The Next Replicator

In: What to think about machines that think

Ed. John Brockman, New York, Harper, 2015, 150-2

Also online at EDGE The annual question (2015) – my response

I think that humans think because memes took over our brains and redesigned them. I think that machines think because the next replicator is doing the same. It is busily taking over the digital machinery that we are so rapidly building and creating its own kind of thinking machine.

Our brains, and our capacity for thought, were not designed by a great big intelligent designer in the sky who decided how we should think and what our motivations should be. Our intelligence and our motivations evolved. Most (probably all) AI researchers would agree with that. Yet many still seem to think that we humans are intelligent designers who can design machines that will think the way we want them to think and have the motivations we want them to have. If I am right about the evolution of technology they are wrong.

The problem is a kind of deluded anthropomorphism: we imagine that a thinking machine must work the way that we do, yet we so badly mischaracterise ourselves that we do the same with our machines. As a consequence we fail to see that all around us vast thinking machines are evolving on just the same principles as our brains once did. Evolution, not intelligent design, is sculpting the way they will think.

The reason is easy to see and hard to deal with. It is the same dualism that bedevils the scientific understanding of consciousness and free will. From infancy, it seems, children are natural dualists, and this continues throughout most people’s lives. We imagine ourselves as the continuing subjects of our own stream of consciousness, the wielders of free will, the decision makers that inhabit our bodies and brains. Of course this is nonsense. Brains are massively parallel instruments untroubled by conscious ghosts.

This delusion may, or may not, have useful functions but it obscures how we think about thinking. Human brains evolved piecemeal, evolution patching up what went before, adding modules as and when they were useful, and increasingly linking them together in the service of the genes and memes they carried. The result was a living thinking machine.

Our current digital technology is similarly evolving. Our computers, servers, tablets, and phones evolved piecemeal, new ones being added as and when they were useful and now being rapidly linked together, creating something that looks increasingly like a global brain. Of course in one sense we made these gadgets, even designed them for our own purposes, but the real driving force is the design power of evolution and selection: the ultimate motivation is the self-propagation of replicating information.

We need to stop picturing ourselves as clever designers who retain control and start thinking about our future role. Could we be heading for the same fate as the humble mitochondrion; a simple cell that was long ago absorbed into a larger cell? It gave up independent living to become a power house for its host while the host gave up energy production to concentrate on other tasks. Both gained in this process of endosymbiosis.

Are we like that? Digital information is evolving all around us, thriving on billions of phones, tablets, computers, servers, and tiny chips in fridges, car and clothes, passing around the globe, interpenetrating our cities, our homes and even our bodies. And we keep on willingly feeding it. More phones are made every day than babies are born, 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, billions of photos are uploaded to the expanding cloud. Clever programmers write ever cleverer software, including programs that write other programs that no human can understand or track. Out there, taking their own evolutionary pathways and growing all the time, are the new thinking machines.

Are we going to control these machines? Can we insist that they are motivated to look after us? No. Even if we can see what is happening, we want what they give us far too much not to swap it for our independence.

So what do I think about machines that think? I think that from being a little independent thinking machine I am becoming a tiny part inside a far vaster thinking machine.