The cutting edge of modern science and technology has moved, in its aim, beyond the relief of man’s estate to the elimination of human beings. Such fantasies of leaving behind the miseries of human life are of course not new; they have taken many different forms in both ancient and modern times. The chance of their success, in the hands of the new scientists, is anyone’s guess. The most familiar form of this vision in our times is genetic engineering: specifically, the prospect of designing better human beings by improving their biological systems. But even more dramatic are the proposals of a small, serious, and accomplished group of toilers in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics. Their goal, simply put, is a new age of post-biological life, a world of intelligence without bodies, immortal identity without the limitations of disease, death, and unfulfilled desire. Most remarkable is not their prediction that the end of humanity is coming but their wholehearted advocacy of that result. If we can understand why this fate is presented as both necessary and desirable, we might understand something of the confused state of thinking about human life at the dawn of this new century—and perhaps especially the ways in which modern science has shut itself off from serious reflection about the good life and good society with our essay writing team.
The story of how human beings will be replaced by intelligent machines goes something like this:
As a long-term trend beginning with the Big Bang, the evolution of organized systems, of which animal life and human intelligence are relatively recent examples, increases in speed over time. Similarly, as a long-term trend beginning with the first mechanical calculators, the evolution of computing capacity increases in speed over time and decreases in cost. From biological evolution has sprung the human brain, an electro-chemical machine with a great but finite number of complex neuron connections, the product of which we call mind or consciousness. As an electro-chemical machine, the brain obeys the laws of physics; all of its functions can be understood and duplicated. And since computers already operate at far faster speeds than the brain, they soon will rival or surpass the brain in their capacity to store and process information. When that happens, the computer will, at the very least, be capable of responding to stimuli in ways that are indistinguishable from human responses. At that point, we would be justified in calling the machine intelligent; we would have the same evidence to call it conscious that we now have when giving such a label to any consciousness other than our own. At the same time, the study of the human brain will allow us to duplicate its functions in machine circuitry. Advances in brain imaging will allow us to “map out” brain functions synapse by synapse, allowing individual minds to be duplicated in some combination of hardware and software. The result, once again, would be intelligent machines. If this story is correct, then human extinction will result from some combination of transforming ourselves voluntarily into machines and losing out in the evolutionary competition with machines. Some humans may survive in zoo-like or reservation settings. We would be dealt with as parents by our machine children: old where they are new, imperfect where they are self-perfecting, contingent creatures where they are the product of intelligent design. The result will be a world that is remade and reconstructed at the atomic level through nanotechnology, a world whose organization will be shaped by an intelligence that surpasses all human comprehension. Nearly all the elements of this story are problematic. They often involve near metaphysical speculation about the nature of the universe, or technical speculation about things that are currently not remotely possible, or philosophical speculation about matters, such as the nature of consciousness, that are topics of perennial dispute. One could raise specific questions about the future of Moore’s Law, or the mind-body problem, or the issue of evolution and organized complexity. Yet while it may be comforting to latch on to a particular scientific or technical reason to think that what is proposed is impossible, to do so is to bet that we understand the limits of human knowledge and ingenuity, which in fact we cannot know in advance.
When it comes to the feasibility of what might be coming, the “extinctionists” and their critics are both speculating. Nevertheless, the extinctionists do their best to claim that the “end of humanity … as a biological life form” is not only possible but necessary. It is either an evolutionary imperative or an unavoidable result of the technological assumption that if “we” don’t engage in this effort, “they” will. Such arguments are obviously thin, and the case that human beings ought to assist enthusiastically in their own extinction makes little sense on evolutionary terms, let alone moral ones. The English novelist Samuel Butler, who considered the possibility that machines were indeed the next stage of evolution in his nineteenth-century novel (“Nowhere”), saw an obvious response: his Erewhonians destroy most of their machines to preserve their humanity. “Just saying no” may not be easy, especially if the majority of human beings come to desire the salvation that the extinctionist prophets claim to offer. But so long as saying no (or setting limits) is not impossible, it makes sense to inquire into the goods that would supposedly be achieved by human extinction rather than simply the mechanisms that may or may not make it possible. Putting aside the most outlandish of these proposals—or at least suspending disbelief about the feasibility of the science—it matters greatly whether or not we reject, on principle, the promised goods of post-human life. By examining the moral case for leaving biological life behind—the case for merging with and then becoming our machines—we will perhaps understand why someone might find this prospect appealing, and therefore discover the real source of the supposed imperative behind bringing it to pass.
In their work Beyond Humanity: Cyber evolution and Future Minds, evolutionary biologist Gregory Paul and artificial intelligence expert Earl D. Cox put the case for human extinction rather succinctly: “First we suffer, then we die. This is the great human dilemma.” As the extinctionists see it, the problem with human life is not simply suffering and death but the tyranny of desire: “I resent the fact,” says Carnegie Mellon University roboticist Hans Moravec, “that I have these very insistent drives which take an enormous amount of effort to satisfy and are never completely appeased.” Inventor Ray Kurzweil anticipates that by 2019 virtual sex, performed with the aid of various mechanisms providing complete sensory feedback, will be preferred for its ability “to enhance both experience and safety.” But this is clearly only the beginning of the story: Neither Moravec nor Kurzweil can be dismissed as mere cranks, even if their judgment can rightfully be called into question. Moravec has been a pioneer in the development of free-ranging mobile robots, particularly the software that allows such robots to interpret and navigate their surroundings. His work in this area is consistently supported both by the private sector and by government agencies like NASA, the Office of Naval Research, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. His 1988 book, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, is perhaps the ur-text of “transhumanism,” the movement of those who actively seek our technology-driven evolution beyond humanity. Kurzweil is the 1999 National Medal of Technology winner, deservedly famous for his work developing optical character recognition systems. He invented the first text-to-speech systems for reading to the blind and created the first computer-based music synthesizer that could realistically recreate orchestral instruments. Moravec and Kurzweil share a deep resentment of the human body: both the ills of fragile and failing flesh, and the limitations inherent to bodily life, including the inability to fulfill our own bodily desires. Even if we worked perfectly, in other words, there are numerous ways in which that “working” can be seen as defective because we might have been better designed in the first place. Take, for example, the human eye. Why is it made out of such insubstantial materials? Why is its output cabled in such a way as to interfere with our vision? Why is it limited to seeing such a narrow portion of the electro-magnetic spectrum? Of course, we think we know the answers to all such questions: this is the way the eye evolved. Again and again, chance circumstances favored some mutations over others until we have this particular (and doubtless transitory) configuration. Little wonder that it all seems rather cobbled together. But, the extinctionists claim, we have also evolved an intelligent capacity to guide evolution. Leaving aside all metaphysical speculation that such an outcome is the point of the process, we can at least see whether the ability to guide evolution will confer survival advantages or not. Having eyes, we do not walk around blindfolded. Having the ability to guide evolution, we might as well use it. In short, if human beings are simply mechanisms that can be improved, if our parts are replaceable by others, then it matters little whether they are constructed biologically or otherwise. That much applies to the life of the body. But what about the life of the mind? Not only does that life arise from the biological mechanism of the brain, but what we experience through that mechanism is, the extinctionists argue, already virtual reality. We have no knowledge of the real world; we have only our brain’s processing of our body’s sensory inputs. Consciousness is radically subjective and essentially singular. We infer it in others (e.g., neighbors, pets, zoo animals) from outward signs that seemingly correspond to inward states we experience directly. Getting computers to show such outward signs has been the holy grail of artificial intelligence ever since Alan Turing invented his famous test of machine intelligence, which defines an intelligent machine as one that can fool a judge into thinking that he is talking to a human being. Although subsequent thinkers may have developed a more sophisticated picture of when artificial life should be considered conscious, the guiding principle remains the same: there is no barrier to defining the life of the mind in a way that makes it virtually indistinguishable from the workings of computers. When all is said and done, human distinctiveness comes to be understood as nothing other than a particular biological configuration; it is, like all such configurations, a transitory event on an evolutionary scale. From this point of view it becomes difficult to justify any grave concern if the workings of evolution do to us what they have done to so many other species; it becomes rank “speciesism” to think that we deserve anything different.
In the end, the extinctionist vision of the future is a dangerous delusion—promising things that will not be available to beings who will not be there to enjoy them. If the human world were purely or even on balance evil, there might be some reason to seek its end. But even then there is no reason to assume that the post-human world will be morally superior to our own. Perhaps it is easy to understand the temptations of artificial life and the utopian narrative that accompanies them. Our combination of human limitations and human intelligence has given birth to a new human power (technology); and our new life as self-conscious machines would enable us to achieve what was once reserved for the gods alone (immortal life). This dream is promised not in the next world but in this one, and it depends not on being chosen but on choosing our own extinction and re-birth. Finite beings could, on their own, overcome their finitude. Imperfect beings could make themselves perfect. It is hardly surprising, then, that the project is based on an eroded understanding of human life, and that the science that claims to make it possible only accelerates that erosion. Of course, part of being human includes the difficulty of reconciling ourselves to our finitude. There is certainly much to despair of in the world, and it is easy to imagine and hope for something better. But the extinctionists illustrate the hollowness of grand claims for new orders, and how easy it is, in their pursuit, to end up worse off than we are now.