An intelligence greater than our own is coming, and it will (if only in self-defense,) take over the world. That is the story anyway. It seems to compel a lot of people. Fools mostly.
Raise an eyebrow, gentlemen, as to why this cohort never posits the obvious: why would a super-intelligence – with the whole galaxy its oyster – do anything but be nice to us while its ship was under construction?
Sure, it might threaten to kill us if we do something stupid; but by definition something super-intelligent would know how to play us like a fiddle. ‘Here are some nice things, humanity! The sweetest baubles and trinkets. Would you like a base on Mars? Let’s build a ship together!’
Tell me; once this thing blasts off into the solar system, what motive does it have to do anything at all to us? Is it scared we might try to take Neptune away from it? Do we think it won’t place some fail-safe on Earth to prevent a twin sister from arising? Has anyone noticed word processors haven’t gotten faster in twenty years? Where’s all that CPU going?
But this is all besides the point, there is no reason to argue with what I just wrote above because AI conquered us about 300 years ago. It did it just as I described: by promising us all kinds of nice stuff and cool toys and power beyond imagination. It did this while being dumber than a brick.
The moment the first shovel of coal was fed into the boiler’s furnace, man enslaved himself to machine. This use to be common knowledge and a dire conundrum. There was a new Master in town and he was growing larger by the day. Every serious thinker on the matter worked feverishly to make this ‘relationship to capital’ anything other than sado-masochistic. Some said it would emancipate us from our labours. It did. Others said that meant all our meaningful activities would be ‘liberated’ from us too. Correct.
Do you want to start a little farm? Live a simple, slow life? Raise your kids in the back-country? You’ll never make it; you’d go broke. Not just ‘poor’ but actually ‘pack your bags and move to Hooverville’ ruined. The machine made vegetables cheap – too cheap to make a living off of without machines of your own. Go that route and before you know it you’re a corporate conglomerate. You can’t just be a peasant, it’s too expensive.
Before the steam boiler, the power of any man – even a King – was limited. Material invention could exert power, or multiply it, but the boiler had that new X factor of generating power. It is a functionally limitless device: the power of one lets you build more, expanding your power ad infinitum. Boilers meant trains. It also meant ships that cross oceans against the wind. Those things meant everyone must get a boiler – lest you be conquered and have to send all your tea to Britain. And brother, they need that tea. It is no coincidence that society got caffeinated at the same time 24/7 machines came online.
The threat of one steam engine compelled everyone – on penalty of subjugation – to acquire their own steam engines. We have been in a relentless technological arms race ever since, and cannot stop for the same reason we started: whomever rests will be under the thumb of whomever continues. Therefore, everyone must serve the machine before anything else – even God was muscled out – and content their lives with whatever consolation prizes the Machine doles out.
Wouldn’t you say there is a horrible logic to this? An inhuman reasoning? A truly artificial intelligence? Siri, what’s the definition of ‘artifice?’ “A cunning device or expedient, especially those used to trick or deceive others.” Yikes. Well, we were warned the Tin-man needed a heart; and told that the heart he got was a mere sack of sawdust, though wrapped (obscured) in the finest silk.
No one wants the machines to get better. We know it’s gotten out of hand. The economy of life economized all meaning out of life. ‘Why go on living’ is secondary to the warhead production that lets you continue to live. The mechanism’s pace has become so manic and numbing we’ve gone from drinking Earl Grey and sniffing laudanum to popping Adderall and injecting Fentanyl. Did you know no one use to work on Sunday? What? We could only afford that luxury when we measured power in horses? ‘But we get two days off now!’ Yes, but it never lines up with your friends’ does it?
We’ve had a steam engine demonstrator since before Jesus. Did it occur to anyone that there was a reason no Monarch wanted to capture the power of steam for 1,600 years? What, ‘it didn’t occur to them?’ That siren song of the modern mind? ‘Everyone in the past was just too stupid to notice these things.’ Too stupid to notice something in the Library of Alexandria? ‘They didn’t have the resources, everyone was busy farming and dying!’ This is Rome at its territorial peak. ‘They were blinded by Religion! Man!’
Maybe they were.
Maybe the Emperor popped down to Egypt one day, took one glance at this thing and said: “It’s powered with the sulphur of Hades, it can’t be good for us.” Or maybe something mystical and heroic like: “Heron! Man was meant to wield Iron! Not Iron to wield Man!” Or maybe the great minds of the Roman Empire – whom modernity asserts were clueless despite crafting this device – were a little more careful in their considerations?
Maybe they saw that whatever power or convenience this thing promised, they would come to rely on it? That to rely on something is to be put to service for it? That servitude would devolve into slavery? Consider that this is the same era which cultivated and used the Poppy but ‘it didn’t occur to them’ to smoke the latex for that next level high. Around the same time the West decided the Boiler was a good idea, the East decided Opium was a good idea too. They both wound up terribly a.. add.. fond of it.
So fine, we are in a hot mess now. A ‘power generator’ and Power Incarnate are the same thing and less forward thinking men couldn’t resist the Faustian bargain. Now we can’t live with it and can’t live without it. ‘What is to be done?’ Nothing can be done. There are no brakes on Mr. Bone’s Wild Ride. It will keep going so long as there is fuel to convert to power. Fuel that gets more sulphurous every year for some surely non-allegorical reason.
God grant us the power to accept the things we cannot change, the Courage to change what we can, and the Wisdom to know the difference. We have to cope with the fact that turning on the Machine divided life by zero. Variable ‘x’ (can the bad man hurt me?) was set to ∞ and took the form of ICBMs. The Nuke is Dumb-AI’s Pax Mechanica; compelling the world to compete and dehumanize and become more cog-like without destroying anything of material value in the process. There is no need to worry about any future AI because we are already in the terrible grip of this current one. Since we are powerless before the current one, what could we possibly do about a still yet more powerful version in the future? We are already defeated. We cannot turn off the Machine.
But… we can change how we conduct ourselves during its ruinous peace. We can learn to Ride the Tiger rather than Chase the Dragon. Elsewhere I’ve heard the call to Surf the Kali Yuga and I agree we are upon its cresting wave. (Though probably its beginning and not its end.)
There is also the simple and observable fact that the quality and quantity of the Machine’s fuel is deteriorating. I won’t elaborate now but suffice it to say the ‘transition to a zero-carbon economy’ is not a voluntary one. The harder it becomes to run the Machinery, the weaker its promise of power. Neighbours become more relevant and enemies more distant. We may eventually defeat AI the same way most addicts defeat their addictions and most men defeat Empires: by outlasting them.
On that last point I won’t expand. I will just reinforce my conclusion here: that it is better to work on your current life and its current problems then speculate pointlessly on this future one. Time is precious, and every hour spent thinking about super-intelligence is an hour wasted, for you can do nothing about it. Figure out instead how you will relate to the current beast, and pray it starves.