A meditation on technology and humanity


There is much talk these days about how artificial intelligence or AI could threaten human existence. AI is feared to achieve such a high degree of self-learning that it will surpass human intelligence and may consider us a threat and turn upon us. Really now? 

Certainly, the importance of AI in our lives is impossible to underestimate, let alone ignore. From the most basic AI functions like running the refrigerator and the car, to using complex algorithms that shape decisions based on massive amounts of data, to virtual autonomy in controlling highly automated systems from manufacturing to warfare, to language learning and interacting in an almost human way, AI has become indispensable to modern life. That is why if something goes wrong in those smart chips embedded in our phones and appliances, or in bigger networks like banking and transport systems, we lose many of our conveniences and our technology-driven way of life is seriously impaired.

Throughout human history, technological advances have always carried benefits and the potential for human destruction, self-destruction included. AI is not any different. With impact compared to (or even greater than) technological advances like the discovery of fire, the wheel and the assembly line, the technological leap of self-learning AI offers many positives as well as tremendous threats.

But it’s not as if we have not faced tremendous threats from our environment and technological advances or, worse, from our ill motives or misuse and undoing. Whatever goes into deep-learning AI is there and will be there because we humans put it in there, whether consciously or subconsciously. 

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How many people have died in fires? How many people have been killed by wheeled vehicles or even just by wheels? How many lives, nay, entire human populations, have been dehumanized and exploited by the industrial revolution and the assembly line? Rhetorical questions those, but they’re half the answer to my “Really now?” question.

The other half is the answer to the question of consciousness, and even if AI does attain a modicum of consciousness, so what? The very word “artificial” means it is “not natural.”

The most basic requirements for real, enigmatic consciousness are two: being organic and being able to experience emotion—in a word, sentient: to perceive, experience and feel and learn (sometimes not all the time) and recall (not all the time either). Remember the definition of human beings taught in Catholic school? That we are embodied spirits. Thus, to use Zen terminology, there is the phenomenal world, the world of matter, the transient world, and there is the world of nonmatter (if I may call it that) or the empty infinite—both of which we inhabit and both of which we manifest. From spiritual embodiment and the corresponding intelligence come the greatest signposts of consciousness: self-awareness and the awareness of others.

Can AI be self-aware? Can it be conscious of others? It is not organic, is it?

The human will always be the greater threat, not AI.  There is no weapon deadlier than the primitive human brain. The capacity to kill in order to survive, to defend or expand one’s territory, to kill for self-interest or pleasure, to kill oneself—this is a characteristic shared only by humans and other sentient creatures.

AI is just a tool. Just like any tool, it should be an extension of our humanity, our perception, our ability to influence our environment. If and when the world flips and the tool AI makes human consciousness its extension, that will be the day. It will be like the tail wagging the dog or the sun revolving around the earth. 

When AI becomes our master, we will be fully deserving of our pathetic fate, when we shall fully demonstrate that we are not only rudimentary but also—worse—painfully stupid.

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