Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy, professor of physics and astronomy, Dartmouth College; author, The Island of Knowledge
Consider this: You’re late for work and, in the rush, forget your cell phone. Only when stuck in traffic or in the subway do you realize it. Too late to go back. You look around and see everyone talking, texting, surfing, even if it’s forbidden. You sense an unfamiliar feeling of loss, of disconnection. Without your cell phone, you’re no longer you.
People like to speculate about when humans will hybridize with machines, become a kind of new creature, a cyborg with a beating heart. That’s fun all right, but the reality is that we’re already transhuman. We define ourselves through our techno-gadgets, create fictitious personas with weird names, doctor pictures to appear better or at least different in Facebook pages, create a different self to interact with others. We exist on an information cloud, digitized, remote, and omnipresent. We have titanium implants in our joints, pacemakers and hearing aids, devices that redefine and extend our minds and bodies. If you’re a handicapped athlete, your carbon-fiber legs can propel you forward with ease. If you’re a scientist, computers can help you extend your brainpower to create well beyond what was possible a few decades back. New problems that once were impossible to contemplate, or even formulate, come around every day. The pace of scientific progress is a direct correlate of our alliance with digital machines.
We’re reinventing the human race right now.
Traditionally, the quest for an artificial intelligence tends to rely solely on machines that re-create—or so it’s expected—the uniquely human ability to reason. We talk about electronic brains that will quickly surpass the human mind, making us superfluous. Then we speculate about what would become of us—poor humans at the mercy of cold-blooded brains-in-vats. Some of us fear we’re designing our doom.
What if this premise is fundamentally wrong? What if the future of intelligence is not outside but inside the human brain? I imagine a very different set of issues emerging from the prospect that we might become superintelligent through the extension of our brainpower by digital technology and beyond—artificially enhanced human intelligence that amplifies the meaning of being human. We’ll still have a beating heart and blood pumping through our veins, alongside electrons flowing through digital circuits. The future of AI is about expanding our abilities into new realms. It’s about using technology to grow as a species—certainly smarter, hopefully wiser.