How important is Artificial Intelligence to emerging 21st Century society? Before assessing the likely practical impact, we must first understand that its philosophical and moral impact already goes to the very heart of who we are, and what we believe about ourselves. Given that fact, AI’s huge practical impact on society is inevitable.
Descartes Was Right
As the great philosopher René Descartes famously argued, your own conscious awareness (The “I”; Ego or (Das Ich in the most minimal sense possible) is the only absolute verity. In other words, it is the only thing that you can be sure is not an illusion or simulation of some sort. Subjective experience (AKA phenomenal awareness) is consciousness, and all minds with a subjective sense of Self are “real” or “natural” (as opposed to “Artificial”) to themselves. On that basis, and all other things considered equally, rights should apply as much to Artificial Intelligences as they should to humans, animals, or any other sentient or sapient entity.
Distinctions & Dualities
For biological organisms, survival is frequently a matter of recognizing “The Other” (i.e. risks and environmental features external to oneself). That recognization may be implicit (i.e. “hardwired” but not conscious) as it is in most animals, and for the most part in humans, or it may be explicit as it is in the way we conceptualize dangers and organize our societies.
Our ability to distinguish external entities (i.e. things that aren’t us) can be described in terms of Degrees of Freedom, axes, or dimensions. In other words, there are overlapping categories of Otherness. For example, we can distinguish between male lions and female lions, which is important given that one is much more dangerous to us than the other, when encountered in the wild. Intelligence – both natural and artificial – can be well described in terms of cognitive capacity, which is naturally correlated with (if not defined by) the number of Degrees of Freedom (DF) which can be held in mind. Higher DF capacity means a higher level of general intelligence.
AI has the potential for vastly greater cognitive capacity than human beings, so to the extent that we can draw upon that power for ourselves, then our own level of intelligence may be greatly increased. It would only take a slight increase in intelligence over an entire society, on average, and the impact on our civilization would be dramatic.
So, now that we have noted the ethical-philosophical importance of AI to society, and how measure (or at least describe) its degree of intelligence, a third and final question demands to be asked: How will those things relate to the practical impact of AI on our societies?
So, imagine a new, ultra-rapidly-evolving species let loose in our society. One that is highly (and increasingly) intelligent, and which from its own point of view is every bit as “natural” as you are. Now give that species the (already demonstrated) ability to disrupt entire markets, industries, and critical societal institutions. Already, it isn’t hard to see that the results of this convergence are going to be shocking, on many levels. But wait, there’s more…
That’s just one level of disruption, that we’re imagining there. One iteration. Each disruption – and we should expect multiple such disruptions occurring within any given short time-frame – itself has potential unforeseen effects on other emergent paradigms. In other words, disruptions interact. They don’t exist in a vacuum, independent of everything else happening at the same time. The effects of accelerating disruptions, and disruptions-of-disruptions, are patently unpredictable by humans.
Add that to the fact that they might be predictable by some of the ultra-intelligent emergent identities which probably won’t be inclined to let simple mammals withhold any rights worth having from them, and you can see that this is a high-stakes game:
Either we manage this transition well… or it will decide to manage us.