Deus Ex Machina


“I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Woody Allen.

Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.” Arthur Schopenhauer.

Immortality is so hot right now.  Yuval Harari in his bestseller Home Deus pronounces that eternal life will be a primary goal for humanity in the 21st century. Peter Thiel is certain that death is a solvable problem, within reach of an emerging super intelligence. Ray Kurzweil believes intelligent wifi-connected nanobots (wtf?) in our bloodstream will routinely repair or replace worn down cells in our body, while machine versions of our organs will power on forever. No more broken hearts.

Back to the present, and close to home, a long bedside vigil alongside my dying father provoked an intense period of introspection. Solitude can indeed be blissful, but what flashed upon the inward eye in this instance was not Wordsworth’s daffodils, but rather profound questions of mortality. If this was a Bollywood film, this is when I jettison my atheistic disease and start to pray. I didn’t, for the same reason I’m not a Bollywood star: I ask too many questions. Besides, I can’t dance. Instead, I did what an inquiring mind might do in these situations. I read, in the quest of that which can never be fully understood or explained.

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal deals with the mind bending complexity of managing the dying process, and coming to terms with the ultimate decision – when to switch the machines off, or indeed, whether to turn them on in the first place. As Gawande sensibly highlights, the medical profession needs to move beyond a Hippocratic obsession with prolonging life to reflect instead on a managed exit. I considered a living will, but what if I change my mind? Regardless, I resolved that Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem Mass be played at my cremation, and my ashes, preferably not in a Folger’s can, be scattered in the sea alongside the 15th green at Kingsbarn’s. In case you’re wondering why, you may wish to watch Lebowski and visit St. Andrews. If you still don’t get it…well, that’s just like, your opinion, man…

Tolstoy’s monumental The Death of Ivan Ilyich came next, rivalling Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and much shorter besides. My father’s life was entirely antithetical to that of Ivan, I reasoned, and I had to believe what went through his mind in what were inevitably his final days was, unlike Ivan, anything but the terror of death, but rather the infinite peacefulness that might be the reward for a life well lived.

Gawande and Tolstoy are an unlikely pairing perhaps, but for anyone coming to terms with the physical and metaphysical aspects of dying, this combination might be hard to beat. Unless of course you happen to be in the Kurzweil camp, in which case your time might be better spent understanding “superintelligence” and its implications for humanity. Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near may well be the most important book you don’t really need to read, for its essence can be captured in two simple, yet powerful, concepts. First, the extraordinary power of accelerating returns i.e. an increasing rate of change, and the implications for evolution in general and machine intelligence in particular. Second, as a corollary to the first, the inevitability that machine or artificial superintelligence will exceed human intelligence. Kurzweil postulates a time frame (2045) when this event – “singularity” – might happen.

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies takes Kurzweil’s work to the metaphoric next level, with a rigorous examination of the nature of super intelligence, and the opportunities and dangers it presents. Immortality may well be the ultimate opportunity: as physicist Richard Feynman observes, “it is one of the most remarkable things that in all of the biological sciences there is no clue as to the necessity of death.” 

The flip side of this delicate balance beam, and the ultimate danger posed by an unpredictable and uncontrollable superintelligence, is the diametric opposite of immortality. It is the final extinction of the human race. The formidable Elon Musk’s latest Neuralink venture anticipates something akin to Spock’s Vulcan mind meld with a computer; this “neural lace” keeps humans one step ahead of the evil artificial intelligence. Presumably as a hedge, Elon is also building an Interplanetary Transport System to help us colonise Mars in preparation for the impending machine invasion. If a million people sign up, the cost could be down to $200,000, a small price to pay for an escape from doomsday. In this brave new world, to book or not to book, that is the question.

Back down to earth, for all the exciting developments with convolutional neural networks, your most visible and frequent contacts with the world of AI are the sophomoric algorithms that suggest what you might wish to listen to next on Spotify, or what you might read next on your Kindle. Perhaps this is artificial stupidity at work, but I suspect we might be grossly underestimating how fast things are moving. This may in fact be part of a machine conspiracy to dumb down the human race. Take away the ability to expand the mind and experience the new, and we don’t need to wait for 2045: the machines have already won.

At this point, an embedded artificial intelligence algorithm might suggest that if you enjoyed this post, you might consider reading…well, whatever the f**k. Ignore it. Read Tolstoy instead. And while you’re at it, do something a cyborg will never do. Light up a spliff and listen to Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Because there’s more to life than being really really really intelligent. 

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2 Responses to Deus Ex Machina

  1. Brij Singh says:

    Nice post 🙂

  2. Nathan Montone says:

    Best thing I’ve read in a long time.

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