Difference between revisions of "Cautions on the Superhuman Transition"
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This is the unedited version of an article which appeared in WHole Earth Review, 81:96-98 (Winter 1993). Copyright 1993, William H. Calvin. Copies may be reproduced for personal use; for other uses, contact the author at [email protected] Cautions on the Superhuman Transition William H. Calvin William H. Calvin is a neurophysiologist at the University of Washington. He is the author of such books as _The River that Flows Uphill: A Journey from the Big Bang to the Big Brain_ (Sierra Club Books, 1987) and co-author of the forthcoming book _Conversations with Neil's Brain: The Neural Nature of Thought and Language_ (Addison-Wesley, 1994). E-mail: [email protected] Machine intelligence will have profound effects when a computer begins to converse like a human, even engaging in social chats. Lots of humanlike behaviors will be missing in this first-order approximation but even a partial workalike will set in motion one of those historical transitions -- after which nothing is the same. Perhaps it won't qualify as a singularity (an instant shift into totally unpredictable consequences) but we surely have a major transition coming up in the next several generations of humankind, and it needs discussing now. As a neurophysiologist interested in how the circuitry of human cerebral cortex allows us to construct sentences and speculate about tomorrow, I suspect that "downloading" of an individual's brain to a workalike computer is unlikely to work; dementia, psychosis, and seizures are all too likely. But on the basic question, of whether we can build a computer that talks like a human, is as endearing as our pets, thinks in metaphor and multiple levels of abstraction - there, I think that it will be relatively easy to construct a first-order workalike that reasons, categorizes, and understands speech. We'll even be able to make it run on principles closely analogous to those used in our brains (1). I can already see one way of doing this, extrapolating from known wiring principles of human cerebral cortex, and there might be _ad hoc_ ways of doing it too, e.g., AI. Even the first-order workalike will be recognizably "conscious," likely as self-centered as we are. And I don't mean trivial aspects of consciousness such as aware, awake, sensitive, and arousable. It will likely include focussing attention, mental rehearsal, abstraction, imagery, subconscious processing, "what-if" planning, decision making -- and especially the narratives we humans tell ourselves when awake or dreaming. To the extent that such functions can operate far faster than they do in our own millisecond-scale brains, we'll see an aspect of "superhuman" emerging from the "workalike." But that's the easy part, just extrapolation of existing trends in computing technology, AI, and neurophysiological understanding. There are at least three hard parts. ------ One hard part will be to make sure it fits into an ecology comprised of animal species. Such as us. Especially us. That's because competition is most intense between closely related species, the reason why none of our Australopithecine and _Homo erectus_ cousins are still around, the reason why only two omnivorous ape species have survived (chimpanzee and bonobo). Our more immediate ancestors probably wiped out the others as competitors. "To keep every wheel and cog," said Aldo Leopold in 1948 (2), "is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering." Introducing a powerful new species into the ecosystem is not a step to be taken lightly. When automation rearrangements occur so gradually that no one starves, they are often beneficial. Everyone used to gather or hunt their own food, but agricultural technologies have gradually reduced the percentage of our population that farms to about 3 percent. And that's freed up many people to spend their time at other pursuits. The relative mix of those "occupations" changes over time, as in the shift from manufacturing jobs to service jobs in recent decades. Workalikes will change it even more, displacing even some of the more educated workers. But there would be some significant benefits to humans: imagine a superhuman teaching machine as a teacher's assistant, one which could hold actual conversations with the student, never got bored with drilling, always remembered to provide the necessary variety to keep the student interested, could tailor the offerings to the student's particular needs, and routinely scanned for signs of a developmental disorder, say in reading or attention span. Silicon superhumans could also apply such talents to teaching the next generation of superhumans, evolving still smarter ones just by variation and selection: after all, their star silicon pupil could be cloned. Each offspring would be educated somewhat differently thereafter. With varied experiences, some might have desired traits, _values_ such as sociability or concern for human welfare. Again we could select the star pupil for cloning. Since the copying includes memories to date (that's the advantage of intelligence _in silico_; you can include readout capabilities for use in cloning), experience would be cumulative, truly Lamarckian: the offspring wouldn't have to repeat their parent's mistakes. ------ Values are the second hard part, agreeing on them and implementing them _in silico._ The first-order workalikes will be totally amoral, just raw intelligence and language ability. They won't even come with the inherited qualities that make our pets safe to be around. We humans tend to be treated by our pets as either their mother (in the case of cats) or as their pack leader (in the case of dogs); they defer to us. This cognitive confusion on their part allows us humans to benefit from their inborn social behaviors. How do we build in safeguards, especially something as abstract as Asimov's Laws of Robotics or Good's Meta-Golden Rule? My guess is that it will require a lot of the star-pupil cloning. This gradual evolution over many superhuman generations might partially substitute for biological inheritance at birth, perhaps minimizing sociopathic tendencies in silicon superhumans and limiting their risk-taking behaviors. If that's true, it will take many decades to get from raw intelligence (that first-order workalike) to a safe-without-constant- supervision superhuman. The early models could be smart and talkative without being cautious or wise, a very risky combination, potentially sociopathic. They'd have the top-end abilities without their well-tested evolutionary predecessors as the underpinning. ------ The third hard part is moderating the reactions of humanity to the perceived challenge. Just as an overenthusiastic reaction by your immune system to a challenge can cripple you via allergies and autoimmune diseases (and perhaps kill you via anaphylactic shock), so human reactions to silicon superhumans could create enormous strains in our present civilization. A serious reaction, once workalikes were already playing a significant role in the economy, could disrupt the system that allows the farmers to support the other 97 percent of us. Remember that famines kill because the distribution system fails, not because there isn't enough food grown somewhere in the world. The Luddites and _sabots_ of the 21st Century will be aided by some very basic features of human ethology, ones which played little role in 19th-century Europe. Groups try to distinguish themselves from others. Despite the benefits of a common language, most tribes in history have exaggerated linguistic differences with their neighbors so as to tell friend from foe. You can be sure that the Turing Test will be in regular use, people trying to tell whether a real human bureaucrat is at the other end of the phone line. Machines could be required to speak in a characteristic voice to dampen this vigilence, but it won't prevent "us and them" tensions. Workalikes and superhumans could also be restricted to certain "occupations." Their entry into other areas could be subject to an evaluation process that carefully tested a new model against a sample of real human society. When the potential for serious side effects is so great, and the rate of introduction so potentially rapid, we would be well advised to adopt procedures similar to how the FDA tests new drugs and medical instruments for efficacy, safety, and side effects. This doesn't slow the development of the technology so much as it slows its widespread use and allows retreats. Workalikes might be restricted to a limited sphere of interactions; to use the Internet or telephone networks, they might require stringent licensing. There might be a one-day delay rule for distributing output from superhumans that only had a beginner's license, to address some of the "program trading" hazards. For some, we might want the computer equivalent of our P4 containments for replicating viruses. ------ It does start to raise the question: "Just what _is_ the proper business of this society of ours?" Making humans "all they can be" by removing shackles and optimizing upbringing? Or making computers better than humans? Maybe we can do both (as in those teacher's assistants), but during our headlong rush to superhumans -- a major form of tinkering -- we need to protect humanity. The ways that we could introduce caution are, however, constrained by the various drives that are leading us to this intelligence transition: o Curiosity is my primary motivation -- How does intelligence come about? -- and surely that of many computer scientists. But even if curiosity for its own sake were somehow hobbled (as various religions have attempted), other drives lead us in the same direction. o "It takes all the running you can do," said the Red Queen to Alice, "to keep in the same place." If we don't improve the technology, someone else will. Historically, losing technological races has often meant being taken over (or eliminated by) your competitor -- and on the scale of nations, not just companies (3). Given those growth curves in MIPS and megabytes over the last several decades, the rest of the world probably wouldn't slow down even if the majority decided to do so. o Serious threats demand the development of huge computing resources anyway. For example, our climate is now known to "shift gears" in only a matter of a few years (4), probably via rearranging the ocean currents. Many times in the past, Europe has suddenly switched from its present climate of winter warmth (thanks to a preheated North Atlantic Ocean) to a cold and dry climate like Canada's. Europe's agriculture would then only feed one person in 25. Such a flip now (and global warming appears to make a flip more likely, not less) would set off World War Three as everyone (and not just the Europeans) struggled for _lebensraum_. It is urgent that we understand how to manipulate those climatic gearshifts for our own survival. The big machines needed for global climatic modeling are very similar to what one needs for simulating brain processes. I don't see realistic ways of "buying time" to make this superhuman transition at a more deliberate pace. And so the problems of superintelligent machines will simply need to be faced head-on in the next several decades, not somehow postponed by slowing technological progress itself. An Asilomar-like conference, like the one convened when genetic engineering was getting underway in the 1970s, will probably mark the beginning of a serious response to these challenges. Sociologists, sociobiologists, philosophers, psychologists, historians, primate ethologists, evolutionary theorists, cognitive neuroscientists, and science-fiction authors probably have more expertise in the three "hard parts" than do the people building the machines. Our civilization will, of course, be "playing God" in an ultimate sense of the phrase: evolving a greater intelligence than currently exists on earth. It behooves us to be a considerate creator, wise to the world and its fragile nature, sensitive to the need for stable footings that prevent backsliding. Or collapse. �1. William H. Calvin, _The Cerebral Symphony: Seashore Reflections on the Structure of Consciousness_ (Bantam 1989). 2. Aldo Leopold, _Sand County Almanac_, p. 190. 3. Paul Colinvaux, _The Fates of Nations_ (Penguin 1982). 4. William H. Calvin, _The Ascent of Mind: Ice Age Climates and the Evolution of Intelligence_ (Bantam 1990). Also "Greenhouse and Icehouse: Might catastrophic cooling be triggered by global warming?" _Whole Earth Review_ 73:106-111 (1991). --end--