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A.I.: Friend or Foe?

John Markoff’s article in The New York Times today, The Coming Superbrain, looks at the potentialities and risks of developing “self-aware and superhuman” machines. What ensues is the usual debate between those who believe that this type of artificial intelligence (A.I.) is the answer to our technological prayers and those who caution that creating machines more intelligent than ourselves will inevitably lead to our own destruction. Battlestar Galactica anyone?   



One of the biggest proponents of A.I. development is Dr. Raymond Kurzweil, who is a co-founder of Singularity University, a school whose mission is to “assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges.” (Apparently Dr. Kurzweil is also the subject of a new documentary, Transcendent Man.) Dr. Kurzweil’s seems especially interested in the possibility of achieving immortality through what he calls “uploading,” which generally speaking is the process of transferring the content and processes of our brains into a “computing environment.”


The fact that some of our brightest minds are focused on the goal of immortality always strikes me as odd. It also seems indicative of a GIANT denial of impermanence…and maybe an unhealthy attachment/clinging to ego? The idea of immortality, though sometimes fun to contemplate, has always struck me as more creepy and unnatural than alluring. But I suppose creepy and unnatural is my take on self-aware A.I. in general. Maybe I’ve been exposed to too much dystopian style science fiction, but I’m skeptical of the idea that superhuman computers and human/computer hybrids are the answers to our problems. 

What do others think? Anyone planning on combating impermanence by having themselves cryogenically preserved?    

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posted May 24, 2009 at 4:53 pm

No thanks. As much as I like myself and would like to see what I can do in another 100 years; it’s good that there is an end to the show.
It’s interesting to see that some of our brightest minds believe that are greatest challenges can be solved through technological means rather than humanitarian.
Also…. if you find yourself annoyed when that smart person points stuff out to you. Imagine how you will feel when the your PC does it.
yep….. humanitarian is the way to go.

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posted May 25, 2009 at 9:15 am

I agree: Scary! And how relational or familial can an A.I. being really be, whether it’s had someone’s brain content “uploaded” or not? That, to me, seems like the greatest oddity.

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Barnaby Dawson

posted May 25, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Firstly I think that immortality for homo sapiens (or even for the minds of homo sapiens) is a long way off. I think its unlikely to be possible until the end of this century (and probably not before the end of the next century). De Gray may be right about longetivity escape velocity but I won’t speculate on that aspect. On the other hand immortality for AIs is a piece of cake. The difficulty is building the AI in the first place!
As for immortality as a desirable goal I suspect that a world without mortality would develop other ways to make room for children. In our world minds increase in size until they die and this makes room for more minds. But for AI minds will be able to merge and to decrease in size. Those processes could allow more room for new minds. Such a world would be radically different to ours but not obviously worse. I don’t care whether its ‘natural’ or not. Nature is hardly a guide to what is desirable, moral or good.
I don’t think AI is the ‘answer’ to all our problems by any means but I think AI probably would help in the long run.

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posted May 27, 2009 at 9:36 pm

It’s interesting to see that some of our brightest minds believe that are greatest challenges can be solved through technological means rather than humanitarian.
Technological solutions tend to be positive-sum. So-called “humanitarian” solutions tend to be zero-sum. Positive-sum solutions are always morally superior and preferable to zero-sum solutions.
Immortality. Some say “why”? I say “why not”? I like freedom and openness and like to live life that is not bound by any fixed horizon. Physical immortality works for me. I do know that others may not be into it, and that’s cool with me. Live and let live. That’s what I say.

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posted May 28, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Regarding immortality:
I would like to choose when I die and not being forced to die when I don’t want to.
Regarding nature:
If we cared about being natural we would live in the woods. There was a time when people would not get much older than 30 years. I’m 30 now and I don’t want to die yet or think of it as unnatural that I’m still alive. I think if you were 500 years old now you would probably think that 500 years is a pretty normal age. I think you will answer the question of whether you want to live longer when you are about to die. Maybe you will think:”It’s okay that it is over now – I want to die”. Or maybe you will think:”Some more years would be nice.”
Regarding the ways of achieving immortality (or at least living a very long life and being able to choose when to die):
My problem is that – in my view – things like mind uploading wouldn’t really help me. If I upload my mind it will be a copy and not myself. And because my reason for wanting to be alive longer is that I want to experience more (like maybe going to Mars and living there for a while), creating a copy of myself wouldn’t help me doing that.

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posted May 28, 2009 at 1:50 pm

I think bio-engineering can eliminate the aging process in the coming decades. SENS ( is one such approach. I am into biotechnological life extension, but I think the A.I./uploading concept is a bunch of hype. I think we’re going to remain “biological” for at least the next few centuries.
Christian is right. The issue of life extension is really an issue about the freedom of choice. The fundamental moral issue is, do you have the right to do this for yourself, or must you live by the dictates of some bureaucrat (governments and religions are types of bureaucracy)? You will notice that people who oppose healthy life extension technology generally oppose individual freedom in general. This is no coincidence.

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