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Friday, December 19, 2014

Part 4: Thinking Post-Human

(This is the last part of a series of reflections on thinking according to Douglas Hofstadter.)


Scientists and engineers have designed machines that are much smarter than we. They hold much more data and have much faster capacity to process that data than we do. Some of these machines are implanted in human bodies to repair or control various functions. Many of these machines are helping create substances, modify DNA, and provide appendages to our bodies that will prolong our life perhaps indefinitely.

We just bought a toy robot for our grandchildren that can play games with them, bring them an object from the other room, and do other tasks that they program it to do. Robots are being designed to be constructed of many forms and materials. They will be our workers, our companions, our business colleagues, our sex partners, our military defenders, our pets, and our offspring.  They will have much more capacity than we in the storing and processing of information.

Species die out and make room for new ones. We are told that there have been five major extinctions and we may be on the verge of a sixth whether by some external alien event or by our own behavior which is consuming the very conditions of life. Perhaps we are designing the next stage of human evolution through our technological problem-solving. Or perhaps we are engineering our replacements which can continue to reproduce themselves.

We are entering a post-human world. Our species is gaining intelligence by using or incorporating artificial intelligence. Are we in process of creating a new species? Will it include the genes and memes of homo sapiens in its transformation? Will it consist in artifacts that can replace homo sapiens? Will those machines be able to think?  Or will they make thinking superfluous to living organisms and take the sapiens out of homo?

Alan Turing, the pioneer of artificial intelligence, devised a test to decide whether a machine could think. The machine must convince an impartial judge that it can do anything that a human can do. Many have modified the test by posing a list of questions that the computer must answer in order to prove its parity with human understanding. There have even been contests and claims that certain artifacts have met the test.

And so I likewise shall devise a test of a machine's ability to think based on the theory inspired by Hofstadter, the radical constructivists. and the symbolic interactionists. Here are the criteria I want met to demonstrate that post-human machines think.

1) Initiative. Can the machine innovate, originate new ways of putting categories and analogies together towards higher levels of abstraction perhaps by writing an original story, using a new art form, articulating a new model for understanding data, telling a new narrative to provide meaning for all intelligent beings, contributes to the development of culture? Is there evidence of spontaneity and unpredictability in its behavior.

2) Fallibility. Can the machine make mistakes and learn from its mistakes such that it makes new ones to raise new questions to be answered and problems to be solved that will push the content and process of knowing further.

3) Morality. Can the machine struggle with the difference between good and evil in its own behavior and in interaction with others? Can it make judgments and criticize them as to right and wrong behavior in concrete situations by intelligent beings.

4) Sexuality. Can the machine engage in and enjoy physical intercourse with other intelligent beings in which pleasure and pain of the other is shared, in which the unique intention and style of the other is experienced, in which there is collaboration towards joint expression, in which there is evidence of a loop back from the expression to the process of expressing?

5) Mortality. Does the machine show evidence of a sense of entropy, of limits, and of an end point. Is there a sense of the difference between the producing of expressions or artifacts and of the very expressions and artifacts and the passing away of the universe and the desire to know it? Does this sense of transience arise often as the machine develops its expressions in interacting with its environment?

6) Transcendence. Does the machine continually reinvent its language and itself by broadening, reassembling, dispensing with categories while interacting with other intelligent beings? Does it show evidence of wanting to know more about the universe and its role and place in the universe? Does it show evidence of a sense of humor including the use of irony and satire to teach and to learn?

Can there be thinking without living self-actualizing, sexual, transient, and transcending bodies interacting in the world? No, certainly not thinking as we know it. Can we artificially enhance the bodies of homo sapiens to achieve the √úbermensch, the new creation, the post-human species? Probably yes; and we are in process of doing so.

Science fiction and nonfiction struggle with at least two post-human visions. I'll call one the Isaac Asimov vision (in his Foundation series or I-Robot books).  Star Wars and Star Trek follow in this vision where humanity while stretched throughout the universe still has to deal with its limitations and moral struggles. And then there is the George Orwell vision where technological progress has triumphed over freedom and people can be happy by letting go their ability to rebel. The Matrix is such a place (as long as you don't take the blue pill). The Minority Report and Inception shows how we can conquer free will.  (Which in any case I think is an inadequate metaphor that should be rejected and replaced).

The Happy Garden, Paradise Regained, or Heaven, is the transcendent place with transcendent entities where there is no conflict, no tension, no pain, no evil, no death, and no thinking to which I say "no thanks!" Is this what we are trying to attain in our religion, our science, and our technology? Well not me! If this is the post human world, I reject it! I much prefer Terry Prachett's "Discworld" with its goblins, werewolves, and gods. I do hope that our post-human species continues to have the criteria for thinking that I have enunciated above.

There is, I believe, a moral imperative that comes from our thinking about thinking. And that after all is the purpose of all these reflections and blogs. I express it in a tautology: Do and be better. This is more than a tautology if we go behind the expressed through categories to the act of expressing them. I mean Hofstadter's "strange loop" that we are--a looping back and forth between our human expressing and our expressed environment. The imperative is to exist by living out and using our bodies to both enjoy and protect our world and each other. The imperative is to transcend by promoting critical thinking that uses categories to surpass categories towards greater and more inclusive understanding of the universe and each other. The imperative is to act in such a way that human existence and transcendence is preserved, celebrated, enjoyed, and, yes, enhanced in the here and now moment of this act.

Our vocation is to build a post-human world that will be more human than ever.

(That would be the world of the Anti-Christ or New Adam in Terry Prachett's and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens (check out here).

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