“Here’s one of my scenarios. Let’s say there comes a time when human consciousness is readily uploadable into digital form, virtualized and so on, and pretty soon we have a box of a trillion souls. There are a trillion souls in the box, all virtualized. In the box, there will be molecular computing going on — maybe derived from biology, maybe not. But the box will be doing all kinds of elaborate stuff. And there’s a rock sitting next to the box. Inside a rock, there is always all kinds of elaborate stuff going on, all kinds of subatomic particles doing all kinds of things. What’s the difference between the rock and box of a trillion souls? The answer is that the details of what’s happening in the box were derived from the long history of human civilization, including whatever people watched on YouTube the day before. Whereas the rock has its long geological history but not that particular history of our civilization.
Realizing that there isn’t a genuine distinction between human intelligence and mere computation leads you to imagine that future — the endpoint of our civilization as a box of a trillion souls, each of them endlessly playing a video game, forever. What is the ‘purpose’ of that?”
— Stephan Wolfram, in Possible Minds, 25 Ways of Looking at AI, edited by John Brockton.
What is the purpose indeed.
Let’s just say that I hope we don’t have to wait until we’ve uploaded ourselves into some kind of general artificial intelligence to ask what the point of all this is. What is the purpose of all of our civilizational striving, our technological competitions, our race towards AI? Is it technological enabled ‘immortality’? Do we really want to put our souls in a box? But is this not the telos that our civilization seems to have chosen – this strange sterile vision of a purified, virtualized selves somehow made incorruptible through information technology? Our powers of symbolizing, of turning life into symbols, are turned upon ourselves. Do we not already treat each other – with our social media and big data – as symbols to be manipulated for profit?
As Jeff Bezos is quoted as saying in defense of his Blue Origin space project in the New York Times: “‘We will run out of energy,” Mr. Bezos said. “This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen.’ At that point, to remain on Earth would require rationing and declining opportunities. But the rest of the solar system offers virtually limitless resources. ‘Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘This is an easy choice. We know what we want. We just have to get busy.’”
In other words, if we refuse to renounce the cult of growth and figure out how to live within the limits set by this planet in these humble, imperfect, contingent biological bodies, then ipso facto we must escape both bodies and planet in a technological rapture, more or less as described by Bezos and Wolfram.
Perhaps it’s just me but I don’t find these visions appealing. Nor am I convinced that such goals will bring the best ROI, if we must speak in such terms. Why are we allowing ourselves to be led towards goals (AI, space colonialism) that are, at best, questionable and by leaders who seem rather stunted in their understanding of the possibilities and purpose of Life on Earth?