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2019 AI Hype Countdown #5: Transhumanism never grows old

The idea that we can upload our brains to computers to avoid death shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between types of thinking

Transhumanism, the quest for immortal life through high tech, is a perennial source of overhyped claims, and 2019 featured a bountiful crop. Futurist Ray Kurzweil reiterated his claims that humans will merge with machines by 2045 and that technology will eventually empower humans to live forever by continually reviving the human body. While both claims are far-fetched, Kurzweil’s view of humans merging with machines seems to misunderstand both humans and machines.

In the face of such misguided enthusiasm, many computer scientists are starting to bristle and speak up more about the fact that humans and machines are fundamentally different. Uploading our brains into computers simply cannot happen, for the simple reason that computers are not metaphysically equipped with the tools for functioning as a human.

“Metaphysics” is an unpopular term because many people associate it with new age spirituality. Also, in academic literature, it is a topic usually left to philosophers whom the universities only let out when the graduate students are around.

That is an unfortunate misunderstanding. Metaphysics is simply the study of causation in its widest sense. It helps us understand what effects different types of systems can cause and how they do so. Computers, to take an example, are very effective in their own sphere of causation but they operate with a very limited set of causal abilities. Humans work from an entirely different set of causal abilities. Peter Thiel , co-founder of PayPal, puts it like this:

… computers are far more different from people than any two people are different from each other; men and machines are good at fundamentally different things. People have intentionality we form plans and make decisions in complicated situations. We’re less good at making sense of enormous amounts of data. Computers are exactly the opposite: they excel at efficient data processing, but they struggle to make basic judgments that would be simple for any human…

In 2012, one of [Google’s] supercomputers made headlines when, after scanning 10 million thumbnails of YouTube videos, it learned to identify a cat with 75% accuracy. That seems impressive until you remember that an average four-year-old can do it flawlessly. When a cheap laptop beats the smartest mathematicians at some tasks but even a supercomputer with 16,000 CPUs can’t beat a child at others, you can tell that humans and computers are not just more or less powerful than each other, they are categorically different. (Zero to One, pp 143–144)

Because of this fundamental metaphysical difference between humans and computers, the idea that a human mind will eventually be “uploaded” to a computer will remain a reliable plot device in science fiction.

A more plausible scenario is replacing or augmenting individual human systems with computers and machines until we eventually become immortal cyborgs. Personally, I enjoy just being human.

You might also want to have a look at some other items at Mind Matters News on transhumanism and the questions it raises. For example, don’t miss Jay Richards’s “Kurzweil’s Age of Spiritual Machines is fiction, like Skynet.”

Something to be aware of: Computers don’t do a particular type of reasoning, abductive reasoning, which is the way humans make many decisions. Abductive reasoning requires creativity, in addition to computation.

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Is a brain really needed for thinking? Many life forms manage to make decisions without a brain. Is a brain needed for specifically human thinking? It would seem so but, as modern neuroscience has shown, some people think and speak with only half a brain. Such findings challenge, at a basic level, what the people who hope for immortality through brain uploading are even trying to do.


Counting back: 2019 AI Hype Countdown

2019 AI Hype Countdown # 6 In May of this year, The Scientist ran a series of pieces suggesting that we could automate the process of acquiring scientific knowledge. In reality, without appropriate human supervision, AI is just as likely to find false or unimportant patterns as real ones. Additionally, the overuse of AI in science is actually leading to a reproducibility crisis.

2019 AI Hype Countdown #7: “Robot rights” grabs the mike. If we could make intelligent and sentient AIs, wouldn’t that mean we would have to stop programming them? AI programs are just that programs. Nothing in such a program could make it conscious. We may as well think that if we make sci-fi life-like enough, we should start worrying about Darth Vader really taking over the galaxy.

8: Media started doing their job! Yes, this year, there has been a reassuring trend: Media are offering more critical assessment of off-the-wall AI hype. One factor in the growing sobriety may be that, as AI technology transitions from dreams to reality, the future belongs to leaders who are pragmatic about its abilities and limitations.

9: Hype fought the law and … Autonomy had real software but the hype around Big Data had discouraged Hewlett Packard from taking a closer look. Autonomy CFO Sushovan Hussain was sentenced this year to a five year prison term and a ten million dollar fine because he was held “ultimately responsible for Autonomy’s revenues having been overinflated by $193m between 2009 and the first half of fiscal 2011.”

10: Sophia the Robot Still Gives “Interviews” In other news, few popular media ask critical questions. As a humanoid robot, Sophia certainly represents some impressive engineering. It is sad that the engineering fronts ridiculous claims about the state of AI, using partially scripted interactions as if they were real communication.

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Top Ten AI hypes of 2018


Jonathan Bartlett

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

2019 AI Hype Countdown #5: Transhumanism never grows old