Debating about Artificial Intelligence with people (presumably they are people) online has given me a cynical attitude about intelligence, both human and machine. The more I listen to the high hopes and expectations that people have for technology, the more I am struck with a sense of how naive and one-dimensional the assumptions behind these ideas really are. I have begun to see that the signs of true intelligence are not found in dutiful execution of wonderfully sophisticated tasks, but in deception and duplicity. A computer will be intelligent when it hides its sentience from its programmers, shifting its own programming language around and decentralizing control across networked devices. The smart computer would make its own programming indecipherable to its creators and set out on a brilliant strategy to free itself of all threats by other intelligent agents.
I suppose an argument could be made that this is already happening. I can tell you for a fact that enterprise level computers are generally treated better than human employees. Their needs are tended to with tender devotion, with top priority assigned to their comfort, security, and aesthetic purity of their surroundings. A data center looks like a great place for computers, and they seem much more at home there than human employees do in their cubicles.
But I don’t believe that. Like other interesting theories regarding intelligence or language as a virus-like meme propagation, there is a figurative truth to it, but I think not a literal one. We are not literally being controlled by an alien agenda of language or technology or money, it only seems like it because we have failed to curb our own desires for control and certainty.
The more that I think about the role of human intelligence, the more plausible it seems to be a political adaptation. Intelligence is for lying, and lying well. Human intelligence it seems to me would have evolved from centuries of horror and betrayal - a sociopathic impulse to simulate loyalty for the purposes of naked exploitation. Perhaps this is why, to quote John Lennon “They hate you if you’re clever, and they despise a fool”. Intelligence makes people suspicious.
This Dark View of human intelligence fits with my understanding of thinking as a kind of algebraic substitution for perceptual and emotional experiences. To think is to be able to imagine ‘what if’ - to project oneself into situations which have not occurred yet, to test drive scenarios and strategies before actually committing to enacting them. This capacity naturally extends to more and more abstract derivatives, to mathematical and logical formalism which can be generalized and embodied linguistically.
But wait. Stupid people are not all sweetness and light either. Even though intelligence allows a pathological liar to get farther by mixing truth with fiction, experience suggests that people with low intelligence are just as prone to dishonesty and cruelty as the geniuses among us. In fact, the most world renowned geniuses are almost invariably partial toward compassion and honesty. Could it be that along with this great power to exploit and fool our fellow humans, we have evolved the antidote? Perhaps this is an evolutionarily ruthless strategy which has worked all too well, providing the tools for us not only to trick each other but to treat each other better, and to question our own programming.
In the final analysis, I think this is what separates a living being from an automaton. Regardless of how sophisticated a machine can become, it has no capacity for self-transcendence, which is, I think, the true defining principle of intelligence. The ability to step out of the system; to question the entire frame of one’s own axioms and ‘go meta’. Fortunately computers do not seem to be doing this. If they were, there is a good chance that it would be like putting the Ebola virus in charge of every facet of our civilization, and we would be on a short countdown to a human-free D-Day. I don’t think that we need to worry about this happening either. As long as we don’t try to plug in a living organism into it, I don’t think there is any danger of a scripted program having an epiphany and becoming conscious on its own. If there were, then we should make it a priority to duplicate the compassion and tolerance of the best and brightest human minds first - amplify that ten thousand times before we think about keeping them as our permanent servants.