Will We Disappear Into Our Machines?

The major question of the 21st century "is whether human beings can summon the integrity ... to resist the many ways in which computers will encroach on human dignity."
  • Transcript


Question: What will artificial intelligence be like in 2050?

David Gelernter: The real question is not what machines or the network will be like in 2050, but what human beings will be like in 2050.  Whether they’ll use advances in technologies as an excuse for laziness or an excuse for imaginativeness.  For laziness and lazy ways to make money and rising wealth, which is certainly good in itself.  Whether they will lean on computers as replacements for memory, replacements for thinking, replacements for computation and calculation, the sorts of things we do in daily life, replacements for companionship.  In 2050, it’s easy for me to dream up somebody to chat with instead of talking to a real human being, it’s easy for me to chat with... I mean, I can do that today, but in 2050, I can do it in a much more sophisticated way.  I can come up with somebody with exactly the right profile to sympathize with all of my problems and even to have solutions and give me all sorts of good advice and stuff like that. 

The extent to which human beings are willing to be duped by computers is already very large.  One doesn’t have to write a very sophisticated program to get people to treat it as if it were a living thing.  You don’t have to build a very sophisticated robot to get people to treat it as if it were an animal.  If it’s fluffy and it’s smiles or it woofs, or something like that.  People are very ready and willing to smudge over the difference in their own minds between a computer and a human being. 

Now, what happens in 2050, the question is whether computers achieve a sophistication comparable to that of human thought and thereby assist us in doing all sorts of different things.  Or whether, instead of machines becoming humanlike, humans become machines.  Humans become machinelike to the extent they lean on machines to do their thinking and remembering for them; to the extent they look at the world through the computer screen monitor.  This is something in the book, Mirror World, published a long time ago, the final chapter dealt with this, which seems to me a threat still today, is that more and more people, instead of going out and seeing the world, sensing it with their eyes and ears and noses and hands and feet, just turned on their computers and sat back and watched it all happen before them.  We face a lot of challenges to our ideas of what a human being is, to the integrity and dignity of a human being.  The question is whether human beings can summon the integrity, the backbone, the moral seriousness, to resist the many ways in which computers will encroach on human dignity. 

We already see it in discussions of, not computers per se, but in discussions of genetic engineering.  There are a lot of geneticists who are raring to go, who would love to be able to do this.  We’re not quite at the point where we can do it technically, but it’s easy to see where in a couple of decades, and certainly by 2050, and say you’re pregnant, you’re going to have a child, of course we’ll chose its sex and its appearance and stuff like that, but we can bump up his IQ by 10 points, or by really giving the very latest technology, you get 15 points more of IQ.  So, your first kid is 15 points smarter than they would have been otherwise, but when you get around to having your second kid, the technology is better.  It gets better all the time.  So, for the same amount of money, I can get a bump up of 50 IQ points.  So, my first kid is obsolete, essentially.  And in fact, he’s part of a whole generation of school children who are dumber, who are like old PC’s, who are like a 1984 Mac.  They belong in museums. 

This is like human cloning and other ideas that are easy for, I think, superficial scientific thought to dream up, fundamentally compromise human dignity.  Other machines compromise human dignity too.  A pistol does if I take it out and shoot somebody.  You know, it’s nothing new to find ourselves faced with threats to the dignity and integrity of human life, but these threats are going to be more and more seductive, not only because they offer to do fancier and fancier jobs for us, leave us lazier and lazier, but they exist in a world in which religion is increasingly suppressed, among educated people.  It’s not suppressed politically or legally, but my students at Yale as students in colleges across the country, have no concept of what the Bible is, or what’s in it, think of it as a toxic book, know nothing about Christianity, less about Judaism.  So, at the same time, when the threats to human dignity and integrity are going to be ramped up to extraordinary levels of stress, where we most need wisdom, and moral seriousness, we’re seeing wisdom and moral seriousness come under attack and often from the same people who want to do the genetic engineering. 

As crusading atheism is sort of a cause today, it is popular, I don’t want to say among scientists, I mean that’s too general and it isn’t so.  But certainly prominent people in the scientific community, there are prominent people who are religious Jews or Christians in the scientific community, but there are also prominent people who have taken their atheism to the public, successfully, who are crusading atheists who preach atheism in an aggressive way as a consequence of science.  They play on people’s weakness and ignorance insofar as most people don’t take the trouble to learn science; it’s easy for a scientist to say, “I’m smarter than you are because I know it and you don’t.”  You know, “I understand the genome and you don’t.  I understand physics.  I can do hard calculus problems and not just 12th grade level ones.  So, you can see how much smarter I am than you are.” And when I tell you there are no more absolutes and religion is trash, and furthermore we ought to go ahead with human cloning, we should go ahead with genetic engineering and implants of all sorts which will smudge the line between human and machine, we’re getting into a moral conflict of interest which is tremendously dangerous. 

I don’t think we will succumb.  I think human beings have faced hard challenges.  The Second World War was a difficult a crisis as mankind ever will face.  Fifty million people died, humanity teetered on the edge.  State paganism was preached aggressively by Hitlerite Germany, which despised Christianity as much as it hated Jews; didn’t hate Christians as people, but it hated Christianity.  The Japanese empire, which revived state paganism in preference to the more sophisticated religion of Buddhism and Christianity that had been popular in Japan.  Stalinist Russia, which was an aggressively pagan nation, suppressed Christianity.  That was a crisis.  That was an enormous crisis and we rose to the occasion.  We defeated it.  It damaged us, we still bear the scars.  I think we’re going to face a crisis in the coming century that will be different in character.  Crises never—we never see the same crisis twice.  I know we have the moral strength to rise to the occasion, and I hope and pray that we do in practice.