Some experts are terrified by Artificial Intelligence, the new form of intelligence that may make cars, smart phones, drones, and weapons systems smarter than you and me. Why? They are afraid that as artificial intelligence powers autonomous machines and wanders in cyberspace looking for things to do, it will deem us unnecessary and purge the earth of our species.
Figures as august as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have gone public with their worries about an artificial intelligence apocalypse.
But I tried to explain to a symposium on digital humanism at the International Society for the Study of Information Summit September 15th that every time technology has reshaped us, it has upgraded us.
To see how synergies with electronic systems like artificial intelligence can give humanity new powers, look at how bacteria have gained new abilities over the last billion years.
When plants and animals first appeared in the sea over a billion years ago, the single-celled bacteria that owned the planet could have anticipated being annihilated by these new multicellular creatures. The bacteria could have gone on a crusade to stop multicellular formation.
But the multicellulars did not wipe out their single-celled forebears. Far from it. They worked out deals with the bacteria. And those cooperative arrangements gave both the microbes and the multi-cellular beasts whole new powers, whole new ways to make a living.
Look, for example, at the cockroaches that first showed up on the planet 320 million years ago. For 69 million years, the cockroaches were limited to easily digestible food. But there was hard stuff all around them bursting with nourishment. Those oh, too solid things were trees. And there was no way that the digestive system of cockroaches could turn bark and wood into tasty treats.
Then came over 33 species of bacteria and set up shop in the cockroach’s guts. Species like Paenibacillus lactis, Lysinibacillus macrolides, and Stenotrophomonas maltophilia.[i] These microbial wonders could eat cellulose, the hardstuff that had previously made wood indigestible.
What’s more, the cellulose eaters could defecate material that was toast with butter and jam to the cockroaches, the perfect food-- sugars and short-chain fatty acids.
In exchange, the microbes used cockroaches as their transport and chewing machines. The cockroaches empowered by their bacterial colonists to eat trees took off on an evolutionary path of their own. Today we call them termites.And there are 2,000 species of them.
Which means that once the lowly cockroach allowed cellulose-eating bacteria and flagellates to turn its innards into a microbial dining hall, the newly empowered cockroaches found 2,000 new ways to make a living. So did the bacteria feasting in their gut.
So, no, multicellular beings did not wipe out their single-celled progenitors. They gave them a rich new home. And they gave the unicellulars breathtaking new abilities.
There are legitimate fears of autonomous weapons systems making mistakes and attacking the wrong targets. Or misinterpreting their commands and wiping out anything human. In fact, preventing that is the reason for existence of groups like Stop Killer Robots.[i]
But if all goes well, symbiosis like that between bacteria and termites. will be the relationship of Artificial Intelligence to humankind. And the result will be mutual empowerment. In other words, even as we speak artificial intelligence is giving vast new powers to you and me.
If you doubt it, just ask Google or Alexa, two systems using artificial intelligence to give you and me access to just about every bit of knowledge ever gained by humanity. A power our grandparents could have barely conceived.
Huda RK Ali, corresponding author1 Nada F. Hemeda, 2 and Yasser F. Abdelaliem 3, Symbiotic cellulolytic bacteria from the gut of the subterranean termite Psammotermes hypostoma Desneux and their role in cellulose digestion, PubMed, July 17, 2019, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31317283/
Howard Bloom, Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind From the Big Bang to the 21st Century,https://www.amazon.com/Global-Brain-Evolution-Mass-Century/dp/0471419192/ref=sr_1_1
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