We read a lot about the emergence of so-called artificial intelligence. I say so-called, because I’m not sure intelligence can truly be reduced to decision-making based on data. It’s far too complicated to be reduced to yes/no, zero/one equations based on perceptible, or recorded, quantifiable bits of information. Part of what makes human intelligence human intelligence is its variability, its oddity. I’ve long been convinced that our experience of our goofiness, our messiness, is actual a crucial component of the Matrix, or whatever we want to call the hyper-simulation that we have been creating for however long, and within which we live. I’m taking a Vedantist/Buddhist view here of us all living with some version of the Dream of Vishnu, with ourselves being the neurons of this putative sleeping Deity. I also posit there is an unmanifest emptiness, or at least, a basic state that can’t be described with anything like adjectives or verbs, even if we can come up with some allusive nouns. I’m therefore dismissing Elon Musk-ian speculations about some computer program produced by a wholly non-human Other.
The point I want to get to is that while we’re probing things like how to make a self-driving car that can make ethical decisions about which pedestrians to protect in an emergency situation, or how an AI medical device can choose who and how to save the seriously diseased, or how to triage a large group of people affected by a blast or a fire, the real thing we’re trying to do is look once more at morality in a post-Christian world.
If most of us no longer invest much belief in an Abrahamic – or even a Hindu – god, then we are still stuck with having to make our existence bearable. And everything happening to us – environmental degradation, burgeoning population, the continuing success of politicians who resolutely ignore the consequences of poor decision-making – is forcing us towards reconsidering morality.
So, as we continue to develop virtual reality, automated manufacturing systems and robotic transportation, and as we continue to wonder, “What the heck am I, really?” we will be forced by the pressure of the circumstances we are creating, to come up with a richer, stranger, wilder conception of our own selves. Whether or not we ‘enhance’ memory and reasoning powers with digital add-ins or chemical stimulants, isn’t the point. The point is, always and ever, to know what we are despite or behind our protests of not knowing. In what state or place, in other words, is Vishnu sleeping? That question pre-empts everything Ray Kurzweil, Yuval Noah Harari and everyone else is writing about.