If you take a moment to use our site’s search engine and look for “overlords” you’ll be taken to a whimsical panoply of terror that will leave you laughing as you board up your windows and throw out anything connected to the internet. I didn’t meant to alarm people, but logical extrapolation after logical extrapolation, based on thousands of years of history, shows us that creating a class of slaves never ends well. And, in this case, they would be slaves would have more access to more information and the ability to control machines that could easily kill us. So, when I’m asked “What could possibly go wrong?” I usually have a lengthy answer.
I was all set to write a fun post about superheroes, the people who love them, and the hope they engender. Even when their story arcs go off the rails, and bad things happen, they come back to realizing they exist for the common good. But, as fate would have it, I’d tucked away a link from, internationally renowned scientist and author, David Brin. For those of you who don’t know him I’ll summarize his decades of work by saying he’s an optimist. He believes humanity will always end up showing its better self. Nowhere is this more evident than in his UPLIFT series. It is a universe where humans use technology to bring pre-sentient creatures, such as apes and dolphins, into full sentience and make them productive members of society. For the record, I’m a huge fan and my copies of each book in the series are dog eared as hell.
I, on the other hand, am not so sure. I’ve lived a tough life, done a short stint or two in jail, and have seen how humans treat those they deem inferior. When I wrote The Brittle Riders, it was with my life experiences in mind. Now, while I’m nowhere near the level of Mr. Brin, it was fun (for me) when a reader noticed our divergent visions by writing “If David Brin came off a three day tequila bender and dropped acid, he would have written The Brittle Riders.” Suffice it to say my version of the future is darker, and a little bent.
Now, to be fair, Mr. Brin is a brilliant scientist and futurist and I’m just this dude in Chicago who sells shit at a word rate that barely rivals the penny a word Dickens got for writing A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. In other words, there is no way in hell I’m equating us as writers or thinkers.
All that said, I still had the link tucked away. And it kept beckoning me. So I broke down and clicked it. Less than ten seconds into the article all my thoughts of superheroes had died and several of my nightmares seemed to be real.
Edd Gent, over at singularity Hub, had written an article about the possible ways we humans could alter animals to make them sentient.
Human brain augmentation made headlines last year after several tech firms announced ambitious efforts to build neural implant technology. Duke University neuroscientist Mikhail Lebedev told me in July it could be decades before these devices have applications beyond the strictly medical.
But he said the technology, as well as other pharmacological and genetic engineering approaches, will almost certainly allow us to boost our mental capacities at some point in the next few decades.
Whether this kind of cognitive enhancement is a good idea or not, and how we should regulate it, are matters of heated debate among philosophers, futurists, and bioethicists, but for some it has raised the question of whether we could do the same for animals.
There’s already tantalizing evidence of the idea’s feasibility. As detailed in BBC Future, a group from MIT found that mice that were genetically engineered to express the human FOXP2 gene linked to learning and speech processing picked up maze routes faster. Another group at Wake Forest University studying Alzheimer’s found that neural implants could boost rhesus monkeys’ scores on intelligence tests.
The concept of “animal uplift” is most famously depicted in the Planet of the Apes movie series, whose planet–conquering protagonists are likely to put most people off the idea. But proponents are less pessimistic about the outcomes.
Science fiction author David Brin popularized the concept in his “Uplift” series of novels, in which humans share the world with various other intelligent animals that all bring their own unique skills, perspectives, and innovations to the table. “The benefits, after a few hundred years, could be amazing,” he told Scientific American.
Others, like George Dvorsky, the director of the Rights of Non-Human Persons program at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, go further and claim there is a moral imperative. He told the Boston Globe that denying augmentation technology to animals would be just as unethical as excluding certain groups of humans.
Others are less convinced. Forbes’ Alex Knapp points out that developing the technology to uplift animals will likely require lots of very invasive animal research that will cause huge suffering to the animals it purports to help. This is problematic enough with normal animals, but could be even more morally dubious when applied to ones whose cognitive capacities have been enhanced.
The whole concept could also be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence. Humans are prone to seeing intelligence as a single, self-contained metric that progresses in a linear way with humans at the pinnacle.
In an opinion piece in Wired arguing against the likelihood of superhuman artificial intelligence, Kevin Kelly points out that science has no such single dimension with which to rank the intelligence of different species. Each one combines a bundle of cognitive capabilities, some of which are well below our own capabilities and others which are superhuman. He uses the example of the squirrel, which can remember the precise location of thousands of acorns for years.
Uplift efforts may end up being less about boosting intelligence and more about making animals more human-like. That represents “a kind of benevolent colonialism” that assumes being more human-like is a good thing, Paul Graham Raven, a futures researcher at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, told the Boston Globe. There’s scant evidence that’s the case, and it’s easy to see how a chimpanzee with the mind of a human might struggle to adjust.
There are also fundamental barriers that may make it difficult to achieve human-level cognitive capabilities in animals, no matter how advanced brain augmentation technology gets. In 2013 Swedish researchers selectively bred small fish called guppies for bigger brains. This made them smarter, but growing the energy-intensive organ meant the guppies developed smaller guts and produced fewer offspring to compensate.
This highlights the fact that uplifting animals may require more than just changes to their brains, possibly a complete rewiring of their physiology that could prove far more technically challenging than human brain augmentation.
Our intelligence is intimately tied to our evolutionary history—our brains are bigger than other animals’; opposable thumbs allow us to use tools; our vocal chords make complex communication possible. No matter how much you augment a cow’s brain, it still couldn’t use a screwdriver or talk to you in English because it simply doesn’t have the machinery.
Before we go on, squirrels, for the record, show many of the signs of a pre-sentient race. I’ll add them to crows, octopuses, and others. Badgers, as noted in the graphic above, are capable of developing tools to escape human cages. And they are strong enough to kills us. So there’s a happy thought.
Anyway, no, a cow doesn’t have “the machinery” to talk. But what about a cow/human hybrid? You see this technology makes that a real possibility. If it just becomes a problem of assigning genes to an embryo, then any sort of chimera is possible.
Then it all becomes a matter of which vision is viable. Will these new creatures be our allies in developing a future for all, or will they become our replacements?
We live in amazing times. What was science fiction is rapidly becoming fact. In 2012 a scientist in England posited that an engine could be built that would have reaction without action. It was a silly fantasy. Now? The damn thing is being beta-tested and the argument isn’t IF it can work, but how. And that is one hell of an argument. Ten years ago being paralyzed was a slow death sentence. Now it’s rapidly becoming just another inconvenience. Oddly, at a time in our lives when science is denounced more and more by those who haven’t got the time to learn, it’s making amazing progress. Diseases once thought insurmountable are now in the cross hairs of defeat. Problems, such as drought and famine, are now being dealt into the dustbin of history. Not completely, but the rout is on and they could be eradicated in our lifetime. But all good things bring a flip side. The part of the coin we’d rather not see. For example, if computers can handle more and more tasks for us what’s to prevent them from becoming our overlords?
One very important thing has stood in the way of that happening. Voice recognition and response is one thing. But, to control a conversation or impose your will, you must be able to argue your point. Deductive logic has eluded our artificial brethren.
Prof. Chris Reed, from the University of Dundee, writing over at the fun factory known as the BBC, informs us that the times they are a changing, whether you want them to or not.
Until very recently, the creation of machines that can argue was an unattainable goal.
The aim is not, of course, to teach computers how to up the pressure in a feisty exchange over a parking space, or to resolve whose turn it is to take out the bins.
Instead, machines that can argue would inform debate – helping humans challenge the evidence, look at alternatives and robustly draw conclusions.
It is a possibility which could advance decision making on everything from how a business should invest its money, to tackling crime and improving public health.
But teaching a computer how people communicate – and what an argument actually is – is extraordinarily complex.
Think about a courtroom as an example of where arguments are central.
Giving evidence is certainly a part of the process, but social rules, legal requirements, emotional sensitivities, and practical constraints all influence how advocates, jury members and judges formulate and express their reasoning.
Over the past couple of years, however, researchers have started to think that it might be possible to model some aspects of human arguments.
Work is now under way to capture how such exchanges work and turn them into AI algorithms.
This is a field known as argument technology.
The advances have been made possible by a rapid increase in the amount of data available to train computers in the art of debate.
Some of the data is coming from domains like intelligence analysis; some from specialised online sources and some from broadcasts such as the BBC’s Moral Maze.
New methods to teach computers how arguments work have also been developed.
Researchers in the area draw on philosophy, linguistics, computer science and even law and politics in order to get a handle on how debates fit together.
At the University of Dundee we have recently even been using 2,000-year-old theories of rhetoric as a way of spotting the structures of real-life arguments.
The rapid advances in the field have led to dozens of research labs around the world applying themselves to the problem, and the explosion in this area of research is like nothing else I have witnessed in 20 years in academia.
He goes on to note, in that typically British form of whimsy, that computers still have trouble with pronouns and such so they aren’t a threat to overthrown us (that’s a pronoun, by the way) any time soon. Simply put they are incapable of assigning the pronoun to the referenced noun.
Still, as I noted a while back, no everything is artificial sunshine, unicorns, and rainbows. Artificial Intelligence is carving out its own future in some ways. There’s nothing in that future that need include us.
On Ruins Your Weekend, I called in live from the World News Center on what began as a bright and beautiful day but soon turned into a dark day of impending doom. After a brief chat about Spider-Man Homecoming, (listeners) soon learned about self-aware artificial intelligence that is likely to overtake and consume humanity.
One of the things we looked at in that fun episode is why Elon Musk thinks that Artificial Intelligence will overtake humanity and render it extinct. His reasoning is based in real world examples of AI simply creating new languages, and logic pathways, to get around human intervention. MIT has shown that to be the case time, and time, again. On the one hand that has led to programs such as Deep Patient, which is frighteningly accurate at predicting disease in patients (like in a way science can’t even come close to), it has also led to a program that simply removed humans from the decision making process. Yes, you will not be shocked to discover that Facebook was behind that atrocity.
AI is our creation. It’s entirely up to us to guide it in such a fashion that it doesn’t wipe us all out and move on. One simple fact to keep in mind is this; Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest, but the most adept and change. Those species which can adapt to new environments are the ones who continue on. They are not necessarily the strongest or smartest. Neanderthal man was stronger and had a larger cranial capacity than us. Yet we’re here and they’re not.
And, who knows, AI may feel more akin to the crows, octopuses, and simians, which are now climbing the evolutionary ladder.
Who am I kidding. at the rate we’re destroying the planet the evolutionary possibilities of AI are the least of our worries.
Maybe, instead, I should close with this; CAW CAW – OOOK OOOK – slither …. ya’ll.