Talking About A Revolution by Rowena J Ronson and Nigel Summerley
RJR: The first human to walk the planet did so 2.5 million years ago, yet it wasn’t until 200,000 years ago that we evolved into Homo Sapiens. The Cognitive Revolution occurred 70,000 years ago, we became the only surviving species 13,000 years ago and the Agricultural Revolution occurred 1,000 years after that. The invention of money came along 2,500 years ago, The Scientific Revolution only 500 years ago and the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. And now we are beginning a new revolution – one that involves Artificial Intelligence. How do you feel about that Nigel?
NS: It probably won’t surprise you to know that I have utterly mixed feelings. The revolutions that you have listed so thoroughly each brought improvements – sometimes huge improvements – to human life. But they all also brought some major downsides – some of these actually degrading human life – and the life of the planet. The AI revolution looks likely to do the same – to offer potential huge benefits, yet bring with it potentially disastrous results. Have you seen the movie ‘Terminator’?
RJR: I have indeed. When I watched it way back I didn’t fully comprehend that the robots were created by human beings. What was I thinking! But I think about this all the time now! I look at how technology is already changing us as human beings, and I wonder if how we operate in the world will be unrecognisable if we fast forward twenty years. I think it is quite frightening actually…
NS: It is extremely frightening. We have already, to some extent, become reliant on robots to a great extent. What is a washing machine if not a robot? And we seem determined to turn over as many human functions to machines as possible. Self-drive cars are now almost with us. As you say, the robots in Terminator were manmade – so this makes them not so much artificial intelligence as transferred human intelligence. And it’s debatable as to how intelligent human beings are. Humans will create AI in their own image – which means AI will contain and possibly accentuate the shortcomings of human ‘intelligence’. Is there any real good that can come of this? And, more crucially, is there any way that this particular revolution can be stopped, now that it is so well underway.
RJR: In their own image .. but without reason or doubt. I absolutely do not think it can be stopped. Human beings always want to evolve and progress, and there are enough of them pushing forward down this trajectory. Look how mobile phones are changing our children’s brains. Many youngsters cannot put their phones down for a minute, and they are plenty of people of our generation who are addicted as well. They openly admit it. I don’t think it will be long before that technology is put in a chip inside us. We are only a few steps away…
NS: Absolutely. Instead of education, we could, for example, have implants in humans that give them all the information that they need to function. This means they could also be even more easily conditioned and controlled. People could be turned into obedient and docile techno-zombies – as you point out, we are already on the way to this. If this cannot be stopped, what CAN we do – apart from refuse to participate? Are we getting into Matrix territory?
RJR: Have we not always been within the Matrix?
NS: Well, if we are, how the hell are we going to get out? How can we be free?
RJR: Have you ever felt free? What does freedom even mean?
NS: Well, I felt really free a few weeks ago when I cycled down a mountainside in Greece at extremely high speed – or maybe that was just freewheeling rather than real freedom. But the essence of that experience and of real freedom is presumably the end of the self and the end of self-centred awareness. But to get back to where we were… yes, in a way we are trapped in the Matrix… but now the question is: is there a way of preventing ourselves being more deeply embedded in it, and further away from freedom. The AI revolution seems essentially to threaten taking away any freedom that we still have. Can we exist outside the system/Matrix/AI revolution?
RJR: Not really freedom, what you experience, but certainly freeing! And I guess it gave you the illusion of being free for a little while, and that has got to be a good thing. The AI Revolution is not threatening us… we are creating it. We cannot live outside a system that we are part of. Even if we live in a room by ourselves, without speaking, the revolution will occur regardless. I would imagine it would be like in the film Vanilla Sky when the protagonist, Tom Cruise, leaves his apartment one day in New York to find all the streets are totally empty, when they are normally heaving…
NS: Yes, I guess “we” can’t really be free. Presumably, in real freedom, there would be no “we’ involved? Or is freedom just something else we’ve created as an idea? Free is certainly something we are not. And yes, we can’t live separately from the system. So the question remains: is there a way to stop the AI revolution destroying humanity? Can those who see the danger do anything – apart from seeing the danger and beware of it?
RJR: I think that some of us will rally against it. In a local private school here, every single Year 3 pupil has a smart phone. In a local state primary, the youngsters are being taught to use laptops through which they submit homework. There will always be parents who resist – but for how long will they be able to do so when their children consider these behaviours to be normal as they are going on everywhere around them? There is a section of the twenty-something generation who are actively revolting against social media, while being genuinely concerned that their jobs will go to robots in the not too distant future. Do you think there is a way to stop our metamorphosis as a species?
NS: On the basis of the past, no. When I look around now, I often think there is no way to stop the robotisation of humans. But the future can always prove us all wrong. Who knows how it will pan out? If some younger people are genuinely turning against social media, that is a small but encouraging step. But will there be enough of them to prevent AI becoming something which debases humanity? Most technological advances – the ones that make our lives ‘easier’ (planes, cars, phones, computers etc) – have a deleterious effect on our health. Not just through pollution, radiation and so on, but through stopping us from using our bodies. Similarly, AI threatens to stop us using our minds.
RJR: This goes back to where we began this conversation. Have we not debased humanity a very long time ago, many times over, and for so many different reasons! We are completely destroying our planet. This is a natural progression, and perhaps a necessary one in terms of sustainability.
NS: Yes, we have debased ourselves and our world, but are you saying that this is part of an inevitable process? And one that will lead to some sort of cleansing or rebirth for the planet?
RJR: It is the next step in our evolution, and hopefully it will have a positive impact on our environment. Without change, we are heading for destruction anyway…
NS: Do you mean that if things get really bad, there is a chance that humanity will change? That we have to almost destroy ourselves before there is a possibility of seeing what we have done? Or are you saying that total destruction of humankind will be beneficial for the world?
RJR: What do you mean ‘if things get really bad’ – are they not already? And humanity is always changing… We are not the same species that we were… and sapiens were not the first humans… Choosing to destroy our planet has been our choice. Humans do not see themselves as destroying themselves. Those who are experimenting with AI no doubt see it as part of our evolution, no? And yes, I do feel change is needed in order to benefit the world. I am not sure that that is the agenda though… what do you think?
NS: Yes, things are really bad. And I think the only thing we can say for sure is that AI will not make things any better! There seems to be something in the view that we are “evolving” towards our destruction – and perhaps degradation would be a better word than evolution. If we could only bring our own potential intelligence into play (rather than focus our ingenuity on AI, and on “progress”, and on greed, and on using it for every evasion, diversion and entertainment that we can think of), we might be able to live a less self-centred and genuinely loving life.
RJR: I am taking a different stance on this. I am going to embrace the change and see where it takes us. It is going to happen anyway. And in my clinic, I will support the young people who are struggling with all of this fast moving, ungrounded ‘progress’ – in their schools and in the world and help them to create their own security and independence.
NS: What you say is quite shocking – but in a good way! Rather than try to hold things back, you suggest going with them and seeing what happens. Evolution, or whatever we call it, seems to be sweeping human beings towards a dead end of destruction, because they are a ‘failure’ as far as making a positive contribution to life on this planet goes. But maybe there is a huge surprise in store. Maybe even the nuclear holocaust that humans still have the potential to bring about could be a new start for the planet. Meanwhile, I think what you have said is inspiring: support the new generation in their struggle to cope with what has been heaped upon them.
RJR: Indeed. What do our readers think?