It has not been the case before in the history of humanity that we have stood on the brink, scientists say, of creating artificial intelligence that, by working on itself, can become vastly superior to the intelligence that designed it, meaning ours. If we are on that brink today, as some say (for reference in non-technical language: Part 1, Part 2), it is certainly time for humanity to take stock of the immense opportunities and threats for the human race that our choices will determine – or maybe, cynics will say, is it not too late already to have the debate once the danger makes it to Newsweek?
Anyway, that’s not my topic today. My topic is the decoupling of intelligence from the body. So far, living beings have always developed an intelligence that was rooted in the body: predator or prey, fight or flight, the amygdala a barely differentiated lump of tissue; then the neocortex, tools, language, agriculture, architecture, civilization, Mozart, Tolstoy, Lost. Our intelligence grows out of the senses in our body. We feel hunger, recognize the smell of a loved one’s skin, sink our feet in the sand, rejoice in a dance step. Sensory deprivation results in cognitive impairments. Also, biology has endowed us with wetware that runs efficiently, consumes very little energy, is capable of amazing feats and cannot be replicated other than by making babies. On the hypothesis that the brain learns through the body, we have built AI robots endowed with senses, proprioception, and the ability to learn from their environment: and yet, the intellectual abilities of our best humanoids today lie somewhere between those of a very smart fly and those of a rather dumb rat. So, this avenue may teach us a lot about certain things such as rehabilitative medicine, or preventing loneliness in old people, but it is not designed to move us closer to Singularity-type intelligence.
That intelligence, or Superintelligence, will be different and alien. It won’t miss the body, its pleasures and constraints, because it will only have a functional notion of what it means to have a body, and will make for itself as many types of bodies as needed, most likely single-purpose ones: a swarm of dust to survey the Earth, machines to mine it, fabs to print out hardware, A/C systems to cool down the circuits, nanomachines to swim in our blood (assuming we’re still around). There won’t be a need for a general-purpose body, and maybe even for what we call personal identity. Just like a jellyfish cannot comprehend the human experience, we will not be able to comprehend the Superintelligence experience. Because we have a body, and bodies will be out of fashion, a happy evolutionary detour but not a final destination. Whether this means human immortality or human extinction, I do not know, but I lean towards calling it extinction: just like we have no memory of our jellyfish days, the Superintelligence may well no longer need to remember its human roots, and may discard the very memory of humanity on the way to its own realization, and perhaps demise. Bodies, life, intelligence itself might be over and done with well before the heat death of the universe, or any other ultimate fate.
So enjoy your body, because you’d be far less intelligent without it. Nourish it, keep it healthy, listen to it, forgive it. Whatever comes after us, and however we may fail, biological bodies will have been our own special learning tool, our delight, our strength. Whoever comes next, they can’t take that away from us.