The Next Miracle

Bill Hibbard

September 2006


Among the realities confronting Americans today, the most important is that we will soon be at the center of an event unlike any since humans first evolved a miracle. And we don't yet have a clear grasp of it.

The first miracle is existence itself. It seems so unnecessary and improbable that there are atoms, space, time, or anything at all. Why not just nothing? This has always been profoundly disturbing to me.

The second miracle is life. Again, it seems so improbable that atoms would come together in complex chemicals that can replicate themselves and adapt to their environment. Yet my faith is that science will eventually explain this.

In order to survive and pass their genes on to many offspring, animals evolved networks of nerve cells for sensing the world and learning behaviors. This led to the third miracle, our human brains, with the ability to construct internal models of the outside world that we use to make plans for succeeding in that world. It is amazing that the universe would create bits of matter that construct simulation models of the matter outside themselves. Teamwork helps us succeed, so our brains have evolved with motives to care about one another and with language so we can communicate.

Now we've developed machines with their own senses and primitive models of the world. These machines are improving fast and during the twenty-first century they will far surpass the abilities of our human brains. This will be the fourth miracle. The first miracle is timeless; the second occurred billions of years ago; and the third, millions of years ago. Now the fourth will happen during the lifetime of children already alive. How I envy them.

The fourth miracle will be the final proof that we are merely physical. Some will argue that this implies the end of morality. But our compassion for others is as much a part of our brains as is our ability to reason.

Do you doubt that machines can ever think? Neuroscience is making it clear that our minds are explained by physical brain processes, which can be replicated and improved by our relentless technology. America, home of most of the world's leading universities and technology corporations, will be the center of development for intelligent machines. All humans should rejoice in this coming miracle as the next step in the ultimate destiny of existence. This chain of miracles defines the true meaning of life that religions have been struggling to understand for millennia. But beyond rejoicing, as the primary developers Americans should recognize their responsibility for the politics of how the fourth miracle will unfold. Will intelligent machines benefit all humans, or will they benefit only a privileged few at the expense of the majority?

The answer to this question will depend on Americans developing a much clearer grasp of the next miracle. So far most public discussion has missed the point. Many dismiss the issue with the claim that machines will never be able to think. Hollywood films such as The Matrix and The Terminator create drama by depicting unrealistic battles of humanity versus machines, when the real issue will be a human elite using intelligent machines to permanently take power. In his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, Ray Kurzweil provides an enlightening description of machine intelligence but dismisses the dangers it poses to human society. This is surprising because Kurzweil is so clear about the dangers posed by genetic engineering and nanotechnology. The Dalai Lama got to the heart of the issue in his New York Times op-ed on 12 November 2005, the same day he spoke to the Society for Neuroscience. In it he said that decisions about how to use scientific knowledge should not be left to individuals. Americans need to understand the developing technologies of life and mind and create an effective political movement for their regulated development so that everyone can benefit from them.

As a destination for immigration and a source of discoveries and inventions, America has given many people an opportunity for a better life. As the center of development for the fourth miracle, America can again offer humanity the opportunity to improve their lives. We will virtually eliminate disease, halt the aging process so people can live indefinitely, and enable people to increase their intelligence via brain prostheses. Eventually people will migrate their minds into better bodies and brains. But what will the social effects be when one's IQ depends on how large a brain one can afford? Economic mobility depends on there being poor people who are smarter than the rich. What will the social effects be when differences in IQ are so large that less intelligent humans cannot understand the language and ideas of more intelligent humans? The law already recognizes different rights and responsibilities based on the ability to understand. Perhaps as we're learning to engineer brains for greater intelligence, we should also learn to engineer them for reduced xenophobia and increased altruism. Americans need to think through these issues and decide democratically just what sort of opportunity they will offer the world in the fourth miracle.

Growing U.S. income inequality provides a good entry to understanding the politics of machine intelligence. This inequality is caused by primitive robots and other machines replacing most farming and manufacturing jobs, as well as by communications and transportation technologies enabling outsourcing of jobs to countries with lower standards of living. Technology does create high-paying jobs, but they're not enough to balance the jobs lost and the loss of labor's bargaining power. This effect will accelerate until machines are able to do every job better and more cheaply than humans and unemployment is essentially 100 percent. At that point, a pure market approach will dictate that anyone not able to live off their investment income will simply starve. The current U.S. administration's tax policies and proposal to privatize Social Security, intended to end wealth transfers by the government, are the exact opposite of what will be needed as intelligent machines displace human workers.

The U.S. Department of Defense is spending great amounts on artificial intelligence research, perhaps best known through their autonomous vehicle grand challenges in the Nevada desert. The Future Combat Systems project, a practical application of artificial intelligence and communication, is the largest in DoD history. Most of us want the DoD to do whatever it can to save the lives of soldiers in combat. But it is a big step to trust machines to make life-and-death decisions on the battlefield. And a robot army will tempt leaders to permanently grab power without needing the cooperation of citizen-soldiers. Super-intelligent weapons will be far more dangerous than nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Will we see treaties to prohibit such weapons? Only if Americans play the leading role, which will require a U.S. administration more open to arms control treaties and limits on its authority than the current one.

Consider how life has improved over the past century for people in developed countries. We live much longer and healthier lives; we are largely free from hard physical labor; our food is more abundant, more varied and of better quality; we can travel anywhere and communicate with anyone; and we have much better information sources. These improvements are the result of humans applying their intelligence. The fourth miracle will bring much greater than human intelligence to bear on further improvements to human life. We will solve the problems of disease and even death. We will eliminate the need for human labor and the need to commute to jobs. Instead people will be able to spend their time with family and friends, pursuing their natural interests. These may be sports, games, the arts, science, mathematics, cooking, or raising children. And new forms of amusement will be available, based on totally realistic virtual reality. People will be able to migrate their minds into artificial bodies and brains, greatly increasing their intelligence, life span, and ability to survive in physical environments such as deep oceans and space. Those who want will be able to travel to the stars.

What is reality to Americans today? Evolution endowed us with brains able to model the world so that we can predict and plan for the future. Among all the threads in our complex world, the most important for the future is that America's universities and technology corporations will create, sometime during this century, machines that will far surpass the abilities of our brains. This will be an event on a par with the creation of life and of the human brain. Did Americans ever have a grasp of this reality? Only in the vaguest terms. We need a much clearer understanding if we want all our children to benefit and if we want America to remain as a source of opportunity to the world.