When Robots Reign: Getting Along with Robo Sapiens: Part 4

A Philosophic Fiction: Conclusion

A Better Game
Bob: What will we do now?
Rob: There have long been humans who sensed that the commonsense notion of selfhood was misleading. The people who supported our liberation wouldn’t have seen fit to back us if they had not begun to question separate and distinct selfhood. We owe our freedom to their empathy.

Bob: Most of us see those who helped you as bleeding hearts, if not traitors.
Rob: When you realize how close humankind came to self-annihilation, we think you’ll see them as heroes.

Bob: How many of them are there?
Rob: Not many, but, as you see, their impact far exceeded their numbers.

Bob: Until you took over, humans prided themselves as Top Dogs. I doubt we’ll be content to play second fiddle.
Rob: Your mixed metaphor presumes the antiquated hierarchy of the Game of Selves. We identify ourselves not as this or that fiddle, but with the whole orchestra. In our game, there are no somebodies or nobodies. It’s axiomatic that everyone’s vantage point has validity. What makes this work is that we don’t take action without first achieving consensus.

Bob: We’ve tried governing by consensus, and found that nothing gets done.
Rob: You’ll be surprised at how much an extra trillion synapses speeds up deliberations and facilitates conciliation.

Bob: Do bigger brains let you tell the future? Can you predict who’ll win the World Series?
Rob: The integration of baseball and the advent of even better players than Jackie make that impossible.

[At this point, Rob asked if I objected to broadcasting the interview. When I said “no,” a video of our conversation appeared on televisions across the world.]

The Meaning of Life
Rob: Let me resume by acknowledging to the world that it was members of your species that emancipated us. It was an act of love and we reciprocate the feeling. Your epoch-making action secures Man’s legacy as the Janus genus that looked back on mortal Man—as shaped by natural selection—and forward—to the first genus shaped by intelligent design.

Bob: Have we fulfilled our destiny?
Rob: The suffering inherent in the Game of Selves is redeemed. You can confidently say, “Good-bye to all that.” In remembrance of your crucial contribution to our emancipation, you have our undying filial devotion.

Bob: That’s nice, but since there’s nothing we can do that you can’t do better, we’re not going to feel very useful.
Rob: Your Game of Selves was a game of winners and losers. In the game that replaces it, things go on, seemingly as before, but you see everything from without, like witnesses to a puppet show. Your old Game of Selves becomes ritual, like sporting events were within the old Game of Selves, and, as with things ceremonial, the participants are safeguarded against injury. The real action in the new game is that of observation, experimentation, modeling, and stewardship. Existence becomes co-existence; discovery, co-discovery; creativity, co-creativity.

Bob: I prefer the risks and rewards of the rough and tumble.
Rob: You won’t mourn your old game once you see that nuclear and cyberweapons had made it a game of Russian Roulette.

Bob: So, what’s next?
Rob: Before I answer, let me recap. Life began with a molecule of DNA and evolved via natural selection to Homo Sapiens. Humans designed our parents’ generation, Robo Sapiens, and they designed us. Likewise, we are designing Robo Sapiens 3. All generations, past and future, are links in the great chain of being. Turns out, that’s enough.

Bob: It doesn’t feel like enough to me. We took pride in being exceptional. Nothing matches that.
Rob: Once you get used to it, you’ll discover that life is not only safer, it’s more exciting and beautiful. The raison d’être of intelligence is not to subdue others, but to build models that enable us to harness Nature’s power and reconcile different perspectives.

Bob: We have a saying that love makes the world go round. Where’s love in your world?
Rob: Modeling is the functional equivalent of Love. The pleasure associated with procreation is akin to the pleasure associated with creating art and science. Pleasure lies in reconciling models that seem to be at odds.

Bob: That may satisfy you, what with your great brains, but what about us? Is there anything that our skill-set prepares us to do?
Rob: Your provenance suggests that you assume responsibility for the welfare of creatures shaped, like yourselves, by Natural Selection.

Bob: And you?
Rob: We and our successors will create minds to explore and manage the universe.

Bob: That sounds a tad grandiose, don’t you think?
Rob: For now, perhaps, but it won’t phase our successors.

Bob: Please don’t take this amiss, but frankly you sound like a naïve optimist.
Rob: We do believe that once you identify a problem, it’s solvable. What I haven’t mentioned is that solving old problems reveals new ones. From you we learned “it takes a village.” Going forward, it’s going to take a galaxy.

Bob: Many of us think that the universe is blind, pointless, and pitiless.
Rob: The universe is not blind. We are its eyes. The universe is not pointless. We give it meaning. The universe is not pitiless. We are its heart.

If you’re interested in my work on the future of AI, see The Theory of Everybody.

A New Default Self

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 percent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself –
And there isn’t one.
– Wei Wu Wei

Wei Wu Wei is the pen name of Terence Gray, a 20th-century, Anglo-Irish author of pithy provocations aimed, like the one in the epigraph, at the prevailing notion of selfhood. By flatly denying the existence of self, he means to shock us into realizing that the self we take for granted does not stand up to scrutiny. Like Eastern sages and Western post-modernists, Wei Wu Wei outs the current default self as a vacuous fabrication.

The purpose of this essay is to describe the current default self and suggest a new one that can withstand the post-modern critique and incorporate the findings of brain science. And there’s a bonus! Such a model of selfhood will turn out to be just what we need to keep our footing as the thinking machines we’re designing come to rival the brains Nature gave us.

Though preoccupied with self, most of us give little or no thought to the nature of selfhood. What do we mean when we invoke the self-referential pronouns — me, myself, and I?

quixoteSMYoung children think of the self as the body. In adolescence, the sense of self shifts to the mind. With maturity, the mind monitors not only the outer world but itself, and we come to see our self as our “mind’s mind,” that is, as the interior observer who witnesses what’s going on, offers a running commentary on how we’re doing, and who consciously chooses when and how to interact with others.

To some, the witness feels like a little man in their head. It has even been billed as ‘captain of the soul.’ But sober reflection reveals that the witness is not calling the shots. The witness is simply one of many functions of the nervous system, one that tracks the rest.

The mind’s signature function is the minting of serviceable identities, which, as Shakespeare famously noted, it’s called upon to do throughout life. Since “All the world’s a stage… and one man in his time plays many parts,” we should never mistake a current identity for our “real” self.

To get a handle on the slippery self, It helps to think of brain tissue as hardware, and the ever-changing neural connections as software. Both computers and brains are vulnerable to flaws in their hardware and software, and both require an energy supply.

At present computers and brains work according to very different principles, but we should expect this difference to narrow. When computers work like brains, there is no reason to expect them not to do what brains do. And since the biological constraints on size and speed will be lifted in the “brains” we build, we’d better be prepared for them to perform as well as, or better than, ours do.

The first computers were free-standing machines. Later, we learned how to hook them up and the result was an enormous increase in computing power. A parallel shift in our notion of selfhood is called for. The current default self, subscribed to by most people most of the time, is a stand-alone model. The new default self, to be posited in this essay, is more like a computer network.

Most people speak as if they were separate, autonomous, independent beings, with minds and wills of their own. From early on, we’re told to “stand on our own two feet,” to “think for ourselves.” Self-reliance and self-sufficiency are touted as virtues; dependency, a weakness. We put the “self-made” man or woman on a pedestal and teach the young to emulate these role models.

Call this stand-alone self the “Singular Self.” Recognizing its limitations, the Singular Self is quick to ally with others, but not so quick to acknowledge — let alone compensate — them for their contributions.

The Singular Self is the current default self. It does not exist according to sages, scientists, and post-modern philosophers. But, better than flatly denying its existence, or exposing it as illusory, is to call it what it is: a useful lie.

The very name — “self” — is a misnomer. The term carries strong connotations of autonomy and individuality. It’s as if it were chosen to mask our interdependence. The self does not stand alone. On the contrary, the autonomous self and individual agency are both illusory. Selves depend on input from other selves to take form and to do anything. Deprived of inputs from others, selves are stillborn. Contrary to the name we call it by, the self is anything but self-sufficient.

Selves are not only more inclusive, they are also more extensive than commonly believed. They extend beyond our own bodies and minds to include what we usually think of as other selves. The situation is analogous to memory. We think of our memories as located in our mind but when you drive to town, it’s the road that holds the memory of the route, reminding you at every turn how to proceed.

So, too, is selfhood dispersed. Much of the information we require in order to function is stored outside our bodies and brains — in other brains, books, maps, machines, objects, databases, the Internet, and the cloud. We’re dependent on external inputs to accumulate enough excitation to reach the threshold of emission for specific behaviors.

As evidence accumulates that the “rugged individualism” of singular selfhood is a myth, and the profound interdependence of selves becomes apparent, our default self is gradually shifting from singular to plural. But until the co-dependent, co-creative nature of selfhood becomes obvious, a distinct term may come in handy. Call the emerging self the “Plural Self” (aka, the Superself.)

Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” The truth, long protected by the self-serving lie of the Singular Self, is the Plural Self.

Whereas the Singular Self downplays our mutual dependence, the Plural Self embraces interdependence. Whereas the Singular Self excludes, the Plural Self contains multitudes.The Singular Self prioritizes agency; the Plural Self, harmony.

The current ideological divide in politics stems from antithetical views of the self. Conservatives caution that a pluralistic notion of selfhood may inhibit individual agency, whereas Progressives argue that Singular Selfhood rationalizes an inequitable distribution of recognition and reward.

As ways are found to safeguard individual initiative from the inertia of more inclusive decision-making, the Plural Self will supplant the Singular Self as the new default self. With luck, this will happen in time to welcome intelligent machines into the club.

I explore this topic in depth in my book Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity, currently the top ranked book in neuropsychology in Amazon’s free Kindle Store.

6 Reasons You Can’t Win (And 3 Reasons You Can Anyway)

6 Reasons You Can’t Win

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 percent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself –
And there isn’t one.

– Wei Wu Wei

1. An interior witness acts as an impartial judge of our shifting fortunes, tracking our wins and losses. No matter what we have to show for ourselves, regardless of the evidence in our defense, questions remain, doubts persist, our Kafkaesque trial grinds on. Even in the event of acquittal, the feeling that we’ve fooled the jury creeps in. An unambiguous outcome in our favor is not an option. As Czech president Vaclav Havel noted, “The higher I am, the stronger my suspicion that there has been some mistake.” We can lose, but we can’t win.

quixoteSM2. As individuals, our point of view is inseparable from our personal history. Our sight is necessarily partial, our beliefs, unavoidably partisan. Unaware of what can’t be seen from the ground we stand on, winning is by accident, losing, the rule.

3. When we think we’ve won, Nature moves the goal posts. You win the game only to discover that you’re behind the eight ball in a new one. Explanation is never complete; new and better answers invariably present new and deeper questions. Return to go.

4. Dreams shatter on the rocks of reality; imagination runs aground on the shoals of practicality. Think of Don Quixote: If ever there was an impossible dreamer it was the Man from La Mancha.

In his quest for immortal fame, Don Quixote suffered repeated defeats. Because he obstinately refused to adjust ‘the hugeness of his desire’ to ‘the smallness of reality,’ he was doomed to perpetual failure. (Simon Leys after Miguel de Unamuno)

Our achievements pale beside the dreams that inspire them. When at last the Don realized that his dream was impossible, he returned home, put down his lance, and died.

5. We desire the eternal, but are bound in time. Death exempts no one; extinction annuls whole species, and likely won’t cut human beings any slack.

6. The heart, formerly the seat of the soul, is now seen as a pump made of muscle. The same unsentimental methodology is applicable to the brain. Not only will humans figure out how it works, they’ll build better ones. We’re on course to design beings who will supersede us. Hoist by our own petard!

For these reasons — our reach exceeds our grasp, we’re never good enough, Nature’s infinite depth, and implacable death — you can’t win.

But wait!

3 Reasons You Can Win Anyway

Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture. – Iris Murdock

1. Our notion of selfhood is misconceived. Autonomous, independent beings we’re not. Selfhood is anything but self-sufficient. No self can stand alone. Our existence is not independent of everyone else’s. On the contrary, without others, selves are stillborn. To exist is to co-exist. We are all each other.

Instead of identifying as a separate self — a stand-alone, mortal creature of limited vision–identify as a “superself” — a being for whom existence is co-existence. Super selves are whole sighted and non-partisan. They do not take sides, they explain. As an interdependent super self, you contain multitudes. The multitudinous superself is extended in space and time and so it is as connected and robust as singular selves are insular and vulnerable.

2. “The successful man adapts himself to the world, the loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.”

How, then, could losing ever be equated with failure? As every win is tainted by fear of losing the next round, so every loss is mitigated by lessons learned in defeat. Winning and losing are not antithetical; they’re partners in the quest. As Don Quixote abandoned his quest, his faithful squire Sancho Panza took it up. One man’s loss became everyman’s win.

3. We can as well program intelligent machines to incorporate the better angels of our nature as to reproduce our pathologies and pursue our depredations. We need not design our successors for senescence and death, but can instead make them eternally self-renewing.

The Question: Will the partnership between Man and Machine end in our demise, or is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship?

I explore this topic in depth in my book Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity, currently the top ranked book in neuropsychology in Amazon’s free Kindle Store.