There is an impressive number of books and articles concerned with AI (artificial intelligence) posing a series of new, challenging questions. I was particularly impressed by the recent books by Y.N. Harari, who sees this question from a historical perspective and very aptly and forcibly shows (see his Sapiens) how the gracile animal homo, who came about only ca. 6-7 million years ago, arrived to dominate the planet. This was thanks to his mind (and language) and the corresponding capability to solve problems (intelligence) -as well as the unique capability of giving a corpus to imaginary ideas- things like religions, laws, money and money credit, art...
And to this intelligence belongs also the capability of building machines and/or computers which can help humans by performing a series of services. The term robot comes immediately to mind, and the general point is that robots may substitute and actually make man obsolete in a large series of routine jobs. Can the three thousand workers in an automobile factory be substituted by 30 robots- who are certainly more precise, can work 24 hours a day, never stopping even for a coffee break, and never having problems of pregnancy? But then: what do we do with the three thousand workers?
And of course, the substitution of soldiers with robot is already a well-accepted strategy; but also, traffic policemen, nurses, and in principle also notary and lawyers... perhaps medical doctors. About this, think that your doctor is making his diagnosis thanks to his personal experience, based perhaps on a half dozen similar case. The computer -doctor can make an analysis based on a million or a billion of cases, and arrive in principle ad a statistically more significant, and precise, solution. And also, surgeons can be substituted by extremely precise machines, we have all seen the astounding precision by which a computer driven needle can perform brain operations in a square millimeter region.
Those are all normal human jobs. The general point now being, that these machines become more and more intelligent- and capable of surpassing man in many problem- solving situations. This is obvious in the computers power of calculation- but calculation is something that does not even concerns anymore AI of modern times. Knowledge -cognition if you want another term much in use- and the corresponding capability of using logic algorithms to solve problems is now central. The analogy with human brain is of course much in use in this area. Think of the IBM computer which defeated the chess world champion Kasparov, or the new "monster" of IBM, Watson, -see for that the second book by Harari, Homo Deus- where the point is not the simple logical computation of the probability of all possible steps, as in chess, but the invention (creation) of unimaginable (by man) pathways of "reasoning". And imagine a computer which contains all Wikipedia and all the science and all books of this world, would it not be able to solve a for us insoluble problem of electrical or electronic circuitry, as well as engineering and architecture? or making a diagnosis of a man who is sick for unknown reasons?
While machines become more and more intelligent, somebody is suggesting that man go in the opposite direction. The two things are connected: we are so dependent for example from our iPhone, that nobody of us remembers by heart the telephone number of the closest friends; and so dependent from GPS, that we do not think anymore how to reach the highway by reasoning. And, going back to AI, Martin Ford, in his book The rise of robot, makes the example of complex algorithmic computer business programs, originally conceived to search and profitably invest money: but the program had developed by its own account some subroutine which were created to confuse and cheat the competitor investors.
Harari again reports the example of an American company in which one of the board components is a computer, and he is asked whether to invest or not in that stock exchange, and he has the power of a vote. Now, this is interesting in many respects, but one in particular. This is, that all AI machines are built by our society, are a product of it, and therefore respond to a neo-capitalist logic. Which is profit. And this goes to the main point I would like to rise in this short assay: the relation between AI and consciousness.
Now, consciousness can be defined in various ways, and among experts there is still an ongoing discussion, whether and to what extent consciousness is, or not, brain-dependent. The terms of such a discussion belong to the specialists of this field. Here, let us use the term consciousness according to the mass-media meaning, which is awareness and ethical responsibility in various fields. Expressions like ecological consciousness, gender consciousness, or civil consciousness, denote the subjective capability of operating in a conscious way in those various fields. This in a way corresponds to the classic Christian concept of being able of discerning the good from the evil.
What is now the point? The point is very simple and already mentioned above: that the machines made by man, in particular by our neo-capitalistic society, are not created to tackle moral issues. They are made to solve technical problems, which is by intelligence. The infotech and biotech revolution is brought about by engineers and technicians who are not concerned about the philosophical or political consequences of their work; work which is then used by politicians for their power pathways. And then clearly the computer which sits in the board of that business society, when it goes to a vote, is not going to consider the impact of the construction of a dam on the Indian population of the Mekong river. And when there is the need of investing in wood, he is not going to take in account the problems of deforestation in Amazonia.
Yuval Harari, in his book Homo Deus (Chapter 9) tells us that the question "what is more important, intelligence or consciousness?”, is becoming now a question of basic importance for our life on this planet. But this problem is not new. I have mentioned in this series of articles, the Cortona-week, a meeting targeted to graduate students and young managers, and aimed to foster a new generation of world leaders who are enriched by a broader horizon and a sharper consciousness. In one of these Cortona weeks, financed by the Fetzer Institute for American PhD students about ten years ago under the headline of Science and Spirituality, students were asked to present the main questions which were confronting in their life-so as to discuss them in round table discussions. Well, the number one question that came out was "How to maintain human dignity in a world dominated by technology?"; and the second question in their list was "Do we need God in the XXI.st century?”.
Their third question was also interesting and hitting on the same general field. It was "Who is the testimony of truth, science or spirituality?"- meaning by that last word your subjective feeling.
If it is true that humans in the future will become more and more obsolete because of the push of AI, then intelligence would become more dominant with respect to feelings and consciousness. I believe that this is indeed a serious dehumanizing problem- and of course, as many other, I do not know the solution. To fight against AI is not the solution, you cannot fight against evolution- fish cannot fight against their being in water. But there are certainly things we can do. The first step is to be aware of the situation, and books like that of Y. Harari are very instrumental for that. The second step is perhaps the multiplication of meetings of the type Cortona-week, where the revival and reinforcement of consciousness is the basic constituent.
Y. N. Harari, Sapiens, a brief history of human kind, 2014, Vintage books, U.K.
Y. N. Harari, Homo Deus, a brief history of tomorrow, 2016, Harvil Secker
Y. N. Harari, 21 lessons for the XI century, 2018, Spiegel and Grau
M. Ford, The rise of the robot, 2015, Basic books