Is it Science Fiction Yet?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 29, 2017

I’ve been a science fiction fan my whole life. For sixty years I’ve waited for various science fictional concepts to come true. One of my favorites is intelligent robots. Around the time I discovered science fiction watching old movies on my family’s black and white TV scientists were inventing the concept of artificial intelligence. Back then, the 1950s, they had great hopes and made bold predictions. Over the years some of their predictions have come true, but not the technological singularity when machines become smarter than us. They could still become self-aware, but what if they don’t have to, what if they become much smarter than us even without sentience?

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah HarariYesterday I was reading about David Cope and his computer program Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI) in Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari described a challenge to Cope from Steve Larson, a professor of music. He proposed playing before an audience a real Johan Sebastian Bach piece, a piece composed by EMI imitating Bach, and a piece composed by himself. After the performance, they’d ask the audience to identify the composer of each. The audience thought the EMI piece was Bach, the Bach piece by Larson, and the Larson’s piece by EMI. You can read Harari’s “The Mozart in the Machine” for more of what he has to say, but I think it’s far more illustrative to listen to EMI.

This is rather beautiful – but is it art or creative? EMI is just a computer program that analyzes music styles and then imitates those styles. On one hand, it says our creative works have set patterns. Was Bach aware of those patterns, or was his composition a work of his unconscious? Obviously, EMI is an unconscious machine that composes.

In the 1950s when AI was new, scientists claimed if a computer could play chess it must have the special qualities of being human because playing chess is such a complex human activity. When Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997 humans decided that chess playing wasn’t that special.

Here is a piece by EMI in the style of Vivaldi. Doesn’t it feel like EMI has captured something special?

I imagine, but I am not sure, that brilliant human composers could imitate other composers in the same way. Harari’s point is EMI composes music that moves human listeners emotionally. That somehow the computer program can capture the sublime. Of course, we like to assume our sublime experiences are the most complex and deepest of our lives. Isn’t EMI, maybe with the aid of deep learning, just figuring out how to push our buttons? How simple was it?

Homo Deus is an impressive book, but also disturbing. On one hand, it could be a handbook for a masterclass in science fiction writing. On the other hand, some could feel it’s like Biblical prophecy predicting the end of humanism. We live in a time after the Enlightenment where a large part of the world still accepts Old Testament thinking. So when Harari says liberal philosophy and humanism will be supplanted by techno-humanism it’s hard to believe. Won’t the world be 70% Old Testament thinkers, 20% humanists, and 10% techno-humanists?

What happens when we have true AI? What will the world be like with 90% unconscious machines, and 10% conscious? As Harari points out, humanism is based on the idea that all people are equal and they all deserve equal rights. But will biologically/genetically enhanced people feel that way? Will Human 1.0 accept Human 2.0? Will both of them accept AI 1.0? What will AI 1.0 think of Humans 1.0 and 2.0?

Corporations are backing robots over people. Capital is shifting to very few humans, and they want to eliminate all labor. Futurists talk of guaranteed minimum incomes, but capital doesn’t even want to pay for universal healthcare, so why would it support tax money going to completely support humans who can’t find work in a cyber economy?

Although I loved reading science fiction all my life, I’m not sure I’ll like actually living it. I thought my science fictional future would involve me traveling to Mars. Or owning a robot that did housework. But it looks like robots will colonize space, and take over all our jobs on Earth.

What are we suppose to do? Go to live in a virtual reality? Meditate and find our inner selves? Become artists? As Harari points out with EMI, robots will outdo us as artists too.

It will be fascinating to read science fiction stories read by writers studying Harari. If you belong to a species third down from the top how do you redefine existentialism or religion?


What Happens When Humans Aren’t the Smartest Beings on Earth?

What if people weren’t the crown of creation?  What if we had to play second banana to Humans 2.0, AI machines, visiting aliens, cyborgs or other potentially smarter beings?  I think our fear is they would treat us like we have treated chimpanzees.  What if intelligent machines emerge, homo sapiens superior evolve and we make SETI contact, and suddenly we’re number four on the totem pole of intelligence?


Unless we destroy the planet and make ourselves extinct, sooner or later we’re going to be replaced at the top of the smart chart.   How will that effect us personally, our society, and how we think about our future?  Most primitive cultures when contacted by modern humans haven’t fared well.  Science fiction has been preparing us for centuries, but I’m not sure if science fiction has done a good enough job covering all the possibilities.

Possible Replacements

It doesn’t take a lot of time to think up possible replacements who could claim our throne as being the smartest beings on the planet.

  • Genetically enhanced humans
  • Naturally evolved humans
  • Artificial beings
  • Cyborgs
  • Uploaded humans
  • AI super computers
  • Robots
  • Androids
  • Alien visitors
  • SETI contact

I’m not sure if we’re not already seeing a natural selection in our species.  Our severely polarized society, divided between liberals and conservatives, between the scientific and the religious, between the secular and the sacred, might already be moving us towards separate species.  The conservative fraction that clings to the past is becoming anti-intellectual and anti-education.  If the scientific minded only breed with the scientific, won’t they produce a line of smarter humans?  Of course natural selection doesn’t always produce successful adaptations.  Some people have suggested the rise of autism comes from overly smart people mating with other overly smart people.  It might turn out that intelligence isn’t an important trait, or one vital for survival.

Then there is genetic engineering.  Think of the movie Gattaca, the old classic Brave New World, or Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress.  We’re getting very close to making customized homo sapiens sapiens.  In just a few generations we could have a new species that make us look outdated.  Gattaca was a salute to the natural human, but was it realistic?  We loved Vincent for competing and winning, but can humans really compete with super humans?  Again, we’re assuming that intelligence is trait that wants to win out.

We might even be doing something now that will lead to a more naturally evolved humans.  As more women select Caesarian sections for childbirth, we’re changing an important factor that might lead to change.  Our brain size has always been limited to the size of the birth canal – now its not.  Over time we might see new adaptations.  Read Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio.

Work with our genome has shown that DNA is an erector set for building biological machines.  How soon before we start creating new recipes?  Whole new artificial beings could be created, or animals could be uplifted to human intelligence and beyond.  Think about the science fiction of Cordwainer Smith and H. G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau?

Google Glass might be our first step toward becoming cyborgs with auxiliary brain power.  Wearable computers, artificial limbs and senses could lead to supercharged brains and all those science fiction scenarios where people jacked into machines.

I’m not a big believer in uploading brains into computers, but a lot of people are.  Now that my body is getting old and failing, the idea is becoming more appealing.  People like Ray Kurzweil hope to find immortality this way, and such ideas have been the theme of many SF stories.  Sometimes those stories are wished for fantasies, and sometimes they are feared nightmares.

What I’m waiting for is the technological singularity.  AI super computers should be just around the corner if I can live long enough.  Many people fear AI minds with stories ranging from “Press Enter _” by John Varley to the latest movie Transcendence, but I’m hoping machine minds will be benign, or even indifferent to humans and animal life.

Who Do You Want To Do Your Brain Surgery?

If after we get bump down the intelligence list, how is that going to change society?  If you need brain surgery would you want a human or post-human holding the scalpel?  Or would you prefer an AI mind that is 16 times smarter than a person?  If a human and a robot were running for President, who would you vote for?  Liberals like smart dudes, but conservatives don’t.  They like old friendly duffers like Ronald Reagan.  But what if the robot had the combined intelligence of all of Congress, the Supreme Court and every CEO in America?

We’re already designing smart cars to drive us because it will be safer, and we already have planes with automatic pilots, how long before we have machines doing everything else for us?  Will we just sit around and eat bon-bons?

If we share Earth with beings more intelligent than us, won’t we ultimately let them run things?  What if they were smart enough to tell us how to handle global warming so we suffered the least, paid the least, but got the maximum benefits from changing our lives, thus making the Earth’s biosphere more stable?  What if they gave us wealth and security, and protected all the other species on the planet as well?  Would we say, hell no!  Would we say we prefer to take our chances with failure just so we could make our own decisions?

Democracy v. Plutocracy v. Oligarchy  v. Cyberocracy

We like to think we currently rule ourselves through collective decision making, but more than likely, we could already be an oligarchy or plutocracy, ruled by a limited number of rich people.  What if we could create powerful super computers that ruled us politically and ran the economy?  Would you prefer to be ruled by a handful of rich people, or a handful of smart machines?  Remember who flies your 787 now.  This idea scares the hell out of most people, but just how smart was George Bush at running the country, or how much better is Barack Obama, who most people would say is brainer?   What if decisions about taxes weren’t made by people filled with emotions?  What if we told the machines to maximize freedom, minimize taxation, maximize security, health and wealth, minimize pollution and environmental impact, and so on, and then just let them figure out the best way.

What If Post-Humans and Robots Are Atheists?

How will ordinary humans feel if their replacements reject God?  What if massive AI brains see nothing in reality to validate religion?  What if SETI aliens, say “What is a God?”  One of the common traits of western civilization impacting newly discovered primitive people is their demoralization of losing their gods.  Look what Europeans did to the Native Americans.  How are we going to feel when we’re invaded by post-humans and intelligent machines?  Will they make us move onto reservations?

The Art and Science We Can’t Imagine

What if our minds cannot feel the art and understand the science of our intellectual descendants?  We can look back over thousands of years, to what our ancestors have imagined, built and perfected, and understand what they created.  We know them because we’re an extension of who they were.  When greater minds come after us, they will understand us, but will we know them?  At what point will we no longer be able to follow in their footsteps?  Whether we like it our not, our brains have limits. We’ve always been used to exploring at the edge of reality, so what happens when we become aborigines to beings who see us as the first beings, and they are the later ones?  The ones who leave us behind.

Getting a PhD

Of course, being a scientist might not be as much fun if you had to compete with Human 2.0 folk, or AI minds.  Vincent in Gattaca pushed himself to inhuman efforts to compete against gene enhanced humans, but I’m not sure most people would do that.  AI minds could do a literature search for a PhD and distill the results in no time.  They would probably inherently know how to create and test a hypothesis, set up the experiments and research, and since they’d have math coprocessors in their brains, instantly do all the statistics.  Could any Human 2.0 or 3.0 individual compete with AI minds that are 16 or 64 times as smart as a Human 1.0 is now?

pug in lap

Life as a Lap Dog

If we couldn’t be the top dog, would we want to be a lap dog?  Or would we want to live like the Amish and exclude ourselves from the future modern world?  Can you imagine a mixed society of Humans 1.0, Humans 2.0, AI minds, robots, cyborgs, androids, uplifted animals and artificial beings all coexisting happily, or even roughly happy?  We don’t get along well with each other now, and we haven’t been too kind to our fellow animal citizens on this planet.  But then, maybe we’re the problem.

I already know I’m not the smartest geek in the group now.  I know I’m well down on the list of GRE scores.  I’m not a boss or a leader.  I’m not on the cutting edge of anything.  And most people are like me.  I putter around in my small land, ignoring most of the world.  Maybe that’s why I’m not scared of being replaced at the top, because I’m nowhere near the top.

You know, here’s a funny thing.  If an AI robot walked up to you at a party, one that has the brain power of 64 humans, what would you ask it?  What are you dying to know?  Is there anything the robot could tell you that would drastically change your life?  I’d probably say to it, “You read any good books lately?”

JWH – 4/23/14