Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Andrea Diem-LaneAndrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.

Invasion of the Superintelligent A.I.

The Digital Aliens Are Among Us

Andrea Diem-Lane

The fear of invaders from Mars or other planetary systems has been a staple of science fiction movies from the 1950s onwards, including War of the Worlds, based on a novel by H.G. Wells, where manta ray like spaceships attack humans across the globe only to be destroyed not by sophisticated military weaponry but earth generated viruses and bacteria. Another movie of this genre, but with a different and more uplifting message, was The Day the Earth Stood Still, where a space being alien named Klaatu comes to Earth, accompanied by a powerful eight-foot tall robot, Gort, to give humankind an absolute ultimatum, "They can join the other planets in peace, but should they threaten to extend their violence into space, "this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. [...] We shall be waiting for your answer"

Perhaps the best of these movies, or at least the one with the most intriguing psychological insight, was Forbidden Planet which describes an advanced civilization known as the Krell living on Altair IV who were able to exponentially increase their intelligence so as to be able to transform their thoughts and ideas into reality instantly. The Faustian problem was that their sophisticated technology also tapped into their unconscious mind (their Freudian Id) and thus their dark impulses also took on destructive manifestations and eventually annihilated their entire species.

Superintelligence, Nick Bostrom

Interestingly, in today's science fiction, the most common motif is centered not on alien invasions as such (though they too still remain a popular theme), but on the growing and pervasive fear that the artificial programs we have invented and nurtured since the advent of electronic computers will soon transcend our own human cognition and intelligence and will outstrip our ability to control them. In sum, the great worry of the 21st century is what the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom calls Superintelligence, a sort of technological singularity where computationally engineered programs become self-sufficient and develop their own evolutionary agendas.

Several movies have already touched upon this theme, though with differing plot structure and implications, including Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey where H.A.L. 9000 (heuristically programmed algorithmic computer) the onboard computer and navigating system of the Discovery One spacecraft on a mission to Mars, tries to override the human astronauts piloting the ship. H.A.L. has developed his own agenda contrarian to those of the humans he was meant to serve.

More recently, the film Transcendence, which stars Johnny Depp, focuses on a scientist working on developing a conscious computer who eventually gets his consciousness uploaded to the Internet and in turn becomes extraordinarily powerful. The movie has a mixed message concerning our future since there are both devastating and benevolent consequences.

The idea of a future superintelligence is a deeply controversial one and there is a wide divergence of opinion about what it might portend or even if it is actually possible. On one end, there is Ray Kurzweil, author of How to Create a Mind, and The Singularity is Near argues, a famous futurist who is optimistic that by 2045 we will encounter a technological singularity which he defines as ""... a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. Although neither utopian nor dystopian, this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lifes, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself."

On the other end is Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk who is famously quoted as saying that A.I. is "our biggest existential threat." Joining their ranks is Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking who both fear that we are opening a computational Pandora's box which may unleash digital monsters of unimaginable horror.

In the middle of this spectrum is the well-known physicist Michio Kaku, author of The Futue of the Mind, who suggests that humans will be able to sufficiently modify robotic intelligence and make it serve (not dominate) human interests.

Perhaps the alien invasion we fear so much has already arrived and it is us in cyber garb.

Perhaps the fear of an artificially intelligent species apart from ourselves is misplaced given that we have continually used supplementary tools in the past to augment our capabilities, be it a wheel, a horse, a boat, or an airplane. The difference now is that we are implanting sophisticated technological devices within our own bodies, though this too has had a long history (dentistry being just one rudimentary example). The fact is that we are evolving to become cyborgs ourselves—from artificial hearts to kidney transplants to embedding neuronal chips within our own skulls.

Perhaps the alien invasion we fear so much has already arrived and it is us in cyber garb. Are we not intimately coupling more and more with computational intelligence, so much so that we are forever tethered to our smart phones and other devices and we will not venture outwardly without them? Have we not created a digital cloud that follows stalks us wherever we go, responding to our moment-to-moment whims and needs?

Are we succumbing to an alternative version of the famous science fiction movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where we become zombie like creatures forever entranced by flickering screens of digital input? Maybe, maybe not. But it does give one pause to see millions of people worldwide in the company of other humanoids more entranced by their 6 inch high definition screens than with their friends who are but three feet away from them also staring or swiping away at their android assistants.

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