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Super Intelligence: The Trivial Pursuit

Last time I posted about super-longevity, one of the three main pillars of the Transhumanist movement (H+). Yet surviving on this mortal coil is only good insofar as the life you have is worthwhile. For that worth, the H+ folks press toward a vision of the future which makes you 1) really smart (“superintelligence”), and 2) really happy (“super well-being”).

Hey, if upping everyone’s smart factor lowers my taxes and/or eliminates commercials, slap me sideways and sign me up for H+.

Let’s start with a definition of superintelligence and move outward from there. When the H+ folks speak of superintelligence they are usually referring to one of two conditions. One, superintelligence is the moment in which computer systems exceed the ability of human minds across a variety of cognitive domains [1]. Such an era would might be framed in terms of speed (i.e., a computer system that can match a human’s intellectual capabilities with exponentially faster thinking ability), or cross-disciplinary work (i.e., a system’s ability to solve problems across a variety of domains with much greater ease than a human), or simply qualitatively (i.e., a system that works as fast as human intellect, but vastly smarter). One could say that the era of superintelligence has dawned whenever these thresholds are eventually reached…whether that’s 5 years from now or 50.

The second way to speak of superintelligence is more practical. Futurists expect that future generations will be “chipped.” That is, the average person will have some microchip or something similar embedded in the brain allowing the person (user?) to have instant access to all the informational resources available to humanity. Imagine that—wikipedia and the Library of Congress in your brain, accessible at the speed of thought. Now, FINALLY, you have the capacity to understand and appreciate Melville.

So in one scenario, our computers exceed the cognitive capacities of a human being – then soon, the capacities of all human beings in aggregate. They do the thinking for us. In the other scenario, we use chips to augment our own brains, bringing our natural hardwiring up to specs, if you will. The brain upgrade to OS-H+. In either scenario, the amount of knowledge available to humanity – and the accessibility with which humans engage it – is staggering. It’s coming people, and it’s coming in your lifetime. If you find this trajectory hard to believe, consider how little time it took to get from Tecmo Super Bowl to Madden 2016 (~25 years).

I have to admit that super-intelligence represents a serious threat to my line of work. I’m an educator. If everybody has all the answers, then I am without vocation in this world to a large extent. Much of my power (albeit meager) in this world is pinned on the fact that I know certain things and have the ability to communicate these things to those who don’t know them. Now I don’t see my role as professor as someone who just dumps information into the minds of impressionable youth, but I would be foolish not to recognize the conflict of interest that exists here. Am I resistant to superintelligence because its presence is threatening to me, a person who can hold knowledge over others by virtue of my education and vocation? Difficult to say, but certainly worth considering.

Accepting that there might be a bias latent in my post, it would benefit us to identify the central question at hand: Is there an overarching problem with mass, instantaneous access to all available information?

I agree that, as a general rule, more knowledge is a good thing. I can only imagine that if I was uneducated and poor, the promise of a smarter me would be a game-changer of the highest order. You’ve just been given the skeleton key for all-time: increased health, wealth and dignity. But knowledge must be paired with wisdom and experience if it ever is going to amount to anything useful. It’s one thing to talk about sex in an informed manner; actually experiencing it in a loving relationship is different beast altogether.

Am I resistant to superintelligence because its presence is threatening to me, a person who can hold knowledge over others by virtue of my education and vocation?

The great deception of technology, particularly as it is used to foster education, is that the end product is the only party in town. Imagine that you have a home with a fireplace. The calendar is turning toward autumn and the weather turns with it, cool and refreshing. You feel that wonderful call of the wild. Actually, no…you just want a blazing fire in the fireplace. What do you do? Well, today we simply drive to the nearest market or supply store and pick up a cord or two of wood. Solved.

But what would you have done in prior generations, when your goods were not gathered and sold in one convenient location? You would have called up a neighbor or two, packed up your pick-up with an axe or chainsaw, and headed out to the forest to chop up some seasoned logs. Hours of your day would be invested in the gathering of the wood. But, without you knowing it, multiple goods were achieved during that period of time: You spent time outdoors, you engaged your neighbor in conversation while building trust and social capital, you may have even had time to enjoy the work of it all. The end was the same (a pile of wood for the fireplace) but the process was immeasurably beneficial for holistic living.

Allow me to build the bridge. The technological age values the end product (information) above everything else. Technology continues to “efficient-ize” our lives—devices work fast so that we save all this time to do other things (or nothing). With this approach to the world, the process is entirely marginalized; we just want to stacks ends on top of ends. Yet I argue that the process itself is what forges knowledge into wisdom; it is the very thing that recognizes the limits of knowledge in the face of true relationship and love. If my resources are ever available, I become an island in need of nothing. Or, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel: “I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island.”

The pursuit of knowledge is, of course, nothing new. In fact, some of the earliest Christian spin-offs were of this perspective: Knowledge was salvation. Gnosticism grew in influence by claiming that the primary problem with humanity was not an issue with sin, but an issue of ignorance. Only knowledge can overcome ignorance. Modern gnostics might claim the same thing: You need more brains, dummy.

If my resources are ever available, I become an island in need of nothing.

Jesus himself turns all of this on its head. Jesus arrives and immediately recruits himself a merry band of idiots, also known as the 12 disciples. He hangs out with the dregs of society—prostitutes, government lowlifes, lepers. Not exactly the types who DVR Jeopardy on a nightly basis. Not just this, but he goes out of his way to confront the intellectuals wherever he goes, essentially berating them for knowing all the answers but missing the central point of God’s law. He even talks in stories designed to confuse the intellectuals of the day. Speaking to his disciples in private, Jesus says:

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving. And ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven! - (Mk 4:12)

God calls us to serve and worship him with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. If you believe the futurists out there, they believe they are on the verge of knocking out an artificial mind. The problem is that without the other two–heart and soul–knowledge will never be complete. And, while we’re at it, no digital “heart” (in the emotion-sense of the word) or “soul” is coming down the conveyor belt. These things are uniquely human, and therefore, uniquely God’s. The human calling is to recognize the fullness of the creaturely gifts He gives us and to respond in worship to God and service to our neighbor.

When man attributes such gifts to sources other than God, man searches and finds for himself another deity altogether—knowledge itself. And in this age, believe me, knowledge is and will continue to be worshiped with the utmost fervor.

[1] Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence (Oxford: Oxford University, 2014), 52-57.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015

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