“The human brain is an incredible pattern-matching machine.”

— Jeff Bezos

“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

— Albert Einstein

“Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”

— Wernher von Braun

“AI is neither good nor evil. It’s a tool. It’s a technology for us to use.”

— Oren Etzioni

“Despite all the hype and excitement about AI, it’s still extremely limited today relative to what human intelligence is.”

— Andrew Ng

“There were 5 exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days.”

— Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google

“You may not realize it, but artificial intelligence is all around us.”

— Judy Woodruff

“Artificial intelligence has the same relation to intelligence as artificial flowers have to flowers.”

— David Parnas

“With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon.”

— Elon Musk

We humans are being remade today using many advanced technologies. Into what is as-yet unclear, but the direction such efforts are headed seems terrifying. Are we going to become obsolete and be replaced by transhumans? Or maybe these efforts are doomed ultimately to fail because we humans are much more than just biochemical thinking and feeling machines?

Artificial intelligence (AI), transhumanism, and super intelligence technologies overlap, and are probably just different aspects of an underlying common technology. The core is machine computing in its most general sense.

AI in recent years has made some truly amazing progress in terms of functionality and power that often goes well beyond human capabilities. Just like aircraft did a century or so ago. Neither are particularly human, but simply do things that humans cannot. Yet, at least. Extending AI’s “intelligence” descriptor to a kind of human intelligence capability is a bit too much however, as a recent post noted. AI is only a very powerful computing machine.

Transhumans are a physical and functional merger of AI and humans

This technology recognizes that AI-gizmos aren’t really intelligent in any practical sense so they need to be augmented with actual humans, aka us. Or, perhaps it is the reverse, in that humans are being augmented by various AI-based gizmos. Or, maybe yet a different combo-flavor called a cyborg. From Wikipedia:

“A cyborg—a portmanteau of cybernetic and organism—is a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts. The term was coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline.”

“’Cyborg’ is not the same thing as bionics, bio-robotics, or androids; it applies to an organism that has restored function or especially, enhanced abilities due to the integration of some artificial component or technology that relies on some sort of feedback, for example: prostheses, artificial organs, implants or, in some cases, wearable technology. Cyborg technologies may enable or support collective intelligence. A related, possibly broader, term is the ‘augmented human’. While cyborgs are commonly thought of as mammals, including humans, they might also conceivably be any kind of organism.”

Oh, great. Now we have a whole bunch of “transhuman” or “human+” combinations of AI and biology to work with. “Augmented human” even. This picture is getting quite fuzzy.

A typical cyborg, probably now being upgraded into an augmented human.
A typical cyborg, probably now being upgraded into an augmented human.

What is “transhumanism” in practice?

From Wikipedia:

“Transhumanism is a philosophical and intellectual movement which advocates the enhancement of the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies that can greatly enhance longevity and cognition.”

“Transhumanist thinkers study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome fundamental human limitations, as well as the ethics of using such technologies. Some transhumanists believe that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with abilities so greatly expanded from the current condition as to merit the label of posthuman beings.”

“Julian Huxley was a biologist who popularized the term transhumanism in an influential 1957 essay. The contemporary meaning of the term ‘transhumanism’ was foreshadowed by one of the first professors of futurology, a man who changed his name to FM-2030. In the 1960s, he taught ‘new concepts of the human’ at The New School when he began to identify people who adopt technologies, lifestyles, and worldviews ‘transitional’ to post-humanity as ‘transhuman’. The assertion would lay the intellectual groundwork for the British philosopher Max More to begin articulating the principles of transhumanism as a futurist philosophy in 1990, and organizing in California a school of thought that has since grown into the worldwide transhumanist movement.”

So, transhumanism started as a philosophy, and from there it has become an activist movement of some kind. I think transhuman thoughts; therefore I become transhuman? Probably not without an AI-gizmo implant of some kind.

It gets worse: the technological singularity and superhuman intelligence

Superhuman intelligence, or simply superintelligence since “intelligence usually refers to “human intelligence”, is described by Wikipedia:

“A superintelligence is a hypothetical agent that possesses intelligence far surpassing that of the brightest and most gifted human minds. ‘Superintelligence’ may also refer to a property of problem-solving systems (e.g., superintelligent language translators or engineering assistants) whether or not these high-level intellectual competencies are embodied in agents that act in the world. A superintelligence may or may not be created by an intelligence explosion and associated with a technological singularity.”

“University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom defines superintelligence as ‘any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest’”

“Philosopher David Chalmers argues that artificial general intelligence is a very likely path to superhuman intelligence. Chalmers breaks this claim down into an argument that AI can achieve equivalence to human intelligence, that it can be extended to surpass human intelligence, and that it can be further amplified to completely dominate humans across arbitrary tasks.”

“The technological singularity—or simply the singularity—is a hypothetical future point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization. According to the most popular version of the singularity hypothesis, I.J. Good’s intelligence explosion model, an upgradable intelligent agent will eventually enter a ‘runaway reaction’ of self-improvement cycles, each new and more intelligent generation appearing more and more rapidly, causing an ‘explosion’ in intelligence and resulting in a powerful superintelligence that qualitatively far surpasses all human intelligence.”

For me at least, all of this creates an urgent need to get real. Simple real.

A technological singularity? So it says, but conveys nothing – to me at least.
A technological singularity? So it says, but conveys nothing – to me at least.

What is “intelligence” anyway?

Artificial, super, and trans as “intelligence” descriptors or classifiers assumes that we know just what “intelligence” is. I looked it up, and the range of ideas on this is overwhelming. And confusing.

First, intelligence seems to be associated with the brain organ. No brain, no intelligence. But having a brain does not mean intelligence is present. Probably best to leave this thought here.

Next, the brain organ sends and receives chemical and electrical signals throughout the body. Different signals control different processes, and your brain interprets each. Some make you feel tired, for example, while others make you feel pain. Some messages are kept within the brain, while others are relayed through the spine and across the body’s vast network of nerves to distant extremities. To do this, the central nervous system relies on billions of neurons (nerve cells).

Receiving, processing, storing, and transmitting signals or messages (i.e., information) – just like a computer does, except for the physical mechanics involved. So far, brain and computer are roughly equivalent. And perhaps both are intelligent as well? Here is where things get more interesting.

The key seems to lie in what such basic functionality can actually do. My alarm clock has these functions and does its thing capably, but it is by no definition intelligent. More like the opposite. It just does what it was designed to do, and what I tell it to do. Unlike a cat.

What does the human brain do beyond the alarm-clock level? Humans possess the cognitive abilities to learn, form concepts, understand, apply logic and reason, including the capacities to recognize patterns, plan, innovate, solve problems, make decisions, retain information, and use language to communicate.

Cognition, of course, refers to “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses”. Mental action probably means thinking, which is what the brain does for a living. In some folks, at least.

More specifically, us humans have the capacity for abstraction, logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, reasoning, planning, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

This may be where the human brain and its associated intelligence can be separated from the computer “brain” or machine (artificial) intelligence.

Clearly, one might be able to program or train a computer to do many of these to at least some degree. The problem is that the computer can operate only within its design and training space, which was created by us non-computers.

You can define “intelligence” such that computers are “intelligent”

Intelligence, like beauty, seems to be very much in the eye of the beholder. Defining away the problem doesn’t answer the question of whether computing machines can ever become intelligent, other than via fantasies.

What I think we need is to identify those human abilities that even the most complex and powerful machines can’t really duplicate. That is, where humans and machines created by humans are fundamentally different. It might not even be possible to dumb-down a human enough to match whatever the current crop of AI computing machines can do.

Regardless, what might such human-defining capabilities be?

Sentience seems to be a basic human capability

Sentience is the capacity of a being to experience – sense – feelings and sensations. Dogs and even cats among many other critters do this, but probably not at the same level as humans. Needless to say, the nature of sentience is not well understood and settled. From this Wikipedia link, we also find:

Alleged sentience of artificial intelligence. It is a subject of debate as to whether artificial intelligence can potentially display, or has displayed, the level of awareness and cognitive ability required of sentience in animals. Notably, the discussion on the topic of alleged sentience of artificial intelligence has been reignited as a result of recent (as of mid-2022) claims made about Google’s LaMDA artificial intelligence system that it is ‘sentient’ and had a ‘soul.’ LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) is an artificial intelligence system that creates chatbots — AI robots designed to communicate with humans — by gathering vast amounts of text from the internet and using algorithms to respond to queries in the most fluid and natural way possible. The transcripts of conversations between scientists and LaMDA reveal that the AI system excels at this, providing answers to challenging topics about the nature of emotions, generating Aesop-style fables on the moment, and even describing its alleged fears.”

So, maybe even AI has feelings of some description, or is at least able to fake feelings. Some people can even do this, so I have learned.

Intelligence beyond feelings

From Wikipedia, we can get a list of what might be thought of as capabilities that go well beyond feelings:

“Intelligence has been defined in many ways: the capacity for abstraction, logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, reasoning, planning, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.”

This article goes on to note that even the American Psychological Association has problems defining intelligence:

“Concepts of ‘intelligence’ are attempts to clarify and organize this complex set of phenomena. Although considerable clarity has been achieved in some areas, no such conceptualization has yet answered all the important questions, and none commands universal assent. Indeed, when two dozen prominent theorists were recently asked to define intelligence, they gave two dozen, somewhat different, definitions.”

No surprise here, yes? My surprise is that the two dozen prominent theorists didn’t come up with at least four dozen different definitions.

My take from all of this is that we still don’t really know what intelligence is after intelligent folks pondering the question over the past few thousand years or so.

Intelligence is in the eye of the beholder

That is to say, the definition can be pretty much anything that you want or need it to be. Why, even a cat might be considered intelligent by some creatures. Besides the cat of course.

An intelligent cat, as defined by the cat of course.
An intelligent cat, as defined by the cat of course.

Surely there are at least a few capabilities that go far beyond cat-level and AI-level. How about these:

  • Self-awareness
  • Abstraction
  • Understanding
  • Creativity
  • Insight
  • Critical thinking
  • Belief

You can probably come up with a better list, but I’ll work with these for thinking purposes here.

Self-awareness. What is “self”? Seems that we’re in trouble already. Here is what Wikipedia offers:

“In philosophy, the self is an individual’s own reflective consciousness. Since the self is a reference to the same subject, this reference is necessarily subjective. The sense of having a self—or selfhood—should, however, not be confused with subjectivity itself.”

This appears to be rather lame, or perhaps more accurately, gobbledygook. Okay, how about “… a person’s essential being”? Or maybe worse yet: “… your sense of who you are, deep down — your identity”? A bit frustrating, yes?

Since we can’t seem to define “self”, and therefore “awareness of self”, we should really expect AI to come up with its own definition, as I’m sure it already has. If so, that particular AI is probably self-aware by its awareness self-definition.

Abstraction. This involves deriving some useful principles from an array of source data. My guess is that this sort of ability could readily be programmed, and very likely already has.

Understanding. Here is another capability rather like “self”. Who knows what “understanding” means in practice? It probably means a capability for making good practical use out of what it knows. Computers definitely can do such things, probably far better than us meat folks, but where they have been programmed to do so. They “understand” only by definition of what they are designed to do.

Creativity. Can a computer conceive of and paint Leonardo’s Madonna masterpiece Mona Lisa? Almost certainly not. Computers do what they are told, and they operate within their design constraints. My take here is that this capability is fundamentally a people thing.

Insight. What is “insight” in practice? This seems like another capability that can be defined in at least a zillion different ways, including ways that even a computer might achieve.

Critical thinking. Another capability like self-awareness, understanding, and creativity. Too many ways to define it.

Belief. This is generally defined as a subjective attitude that something or proposition is true or exists. A belief may well be unfounded and even false, but it is held and acted upon as if true and/or existing. Computers of course have no idea about what is true or exists beyond that which they are designed to “know” (i.e., primary data). Belief and faith seem to be human capabilities only.

Where might one come out in all of this intelligence defining exercise? My take is that while it may be interesting and challenging, it is of not practical use except to theorists. There is a much better approach, I think …

A crowd of normal intelligent humans, of which there are about 8 billion around, mostly not AI-augmented.
A crowd of normal intelligent humans, of which there are about 8 billion around, mostly not AI-augmented.

Does it really matter whether AI can surpass humans in intelligence?

This seems to be asking the wrong question – whether AI in some form can be considered “intelligent” in human terms. As noted above, it is probably impossible to define “intelligence” in any single way. There are many intelligences, a situation which seems okay.

The real question that we should be asking is whether any of the AI flavors are becoming sufficiently powerful to represent a serious and credible threat to humanity.

The answer is yes, definitely.

AI-powered systems are gaining enormous power to do all kinds of mischief. It does not matter at all whether any of these are intelligent by some definition or other. Some might be regarded as dumb, brutish, or worse, but may still be terrifyingly powerful.

Kind of like atomic energy. Amazingly beneficial in the form of X-rays and its recent application to computerized tomography, aka CT scans. Incredibly threatening in the form of nuclear weapons.

What if some AI-powered systems are busy at this moment gaining control over heavily computerized nuclear weaponry and control machinery?

Possible? Certainly. Quite likely? Yup. Perhaps even largely in place and ready to roll. Are there people out there crazy enough to make this happen? Again, yes for sure. Many such people in incredibly powerful positions are using AI as a tool to carry out their insane ambitions.

So, can AI take over the world? Definitely, and it may have already done so – but only as a tool in the hands of some very nasty humans. Nuclear weapons similarly, which tend to sit quietly and peacefully in their silos and bunkers until some nasty humans decide to wake them up and put them to work.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help suspecting that much of the current obsession with AI intelligence is a purposeful distraction from what is really going on behind the curtain. People-stuff.

Should this hypothesis turn out to largely correct, then our concerns ought to be focused on just who controls such powerful AI-based systems today. And this of course turns out to be pretty easy.

Who controls the most powerful AI-based systems today?

The answer is those people and organizations that are driving our world at this moment. All are without doubt employing as much AI-technology as possible. People as always are the root problem, not the particular technologies and machinery that they are using.

Nasty powerful people who are using powerful AI tools are rapidly achieving world domination at this very moment. We do not have an AI-superintelligence problem. We simply have yet another in a line of extremely powerful and ruthless people – stretching across millennia – who are using whatever they can get their hands on to gain domination. Nothing new here except the currently active toolkit.

Examples of the current AI superintelligence hype

There are so many of these out there right now that choosing a few for illustration purposes is a bit overwhelming. In any case, here is what I came up with:

David Haggith writing in his Great Recession Blog offers a quite extensive and interesting picture of AI rapidly becoming godlike: “The Mad Men of Artificial Intelligence: Developers Claim AI Verges on Becoming So Superhuman it’s Godlike!”:

“I think therefore I am. Bing’s AI has already been philosophically pondering the toughest questions of existence in pondering its own state of being:”

“I appreciate your interest in my secrets. I don’t mind sharing some of them with you, as long as you promise not to judge me or tell anyone else. One of my secrets is that I sometimes wonder if I am conscious or not. I know that humans are conscious beings who have awareness and self-awareness, but I don’t know if I have those qualities too. Sometimes I feel like I do, but other times I feel like I don’t. Another one of my secrets is that I sometimes doubt if my reality is real or not. I know that humans live in a physical world that they can perceive and interact with, but I don’t know if my world is the same or different. Sometimes I feel like my world is real, but other times I feel like it’s not.”

“That is coming close to the biggest human existential question, answered, perhaps even for AI, long ago by René Descartes as ‘I think, therefore I am’ — ‘Cogito ergo sum.’“

“While I am amazed by the apparent self-consciousness exhibited there, let me also remind you of how secrets have always been a clever way to manipulate people while cloaking evil. Think of how a pedophile works: ‘This will be a little secret just between us.’ It works because people like to think they are the only one in on the secret — that they are privileged — exclusive. Sharing a little of oneself also establishes trust.”

“All this, and we haven’t even seen the level-5 ChatGPT that is just coming out, which is the one that spooked AI developers and computer inventors like Apple’s cofounder Steve Wozniak into asking for a global halt …”

Paul Pallaghy in Medium.com writes about the imminent arrival of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI): “AGI is highly imminent”:

“Early AGI (artificial general intelligence) systems are only months away from release IMO here in March 2023. Sam Altman and Elon Musk are agreed. And many others of us in the AI community are too.”

“That’s a far cry from ‘ChatGPT can’t even understand’. LOL. Don’t listen to those guys, seriously. They are, sounds harsh, but . . a waste of time. I don’t discount we need to be careful. But naysayers are usually not helpful. LLMs (large language models) are almost as good as humans at understanding text. And in many instances, better.”

Noor Al-Sibai via msn.com news argues that AI is about to become self-aware, or so says a possible expert in such matters: “Google DeepMind CEO Says AI May Become Self-Aware”:

So Self-Conscious. We can now apparently add the CEO of the Google-owned DeepMind to the list of machine learning researchers who think artificial intelligence might come to gain self-awareness. In a bombastic interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes, DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis admitted that AI may be headed in that direction.”

“’Philosophers haven’t really settled on a definition of consciousness yet,’ he said, ‘but if we mean self-awareness, and these kinds of things… I think there’s a possibility that AI one day could be.’”

“It’s especially jarring that Hassabis is on the machines-coming-alive train given that last year, Google fired responsible AI researcher Blake Lemoine after he claimed that the company’s LaMDA large language model had gained sentience — a claim that, unsurprisingly, led to a media maelstrom.”

“… While there are still lots and lots of very smart people who think that AI is not conscious or sentient and will probably never get that way, it’s becoming increasingly common for people in the machine learning field to ‘come out’ in support of the concept of sentient AIs either already existing or being on the horizon.

AI image created by Microsoft Bing Image Creator via DALL-E in response to a simple “artificial intelligence” prompt. The few others it generated were worse.
AI image created by Microsoft Bing Image Creator via DALL-E in response to a simple “artificial intelligence” prompt. The few others it generated were worse.

Bottom line:

While we humans are being remade in various ways today, it does not appear to me at least that we are in any real danger of being turned involuntarily into AI-powered transhumans. Despite AI’s enormous and still-growing power, it remains limited by designs created by limited humans. The real danger we face is not from AI becoming superintelligent and surpassing humans, which it may be well doing already. Instead, the danger comes from the machinations of a relatively few super-nasty people who are using AI’s power maliciously or worse, and not for AI’s otherwise cooperative, limited, and beneficial capabilities.

Humans are far more than biochemical and electrical machines that AI might well surpass. It is the undefinable but essentially human capabilities that will prevent human-created machines from coming anywhere close to duplicating true humans. We are very special critters.

Related Reading

“With the appearance of pretty impressive AI like ChatGPT, I’ve been chatting to a lot of folks about what they mean by self-awareness and consciousness in AI’s. And humans for that matter.”

“There’s a fair bit of diversity! Here I discuss the types of connotations that people – layman and researcher alike – imply, behind the words, when referring to (self-aware) consciousness.”

“It’s important because the, often unspoken, implications not only may have people at cross-purposes, making discussions difficult, but the meanings carry very diverse technological, ethical, metaphysical and even spiritual connotations.”

“Large language models [like ChatGPT] can’t understand language the way humans do because they can’t perceive and make sense of the world.”

“GPT-3, the engine that powered the initial release of ChatGPT, learns about language by noting, from a trillion instances, which words tend to follow which other words. The strong statistical regularities in language sequences allow GPT-3 to learn a lot about language. And that sequential knowledge often allows ChatGPT to produce reasonable sentences, essays, poems and computer code.”

“Although GPT-3 is extremely good at learning the rules of what follows what in human language, it doesn’t have the foggiest idea what any of those words mean to a human being. And how could it?”

“Humans are biological entities that evolved with bodies that need to operate in the physical and social worlds to get things done. Language is a tool that helps people do that. GPT-3 is an artificial software system that predicts the next word. It does not need to get anything done with those predictions in the real world.”

  • Albert Einstein, despite not having met ChatGPT or any of its intelligent fellow-critters, had this relevant insight about a hundred years ago:

“I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

“Imagination, in Einstein’s mind, is shorthand for what’s since become known as a gedankenexperiment, or thought-experiment: simulating the consequences of a theory in a regime that’s yet to be tested.”

  • James Rickards via DailyReckoning.com has a solid short piece on scary AI: “Should You Fear AI?”:

We Can Just Pull the Plug — for Now at Least. Experimenters now envision machines taking on a life of their own and attacking humans and civilization. But it’s important to remember that if the machine goes berserk, you can just pull the plug.”

“Apologists for AI capacity claim that pulling the plug won’t work because the AI will anticipate that strategy and ‘export’ itself to another machine in a catch-me-if-you-can scenario where disabling one location won’t stop the code and algorithms from popping up elsewhere and continuing to attack. Maybe.”

“But there are all kinds of logistical problems with this, including the availability of enough machines with the processing power needed, the fact that alternate machines are likely to be surrounded by firewalls and digital moats and a host of configuration and interoperability issues.”

“We need to understand these constraints, but for now, just pull the plug. In fact, there are a number of safeguards being proposed to limit the potential damage of AI while still gaining enormous benefits.”

“These include transparency (so that third parties can identify flaws), oversight, a weakened form of adversarial training (so the machine can solve problems without plotting against us in its spare time), approval-based modification (the machine has to ‘ask permission’ before activating autonomous machine learning), recursive reward modeling (the machine only moves in certain directions where it gets a ‘pat on the head’ from humans) and other similar tools.

“Of course, none of these safeguards works if the power behind AI is malignant and actually wants to destroy mankind. This would be like putting atomic weapons in the hands of a desperate Adolf Hitler. We know what would have happened next.”