functioning of human consciousness and memory following biological death. In addition to the problems of ‘immortality’ it might generate, developed and self-recognising artificial intelligence will expose us fresh to ethical questions that have preoccupied some thinkers for millennia but remained fringe specialist subjects up until now. The problem of what makes personhood will become of a more general importance in society with the coming of enduring artificial consciousness and greater self-learning and self-adapting artificial intelligence. Equally, the problem of what makes someone human will emerge again with the emergence of alternative developed consciousness; and this problem will theoretically be as vivid as when Homo sapiens co-existed with its cousins of the Homo genus, such as Homo neanderthalensis, who equally had developed consciousness (not that Homo sapiens bothered then with what makes them human; they mostly cared about staying alive). This time around, we will be facing another co-existing consciousness, only of the ‘artificial’ kind. Again, these are not fanciful scenarios today but in the remit of where artificial intelligence can take us. The ethical and legal implications are evidently tremendous, and the other equivalent ‘ethical earthquake’ would be to come face-to-face with a sophisticated and conscious alien civilisation. Ironically, it is quite likely that we will create artificial consciousness before meeting any such outside civilisation.

On another aspect, the frontier between virtual and real will become blurrier with the expansion of an intelligent digital world. ‘Virtual reality’ and reality as we have envisaged it so far will be harder to distinguish. The body does not differentiate easily, especially without prior awareness of their origin, sensations triggered by virtual vs. real drivers. Furthermore, one of the main ways by which we distinguish the virtual from the real is in the prevalence of the latter. All of this is subject to change with widespread artificial intelligence. We only have to think about us living constantly in a self-adapting virtual environment initiated by our own; or think about what a robot finely imitating a baby would do to our parenting instincts. And if we have a tendency to anthropomorphise biological animals, it will indeed prove difficult for our conscious control to constantly alert us against sensations caused by a well-engineered virtual reality or human-like robots.

These are only some of the deep implications that an age with mass-scale developed and conscious intelligence will likely bring.


Our Revolution Against Evolution

One can make different interpretations of the Darwinian theory of evolution, and several of these interpretations continue to preoccupy and divide even the specialists in present evolutionary debates. Notwithstanding, three key consequences from Darwin’s theory are generally agreed by most who subscribe to it; they are that:

  • Human beings do not possess any fundamentally different nature from that of other living forms; any difference is a matter of degrees of evolution. To quote Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man, “Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”
  • Various forms of life constantly struggle and compete to live; some win and some lose in the process. “[…] one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings – namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” Charles Darwin, On the Origins of Species.
  • Suffering is a fact of life; it is even one of the modus operandi of Nature – after a few documentaries on any wildlife channel, this reality becomes evident rather quickly. “[…] the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.” Charles & Francis Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin.

These ideas in themselves are far from being original to Darwin; he has however the merit of grounding them in scientific theory. That we are all of the same nature has been part of pantheistic religions, such as Hinduism and Taoism, for millennia; that the fittest (in fact, in Darwinian theory it is not necessarily the fittest but, rather, the most adaptive) survives was a subject of Empedocles following the philosophical development of Strife by Heraclitus in Greek Antiquity; and that there is great suffering in the world, or that even life is suffering (or more accurately ‘unsatisfactoriness’) is a pillar of Buddhism with Dukkha.

Being as they are, these three precepts could be taken as eternal and indubitable facts of life; only, part of human civilisation, through greater awareness, is forcing its own, different mark on Earth. Despite a long history of violence and, in many cases, cultural and ethnical exterminations, and despite many human groups today remaining violent and only responding to power, coercion, and fear of death, there is a distinct trend developing in human society: a growing number of us are taking greater ethical measurements from the first of the abovementioned precepts – that we are all not that different – and increasingly rejecting the other two precepts. Many humans in the world today are working against the universality of generalised struggle, violence, and suffering in life, be it within our own species or extending to other species.

This may seem wrong to say at first, when we continuously read about violence and wars in the news; when we hear constant rhetoric about humans abusing and subjecting Nature for their own selfish pleasures; when we know that many species are on the verge of extinction; and when we realise that we farm and kill billions of animals annually for food and clothing. Only, we are not all as evil and cutthroat as the news might indicate. In fact, if we were so, there would be no ‘real’ Nature left in the world today, as we have the technological capability to fully wipe it out. There would also be many more wars than there is, given that we number in the billions on the planet. In judging human nature and its impact on our planet, we often omit the fact of our large number in billions of people walking this earth, which makes the selfish actions of few percentage points substantial in absolute terms; we also tend to forget about the millions of relief and charitable organisations working in the world today, not to mention daily acts of kindness; and we do not account for the billions of people and millions of animals we protect, give to, defend, or make part of our families. When it comes to damages to Nature, for example, our most dangerous action typically stems from lack of awareness about the consequences of our behaviour, magnified by our large numbers and our greater technological footprint, more so than premeditated aggressive will against other forms of life in the name of gene dominance.

Through greater awareness and capacity for ethical judgment, humans could be in the midst of a revolution against classical evolution and many of its selfish and painful ways; we are exerting greater empathy and sympathy from the realisation that we are all fundamentally not that different, and we have the technology to do so. By accepting the first precept, we cannot but become open to forms of compassion, acceptance of other’s personhood, or, at the very least, a certain degree of respect. As such, human differences appear circumstantial and often the result of chance; and by becoming aware of the reality of suffering of all living beings, we come to feel that we are all in it together. We come to care, even when we choose to reject anthropomorphism. Moreover, through the drive for universal ‘pursuit of happiness’, we strive for evermore technology in order to alleviate suffering and dissatisfaction – constant and eternal happiness being a utopia notwithstanding.

In our days, we do not throw away the sickly and the weak in the name of better genes, and we feel more pain when we are made aware of animal suffering and abuse, where classical evolution tells us not to care in the name of our ‘better’ survival. When we see someone in pain, we do not shrug and say this is life, but we look for the technology at our disposal to try to remedy the pain. We do not have to, but we do so nonetheless. We care, and we care even more when we realise that other living beings, human and otherwise, are not fundamentally that different. We have more technology and awareness today to fight this fight, but we are also exposed to greater threats that make this fight more consequential. In response to those who argue that there must be some general indirect utility behind our compassionate actions within the human community and outside it, I genuinely doubt that we always do so strictly from the point of view of maximisation of some general utility, intentional or otherwise. We are social and affective beings, and it is often enough for us to realise that what is around us is not of an alien nature; that the animal condition is not stranger to ours; and that we are all small in the grand scheme of things, to extend this sociability and affection beyond a small group of individuals. Other mammals have also been witnessed to act in similarly compassionate ways within their species and outside it. And the more we become conscious that what is around us is not that different from us, the more difficult it becomes for us to dismiss the other one as a mere threat to our existence, a competing gene, a tool, or food.

Respecting a living being does not preclude you from defending yourself from it if threatened or in the case of animals not under the threat of extinction killing it for food on need basis; it does however preclude you from disposing of it unnecessarily and recklessly without the slightest awareness; it does also preclude you from exerting on it unwarranted pain and remaining agnostic towards, or even enjoying, its pain. There is a general trend today towards rejecting blind servitude and commoditisation of other living beings – it is a key reason for why brutal practices in the food industry are often kept hidden from a public eye increasingly unaccepting of its practices. Only, we all do so imperfectly; we generally care less about people with whom we do not associate; we might give money to a charity but pass by a person in distress with indifference; we tend to care more about charismatic animals than others; and we still largely disagree about the criteria to use for defining legal and moral personhood, such as subjectivity, consciousness, or emotional reciprocity. Nevertheless, we are bringing our own morality into Nature. We have a choice, and, whether we want it or not, we are continuously making this choice. Thinking that we can leave Nature to be and just watch it develop in isolation is simplistic; we cannot but interact with our environment, under all its forms, as all things interact. By the fact of breathing we interact with our environment. We can look to minimise the effects of our living and our technology, but we cannot look to eliminate them. I argue that we should not look to remove ourselves entirely from the equation even if we can; and I say so while being a conservationist at heart.

Our stand against ruthless evolutionary ways is far from certain. Our technological capabilities are quite meaningful today and our numbers are great in comparison with other animals. Both these facts make the battle a highly unpredictable one; it is enough for a minority to steer in the wrong direction and put technological capabilities to the wrong use for precipitous developments to ensue. But even if we ultimately lose the battle of bringing a balanced morality in our approach to Nature – one that is different from selfish, cutthroat, and unstable domination – it is a cause worth fighting for in the name of collective identity. In the long run, the whole universe will change including the existence (or not) of our own species; we therefore have a choice in the matter regardless of conjectural long-term outcome.

The classical model of evolutionary theory goes something like this: each form of life only cares, directly and indirectly, about the preservation and the propagation of its own genes (or DNA). Each gene cares about itself and strives to conquer as much as possible of the living world. And in this race between various DNAs, the ones which endure the longest with changes in environmental conditions, the ones which compete better, and the ones which mutate more effectively under extreme environmental changes are those which are likely to persevere the longest, albeit in an evolved manner, in the phenomenon of Life in general. Darwin, who was a highly sensitive and tormented recluse, and who reportedly turned physically ill when watching or hearing people in pain, was astounded by the prominence of suffering and strife in life; evolutionary competition seemed to him to be the reasonable explanation. Only, this classical interpretation of evolutionary theory (the “selfish gene” theory) might turn out to be the wrong interpretation. Instead of selfish DNA, there is actually the possibility of selfish RNA (it is a possibility and not a proven fact). In a paper published earlier this year (cf. The ribosome as a missing link in the evolution of life, Journal of Theoretical Biology, February 2015, Volume 367), Meredith and Robert Root-Bernstein have argued that all life forms could simply be perceived as different homes for ribosomes. rRNA or Ribosomal RNA might actually turn out to be of greater importance than DNA, and it might have preceded DNA in the evolutionary genesis, rendering the latter a mere stored assembly instruction. To quote from the article, “Ribosomal RNA, in short, is not just a structural scaffold for proteins, but the vestigial remnant of a primordial genome that may have encoded a self-organizing, self-replicating, auto-catalytic intermediary between macromolecules and cellular life.” Superior DNAs might have indeed prevailed in life forms out of evolutionary circumstances, but DNA propagation may not actually be the primary objective of Life; replication of ribosomes could be more important for Life, and that means seeking all ways of replication. And I may be going too far with my conjecture by saying that we could even envisage the ‘selfish’ RNA leaving more room for compassion and refusal of suffering as a mode of being than the selfish DNA.

“Much love much trial, but what an utter desert is life without love.” Charles Darwin.