Progress in machine classification of images. The error rate of AI by year. Red line – the error rate of a trained human
(This article was reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 19, 2015. It was also reprinted in the online magazine Humanity+ Magazine, Feb. 23, 2015.)
Will superintelligences be troubled by philosophical conundrums?1 Consider classic philosophical questions such as: 1) What is real? 2) What is valuable? 3) Are we free? We currently don’t know the answer to such questions. We might not think much about them, or we may accept common answers—this world is real; happiness is valuable; we are free.
But our superintelligent descendents may not be satisfied with these answers, and they may possess the intelligence to find out the real answers. Now suppose they discover that they live in a simulation, or in a simulation of a simulation. Suppose they find out that happiness is unsatisfactory? Suppose they realize that free will is an illusion? Perhaps they won’t like such answers.
So superintelligence may be as much of a curse as a blessing. For example, if we learn to run ancestor simulations, we may increase worries about already living in them. We might program AIs to pursue happiness, and find out that happiness isn’t worthwhile. Or programming AIs may increase our concern that we are programmed. So superintelligence might work against us—our post-human descendents may be more troubled by philosophical questions than we are.
I suppose this is all possible, but I don’t find myself too concerned. Ignorance may be bliss, but I don’t think so. Even if we do discover that reality, value, freedom and other philosophical issues present intractable problems, I would rather know truth than be ignorant. Here’s why.
We can remain in our current philosophically ignorant state with the mix of bliss and dissatisfaction it provides, or we can become more intelligent. I’ll take my chances with becoming more intelligent because I don’t want to be ignorance forever. I don’t want to be human; I want to be post-human. I find my inspiration in Tennyson’s words about that great sojourner Ulysses:
for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles …
I don’t know if we will make a better reality, but I want to try. Let us move toward the future with hope that the journey on which we are about to embark will be greater than the one already completed. With Ulysses let us continue “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
1. I would like to thank my former student at the University of Texas, Kip Werking, for bringing my attention to these issues.