Soon humanity will no longer be alone in the universe


“It’s alive!” Viktor Frankenstein cried out in this classic 1931 film. Of course, Mary Shelley’s original tale of hubris – humans seizing the powers of creation – comes from a long tradition, dating back to the terracotta armies of Xian, to the Golem of Prague, or even to Adam, born from molded clay. Science fiction has extended this dream of the artificial other, into stories intended to entertain, frighten or inspire. First envisioning humanoid, rattling robots, later tales moved from hardware to software – programmed emulations of sapience that were less about the brain and more about the mind.

Does this obsession reflect our fear of replacement? Masculine jealousy of the fruitful creativity of motherhood? Is it rooted in a tribal desire for alliances or in a concern for outsiders?

Well, the long wait is almost over. Even though humanity has been alone in this galaxy until now, we won’t be for much longer. For better or worse, we’re about to encounter artificial intelligence – or AI – in one form or another. Although, alas, the encounter will be cloudy, vague and full of opportunities for error.

Oh, we’ve faced technology challenges before. In the 15th and 16th centuries, human knowledge, vision and attention were augmented by printing presses and glass lenses. Since then, each generation has experienced further technological enlargements of what we can see and know. Some of the resulting crises have been close calls, such as when 1930s radio and loudspeakers amplified malicious speakers, spouting hateful misinformation. (Sound familiar?) Yet, after much pain and confusion, we adjusted. We have grown with each wave of new tools.

Two people visit the Google booth on the second day of Mobile World Congress on February 28, 2017 in Barcelona, ​​Spain
LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images

Which brings us back to last week’s fuss over LaMDA, a language emulation program that Blake Lemoine, a researcher currently on administrative leave from Google, publicly claims is self-aware, with feelings and independent desires which make it “sensitive”. (I prefer ‘sapient’, but this finicky may be a lost cause.) Lemoine’s idiosyncratic story aside, what’s relevant is that this is just the beginning. Besides, I don’t care if LaMDA crossed this or that arbitrary threshold. Our larger problem is rooted in human nature, not machine.

In the 1960s, a chatbot named Eliza fascinated early computer users by responding to typed statements with the typical leading questions of a therapist. Even after seeing the simple array of automated responses, you’d still find Eliza compelling…well…smart. Today’s much more sophisticated chat emulators, powered by cousins ​​of the GPT3 learning system, are black boxes that cannot be audited internally, like Eliza was. The old notion of a “Turing test” won’t be useful for referencing something as nebulous and vague as self-awareness or consciousness.

In 2017, I gave a speech at IBM’s World of Watson event, predicting that “within five years” we would face the first robotic empathy crisis, when some sort of program emulation would claim individuality and sapience. At the time, I expected – and still expect – these empathy robots to augment their sophisticated conversational skills with visual representations that affect us by reflex, such as wearing a child’s face. . or a young woman, while advocating for rights… or for cash contributions. Also, an empathy bot would get support whether or not there is something conscious “under the hood”.

One trend worries ethicist Giada Pistilli, a growing willingness to make claims based on subjective impression rather than scientific rigor and evidence. When it comes to artificial intelligence, expert testimony will be countered by many people calling these experts “slaves to sentient beings.” In fact, what matters most won’t be a so-called “AI awakening.” It will be our own reactions, arising from both culture and human nature.

Human nature, because empathy is one of our most valuable traits, rooted in the same parts of the brain that help us plan or anticipate. Empathy can be counteracted by other emotions, such as fear and hate – we’ve seen this happen throughout history and in the present day. Yet we are, at heart, friendly monkeys.

But also cultural. As in Hollywood’s century-old campaign to promote – in almost every film – concepts such as distrust of authority, appreciation of diversity, rooting for the underdog and otherness . Widen the circle of inclusion. Rights for previously marginalized humans. Animal rights. Rights for rivers and ecosystems, or for the planet. I consider these improvements in empathy to be good, even essential for our own survival! But then I was raised by all the same Hollywood memes.

So, of course, when computer programs and their bio-organic human friends claim rights for artificial beings, I will keep an open mind. Yet, now may be the time to ask related questions. The dilemmas raised in science fiction thought experiments (including my own); for example, should entities vote if they can also make infinite copies of themselves? And what prevents super-minds from gathering power, as human lord-owners have always done, throughout history?

We all know the worst Skynet warnings about rogue or oppressive AI emerging from a military project or a centralized regime as seen in the terminator movies. But what about Wall Street, which spends more on “smart programs” than all universities combined? Programs deliberately formed to be predatory, parasitic, amoral, secretive and insatiable?

Unlike Mary Shelley’s fictional creation, these new creatures already herald “I’m alive!” with articulate urgency…and one day soon it might even be true. When that happens, we may find a commensal reciprocity with our new children, as shown in the charming film His, or in Richard Brautigan’s ardently optimistic poem All watched over by the Machines of Loving Grace.

So be it ! But that soft landing will likely require that we first do what good parents should always do.

Take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror.

David Brin is an astrophysicist whose internationally bestselling novels include The Postman, Earth and Otherness. Her first non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, won the ALA Free Speech Award. His new film is Vivid Tomorrows: Science Fiction and Hollywood. (

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


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