By Patrick Metzger
This our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
We are increasingly living in a technological world—not just a world in which we encounter technology often, but rather one in which computational systems are embedded in almost everything we interact with. It’s natural, then, to be mindful that artificial intelligence may be on the horizon. Given the vast and unknowable interconnectedness of these technologies, it’s conceivable that AI may indeed arise without our realizing it. If it does, how will we respond? Who will we become in response? What world will we live in? We should be aware of the choices we’re making before the choices start making themselves.
We have entrusted most of our memorization to the machines that surround us on all sides. Thankfully, memory is not the sum total of a mind. Yet it is not insignificant. We rely more and more on machines to have the answers, offloading our analytical effort onto our devices. The little questions and curiosities that once were the fodder for meandering conversations and afternoon walks are now relegated to a momentary interaction with a search engine. What species of spinach is this? What is the distinct relationship between the breeding of grapefruits, pomelos, and sweet oranges? What is the lineage of the kings of Mali?
All of these questions that might have found resolution through the words of another living person—who might thereby prove some measure of expertise or social standing or just foster a momentary bond between humans—are now easily answered with the duty to which we have set our opposable thumbs: Google it.
It turns out the answers were much less important than the questions.
We don’t so much want to know what year the Nirvana album Nevermind was released, but rather we want to share in that moment of nostalgia that comes from reflecting on time-specific life stories with another human. With all the things the Internet can do for us, it doesn’t have a mind of its own to share those moments with us… unless it does.
We like to think of humans as the most essential part of every system. But when we do so, we lose sight of the sheer magnitude of the planetary technoecology we are a part of. In comparison to the sensors and servos and algorithms running all across the planet and extending out into space, constantly monitoring weather patterns, packaging our food, recognizing the faces of our friends, and matching us with taxis and jobs and romantic partners—in some ways humans are just small data-gathering entities in this larger puzzle. It should give us pause, then, that computers are now better than humans at recognizing faces, hiring successful job candidates, diagnosing lung cancer, and can solve scientific problems that have stumped humans for 100 years.
There’s no clear evidence to suggest that there is any sort of independent consciousness thrumming through the Internet, but it is a subject that is worth some contemplation. Consider for a moment—how would we ever test whether the interconnected technologies of our world were self-aware? Turing suggested a one-on-one conversation—can the imposter fool the human into thinking it is human? If so, who are we to deny its validity as a conscious entity?
However, with a global network of computers acting constantly like distributed synapses in a very large brain, where do we turn to pose the first interrogation? I wouldn’t venture to say that one cell in my brain has intelligence in and of itself. Nor would I presume that a single node in this giant network will necessarily ever be able to exhibit human-like behavior (the current efforts in that regard are surely not incredibly impressive).
We find ourselves, as usual, in the unfortunate position of looking for God—which is to say, searching for something entirely out of scale with ourselves and of which we are a part. And, as usual, we’re looking in all the wrong places.
I don’t propose that computers, taken one at a time, are really that much more personable than they were 50 years ago. But we have gladly given a real part of ourselves over to the care of a distributed populace (sometimes human, sometimes humanity’s echo written into software). And once a question is answered in the digital halls of antiquity, it is answered forever. Revisions may be made on the Wikipedia page, but the knowledge is already laid bare and rests in the binary codes on servers to which we tend like diligent servants. Any shadow of that same knowledge that might be resting in the gray matter of human brains is increasingly seen as redundant. Redundancies are critical in a complex system such as this. But they are, never-the-less, superfluous, which I dare say a wordsmith like Shakespeare never expected the human mind to become.
“But so what?” you may say. “We don’t have to remember facts and figures. We get to focus on creativity. Once we finally hand off all this useless knowledge, we’ll be able to do whatever we want.” And so the headlines have always droned on, since the invention of the cotton gin—“Is this an end to work as we know it?”
No. It isn’t.
We’ve entwined ourselves too deeply with our new lovers, our new brains. We’ve entered into trade with this foreign land of CPU’s, and now there is no cord to cut. Our bodies are one and the same. We feel that we move freely about the world, but our pocket supercomputers (which we hilariously call “phones”) are now proof of our identities (with two-factor authentication and various payment systems), the source of our livelihood (now that every industry is the tech industry), the link to our friends, and, of course, the storehouse of our personal and cultural memory.
In March, Elon Musk announced his newest venture: Neuralink—a company that will be dedicated to making human-computer interfaces that can be implanted into the brain. His idea is that we need to speed up the processing power of the human brain if we’re ever going to keep up with machines. While he is simultaneously trying to democratize artificial intelligence through OpenAI (a collaboration with Y Combinator) it’s hard to ignore that, if successful, Neuralink will create an even bigger rift in society between the wealthy (those who can afford the enhancement technology) and people living in poverty (those who already have difficulty accessing the internet, even within America). Not to mention it could potentially bring to fruition a dystopian future similar to The Matrix or Ready Player One.
We seem to want to go further. We want to solve climate change with our carbon. We want to end hunger with our factories. We want to cure diseases with our carcinogenic plastic life. We want to go out with a bang rather than a whimper.
This is where our modern-day conception of work is driving us. We cannot escape from it unless we let go of this beautiful nightmare we’ve concocted. The only way we’ll have an end to work is if we actually decide to let people stop working. That means providing a guaranteed minimum income. That means providing free healthcare and quality education for everyone—not because it’s good for them, but because it’s an investment in the human capital of our nations. That means recognizing that socialism is not a dirty word.
It will hurt to let the fantasy of infinite growth die. To accept that we live on a planet with finite resources and we’re running out of them. That we are the pollutants. That Silicon Valley is not solving wealth inequality, it’s creating it. That the American Dream of social mobility is a lie told by those with privilege. That our efforts to “develop” an unwilling world are simply the twisted, colonial, manifest destinies of a bygone age wherein the powerful put on the costume of a savior and ask for worship.
We need to be humble and accept that our entire conception of the world may be wrong. We should seek silence and contemplate our place in the great expanse of the cosmos. We should take pleasure in the rich flavor of our daily bread, rather than search and search for the perfectly arranged food selfie. We should spend our time solving the hard problems of society like injustice and bigotry and ecological crisis, rather than waste our time moving numbers around on a screen to justify outdated modes of energy production. We should enjoy the everyday fraternity of our communities, rather than constantly hunting for a new enemy.
We’re just human. But it just might be enough.