Martin Rees: The Post-Human Era is DawningPosted: July 11, 2015
Artificial minds will not be confined to the planet on which we have evolved
Martin Rees writes: So vast are the expanses of space and time that fall within an astronomer’s gaze that people in my profession are mindful not only of our moment in history, but also of our place in the wider cosmos. We wonder whether there is intelligent life elsewhere; some of us even search for it. People will not be the culmination of evolution. We are near the dawn of a post-human future that could be just as prolonged as the billions of years of Darwinian selection that preceded humanity’s emergence.
“Our era of organic intelligence is a triumph of complexity over entropy, but a transient one, which will be followed by a vastly longer period of inorganic intelligences less constrained by their environment.”
The far future will bear traces of humanity, just as our own age retains influences of ancient civilisations. Humans and all they have thought might be a transient precursor to the deeper cogitations of another culture — one dominated by machines, extending deep into the future and spreading far beyond earth.
“Or they may be out there already, orbiting distant stars. Either way, it will be the actions of autonomous machines that will most drastically change the world, and perhaps what lies beyond.”
Not everyone considers this an uplifting scenario. There are those who fear that artificial intelligence will supplant us, taking our jobs and living beyond the writ of human laws. Others regard such scenarios as too futuristic to be worth fretting over. But the disagreements are about the rate of travel, not the direction. Few doubt that machines will one day surpass more of our distinctively human capabilities. It may take centuries but, compared to the aeons of evolution that led to humanity’s emergence, even that is a mere bat of the eye. This is not a fatalistic projection. It is cause for optimism. The civilisation that supplants us could accomplish unimaginable advances — feats, perhaps, that we cannot even understand.
Human brains, which have changed little since our ancestors roamed the African savannah, have allowed us to penetrate the secrets of the quantum and the cosmos. But there is no reason to think that our comprehension is matched to an understanding of all the important features of reality. Some day we may hit the buffers. There are chemical and metabolic limits to the size and power of “wet” organic brains.
Today’s computers do not learn like we do. Their internal network is far simpler than a human brain, but they partly make up for this disadvantage because their “nerves” transmit messages at the speed of light, millions of times faster than the chemical transmission in human brains. They can learn to identify dogs, cats and human faces by crunching through millions of images. They learn to translate from foreign languages by reading multilingual versions of millions of pages of EU rules, among other documents (and, crucially, they never get bored).
These are primitive steps, and there is disagreement about the route towards machines of human-level intelligence. Some think we should emulate nature, and reverse-engineer the human brain. Others say that is as misguided as designing flying machine by copying how birds flap their wings. Philosophers debate whether “consciousness” is special to the wet, organic brains of humans, apes and dogs, so that robots, even if their intellects seem superhuman, will still lack self-awareness or inner life. But of the kind of “thinking” that has enabled humans….(read more)
The writer is the Astronomer Royal