Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies is an astonishing book with an alarming thesis: Intelligent machines are “quite possibly the most important and most daunting challenge humanity has ever faced.” In it, Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom, who has built his reputation on the study of “existential risk,” argues forcefully that artificial intelligence might be the most apocalyptic technology of all.
When it comes to technological advances that could reduce human suffering, improve health and reduce disease, we are generally all in favour. But recent advances in procedures that tinker with reproductive cells are often seen as an exception. They attract fierce opposition from people who believe they are unethical and should be treated as serious criminal offences – which in some jurisdictions they are already. I don’t think these arguments are decisive, however. Indeed some of them are not convincing at all.
Ethical debates about changing the human genome make a distinction between two different types of cells. All cells except those involved in reproduction are known as somatic. These have been the subject of less controversial research for a number of years now – for example editing a type of white blood cell known as T-cells has become a major area of enquiry in cancer research.
Cells involved in reproduction are called germ cells. Changing them, which is sometimes described as germline editing, can have effects that can be inherited by the offspring of the people whose bodies are amended. In other words, the changes can enter the gene pool.
The idea that human history is approaching a “singularity” — that ordinary humans will someday be overtaken by artificially intelligent machines or cognitively enhanced biological intelligence, or both — has moved from the realm of science fiction to serious debate. Some singularity theorists predict that if the field of artificial intelligence (AI) continues to develop at its current dizzying rate, the singularity could come about in the middle of the present century. Murray Shanahan offers an introduction to the idea of the singularity and considers the ramifications of such a potentially seismic event.
Shanahan’s aim is not to make predictions but rather to investigate a range of scenarios. Whether we believe that singularity is near or far, likely or impossible, apocalypse or utopia, the very idea raises crucial philosophical and pragmatic questions, forcing us to think seriously about what we want as a species.
Shanahan describes technological advances in AI, both biologically inspired and engineered from scratch. Once human-level AI — theoretically possible, but difficult to accomplish — has been achieved, he explains, the transition to superintelligent AI could be very rapid. Shanahan considers what the existence of superintelligent machines could mean for such matters as personhood, responsibility, rights, and identity. Some superhuman AI agents might be created to benefit humankind; some might go rogue. (Is Siri the template, or HAL?) The singularity presents both an existential threat to humanity and an existential opportunity for humanity to transcend its limitations. Shanahan makes it clear that we need to imagine both possibilities if we want to bring about the better outcome.
It’s a popular sci-fi plot: Earth sets up colonies on Mars; Mars colonies grow, developing their own technologies and culture; Mars colonies rebel against overbearing Earth government, demanding independence. It happens in Total Recall, in Babylon 5, in Red Mars.
But what if we gave Mars its independence right from the get-go? Rather than giving future colonies to governments or corporations, Jacob Haqq-Misra thinks we should let Martian colonists develop their own values, governments, and technologies, with minimal interference from Earth. Haqq-Misra is an astrobiologist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, a non-profit organization that promotes international unity in space.
Not only would Haqq-Misra's strategy preclude any Martian wars for independence, but cultural independence could help Martians think differently enough to solve problems that Earth continues to struggle with—such as working together to fight global environmental problems, or making long-term plans for the future of humanity.
Without us noticing, we are entering the postcapitalist era. At the heart of further change to come is information technology, new ways of working and the sharing economy. The old ways will take a long while to disappear, but it’s time to be utopian
I was jubilant the US Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of gay marriage. Events that lead to more freedom and equality are positive progress.
However, what doesn’t seem to be making the news is the fact that marriage—especially to many young people—isn’t as attractive as it once was.
There are a number of reasons for this. People want to focus on their careers, not spouses. Getting married and having a traditional wedding costs a lot of money (besides, around 40 percent of those who wed will go through at least one divorce in their lives, causing potential harm to their ideals, children, and finances). Finally, having kids out of wedlock is becoming more socially acceptable.
But there’s another reason that is increasingly relevant. It has to do with transhumanism.
In the transhumanist age of extended lifespans, where many people will live beyond 100 years of age, the question of being married until “death does us part” has real consequence.
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