Comment on Growing up at the Singularity Summit

Apollo Thu, Dec 27, 2012
Hello Meganmay,

I wish I had time to give a more extensive reply, but for now I will focus on the following set of thoughts which your article raised for me, in the hope that we can discuss some of the broader and related questions on an ongoing basis.

You write that a "Soft Takeoff" regarding artificial intelligence would consist of "a gradual development [by which we would] incorporate more and more intelligence into our world." This "takeoff" would be "soft" because we would (presumably) ease ourselves into the world of artificial intelligence gradually—becoming inoculated, as it were, to strong AI and its effects.
What struck me is that, while this perspective seems concerned with the steady deployment of artificial (computer) intelligence, it seems to me that the term "soft takeoff" might also apply to the steady advancement of human intelligence. Here I am not talking about the use of biotechnology to enhance the functioning of the human brain, etc. etc., but rather a process by which we might improve our intelligence through a process of education.

The term "education" fails to capture what I really have in mind, though. Instead of the asymmetric relationship between teacher and pupil which the term "education" usually evokes, what I have in mind is something quite different—a more engaged/engaging form of learning which draws the student out 'into' the world (so to speak), rather than trying to bring the world into the student in the form of rote learning. The best example of what I have in mind is what Carl Sagan referred to as "an inescapable perspective". Sagan strongly believed that the mindset and methodology of science can be conducive to a more enlightened perspective on the cosmos, on oneself, and on the relationship between the two. I think that the propagation of this perspective through science education could constitute a "Soft Takeoff" of a more enlightened human consciousness. The real beauty of this approach is that, in addition to promoting scientific literacy in our societies, it would also promote the kind of perspective which I strongly believe would lend itself to more constructive (and, conversely, less destructive) applications of science.

It has long been observed that the methods of science can be (and have been) applied to both constructive and destructive ends. One of my great concerns is that the rapid technological advances in fields such as biotechnology and computer science are advancing at a pace which far outstrips the capacity of our species to use these technologies in an intelligent manner. Michael Sandel expressed similar concerns regarding bioenhancement in an excellent article titled 'The Case Against Perfection', published in the Atlantic Magazine in 2004 (I am not, however, claiming that Sandel shares my belief that science education could mitigate the potential social pitfalls which he outlines; there is no reason to believe that he shares this view).

A "Hard Takeoff", by this reading, would consist of exactly the kind of technological growth which I fear we are experiencing today. That is to say, the emergence of ever-more sophisticated technologies which (though beautiful in their own right) could have serious adverse effects upon entering the imperfect reality of modern human societies. Even the wealthiest and most technologically advanced societies on Earth seem, by my observations, to be fraught with scientific illiteracy, and the "inescapable perspective" which Sagan so rousingly speaks of seems—ironically and tragically—to have escaped us almost without exception.

Do you share my concerns regarding the potentially dangerous "Hard Takeoff" of modern technologies given the realities of the world today, and do you feel—as I do—that the particular brand of scientific literacy which Carl Sagan advocated could play an essential role in creating a cultural environment that is not only more conducive to scientific inquiry, but also more capable of responsibly applying its fruits?

I am very interested in hearing your perspective on these (and other) questions.

Best wishes and Happy Holidays,

Jason Fernando