May 2, 2023
“Aletheia Today Magazine will devote its entire Fall Issue (9/1/23) to Artificial Intelligence…and we’d love to include YOU in the conversation.”
My grandparents were convinced that they were living in the end times. They ‘felt sorry’ for us youngsters who would not have a chance to live our lives in their pre-Armageddon paradise.
In those days, I was only certain of one thing: I would NOT harbor such silly ideas when it was my turn to be the scion of my clan. Oh, how often have I looked back scornfully at such younger versions of myself, amused that I could ever have believed the things I once believed!
It’s happening again!
My grandparents were right after all. “This is the end, beautiful friend, the end.” (The Doors). Of course, my end is not the same as their end…but then again, aren’t all ends the same? Do ends have hair? And if they do, are they really ends?
My grandparents worried about nuclear war, moral decay, and the breakdown of political civility. 60 years later, I worry about those things too, but I worry about something my grandparents couldn’t have anticipated: I worry about Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Evolution is adaptation. All organisms adapt themselves to their environments and, to some degree, adapt their environments to themselves. Organisms adapt through genetic selection (biology) and behavior modification (culture); they adapt their environments through praxis.
While there is no ‘arrow of evolution’ per se, there are some general trends worth pointing out. Caveat lector: these ‘general trends’ are just that. Don’t send me a bevy of evidence contradicting my ‘over-generalizations;’ I know all about it. Moving on…
Life forms have become more complex over time. Adaptive characteristics such as size, strength and speed have tended to optimize (optimize, not maximize). Neural networks have become more complex, and brains have become bigger.
Homo Sapiens is the product of billions of years of robust genetic selection, resulting in a species remarkably capable of modifying its environment (praxis) as well as its own behavior (culture); recently, we have developed the ability to influence the course of biological adaptation as well (genetic engineering).
But everything in nature comes at a price. There is evidence that the human organism may actually be undergoing some forms of devolution. We seem to be losing some of the gains we made over the last million years. For example, our arms are getting shorter. More alarmingly, our brains may be shrinking (not literally, of course)!
No, they ARE shrinking, quite literally. Other species seem to be trending towards a smaller brain size as well. Theory holds that this is the price we pay for ‘civilization,’ i.e., the taming of ‘wild’ animals and a concomitant reduction in both survival and reproductive risk.
Alarming, yes; surprising, no! When specific combinations of genes cease to confer selective advantage, they will slowly become less prevalent in the population. Suboptimal genetic combinations, once suppressed by natural selection, can now enter the gene pool ‘unedited.’ We have become more tolerant of differences; the opportunity to procreate is shared more democratically now, and for the most part, this is a good thing!
But the recent explosion in robust Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a game changer. Longer arms no longer confer much reproductive advantage; neither do bigger brains! Arm strength, we can do without, brain power, not so much.
There is a general correlation between brain size and intelligence, and the selective pressures favoring intelligence have been strong. Intelligent organisms more successfully modify their environments, conferring survival advantage. Intelligence also appears to have been an attractive quality in a potential mate, conferring reproductive advantage.
Less so today than ever before! SAT scores are a poor predictor of fecundity, and anyone who has been to high school knows that natural beauty and physical prowess are stronger selection factors than intelligence.
AI is the great leveler. As a species we now have the ability to subcontract almost all cognitive functions to a ‘machine.’ Best of all/worst of all, everyone will soon enjoy equal access to that resource. Therefore, the behavioral distinction between the top 25% and the bottom 25% will narrow significantly. This could be a good thing, or…
Big brains, who needs ‘em? We have ChatGPT! As a species, AI allows us to do more with less. Again, a very good thing per se. But nature is like a reluctant middle schooler; it will ‘do’ as little as possible, consistent with achieving a minimally ‘acceptable’ result. If the ability to think no longer confers survival or reproductive advantage, we can allow it to become ‘recessive.’
The dystopian film 2001 A Space Odyssey seems more relevant today than ever before. Like Leif Erikson in Newfoundland and Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean, we know we are on the cusp of something big, but what? Who knows!
We are like the 1823 versions of ourselves, trying to make sense of a whole new technological paradigm. In the last 200 years, we have celebrated Darwin, Einstein and quantum mechanics. Huge! But IR (Industrial Revolution) and AI are different; they directly impact almost every aspect of the lives of almost every human being.
AI is our IR, and no doubt, we will make all the same mistakes.
Luddites will smash mainframe computers; New Agers will claim they’ve found God; politicians will proclaim Utopia; and curmudgeons, like me, will wring our hands over the impending demise of human civilization per se. “It’s yesterday once more.” (Carpenters)
Only one thing is certain: when our descendants look back on 2023 from their 2223 vantage, they will see that none of us were right! Marking this moment, Aletheia Today Magazine will devote its entire Fall Issue (9/1/23) to Artificial Intelligence…and we’d love to include YOU in the conversation. What are the philosophical, theological, cultural, and spiritual implications of AI? Click here for our Writers’ Specs; then send us your thoughts.