Yeah, of course. It’s a wonderful question. Down here in San Diego we’ve started the Arthur C. Clark Center for Human Imagination, and on December 16th we’re having a celebration of Arthur Clark’s 100th anniversary. The Clark Center is affiliated with the Penrose Institute. Roger Penrose, of course, his theory of consciousness is that Moore’s Law will never cross the number of computational elements in a human brain. That’s Ray Kurzweil’s concept, that as soon as you can use Moore’s Law to pack into a box the same number of circuit elements as we have in the human brain, then we’ll automatically get artificial intelligence. That’s one of the six modes by which we might achieve artificial intelligence, and if people want to see the whole list they can Google my name and “IBM talk” or go to your website and I’m sure you’ll link to it.
But of those six, Ray Kurzweil was confident that as soon as you can use Moore’s Law to have the same number of circuit elements as in the human brain, you’ll get… But what’s a circuit element? When he first started talking about this, it was the number of neurons, which is about a hundred billion. Then he realized that the flashy elements that actually seem like binary flip-flops in a computer are not the neurons; it’s the synapses that flash at the ends of the axons of every neuron. And there can be up to a thousand of those, so now we’re talking on the order of a hundred trillion. But Moore’s Law could get there. But now we’ve been discovering that for every flashing synapse, there may be a hundred or a thousand or even ten thousand murky, non-linear, sort of quasi-calculations that go on in little nubs along each of the dendrites, or inside the neurons, or between the neurons and the surrounding glial and astrocyte cells. And what Rodger Penrose talks about is microtubules, where these objects inside the neurons look to him and some of his colleagues like they might be quantum-sensitive. And if they’re quantum-sensitive, then you have qubits – thousands and thousands of them in each neuron, which brings us full circle back around to the whole question of quantum computing. And if that’s the case, now you’re not talking hundreds of trillions; you’re talking hundreds of quadrillions for Moore’s Law to have to emulate.
So, the question of consciousness starts with, where is the consciousness? Penrose thinks it’s in quantum reality and that the brain is merely a device for tapping into it. My own feeling is, and that was a long and garrulous, and I hope folks found it interesting route to getting to the point, is that I believe consciousness is a screen upon which the many subpersons that we are, the many subroutines, subprocesses, subprocessors, personalities that make up our communities of our minds – we project those thoughts onto a shared screen. And it’s important for all of these subselves to be able to communicate with each other and cooperate with each other, that we maintain the fiction that what’s going on up there on the screen, is us. Now that’s kind of creepy. I don’t like to think about it too much, but I think it is consistent with what we see.
To take some of that apart for a minute, of 60 or 70 guests I’ve had on the show, you’re the third that references Penrose. And to be clear, Penrose explicitly says he does not believe machines can become conscious because there are problems that can be demonstrated to be non-algorithmically solved that humans can solve, and therefore we’re not classical computers. He has that whole thing. That is one viewpoint that says we cannot make conscious machines. What you’ve just said is a variant of the idea that the brain has all these different sections and they vie for attention and your minds figure out this trick of you being able to synthesize everything that you see and experience into one you, and then that’s it. That would imply to me you could make a conscious computer, so I’m curious where you come down on that question. Do you think we’re going to build a machine that will become conscious?
If folks want to look up the video from my IBM talk, I dance around this when I talk about the various approaches to getting AI. And one of them is Robin Hanson’s notion that actually algorithmically creating AI, he claims is much too hard and that what we’ll wind up doing is taking this black box of learning systems and becoming so good at emulating how a human responds to every range of possible inputs, that the box will in affect be human, simply because it’ll give human responses almost all the time. Once you have that, then these humans’ templates will be downloaded into virtual worlds, where the clock speed can be sped up or slowed down to whatever degree you want, and any kind of wealth that can be generated non-physically will be generated at prodigious speeds.
This solves the question of how the organic humans live, and that is that they’ll all have investments in these huge buildingswithin which trillions and trillions of artificially reproduced humans are living out their lives. And Robin’s book is called The Age of Em – the age of emulation – and he assumes that because they’ll be based on humans, that they’ll want sex, they’ll want love, they’ll want families, they’ll want economic advancement, at least at the beginning, and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t have momentum and continue. That is one of the things that applies to this, and the old saying is, “If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, you might as well treat it like a duck or it’s going to get pretty angry.” And when you have either quadrillions of human-level intelligences, or things that can act intelligent faster and stronger than us, the best thing to do is to do what I talk about in Category 6 of creating artificial intelligence, and that is to raise them as our children because we know how to do that. If we raise them as humans, then there is a chance that a large fraction of them will emerge as adult AI entities, perhaps super powerful, perhaps super intelligent, but thinking of themselves as super powerful, super intelligent humans. We’ve done that. The best defence against someone else’s smart offspring that they raised badly and who are dangerous, is your offspring, who you raised well, who are just as smart and determined to prevent the danger to Mom and Dad.
In other words, the solution to Terminator, the solution to Skynet, is not Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics. I wrote the final book in Isaac’s series The Foundationin robot series; it’s called Foundation’s Triumph. I was asked to tie together all of his loose ends after he died. And his wife was very happy with how I did it. I immersed myself in Asimov and wrote what I thought he was driving at in the way he was going with the three laws. And the thing about laws embedded in AI is that if they get smart enough, they’ll become lawyers, and then interpret the laws any way they want, which is what happens in his universe. No, the method that we found to prevent abuse by kings and lords and priests and the pyramidal social structures was to break up power. That’s the whole thing that Adam Smith talked about. The whole secret of the American Revolution and the Founders and the Constitution was to break it up. And if you’re concerned about bad AI, have a lot of AI and hire some good AI, because that’s what we do with lawyers. We all know lawyers are smart, and there are villainous lawyers out there, so you hire good lawyers.
I’m not saying that that’s going to solve all of our problems with AI, but what it does do, and I have a non-fiction book about this called The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?The point is that the only thing that ever gave us freedom and markets and science and justice and all the other good things, including vast amounts of wealth – was reciprocal accountability. That’s the ability to hold each other accountable, and it’s the only way I think we can get past any of the dangers of AI. And it’s exactly why the most dangerous area for AI right now is not the military because they like to have off switches. The most dangerous developments in AI are happening in Wall Street. Goldman Sachs is one of a dozen Wall Street firms, each of which are spending more on artificial intelligence research than the top 20 universities combined. And the ethos for their AIs is fundamentally and inherently predatory, parasitical, insatiable, secretive, and completely amoral. So, this is where I fear a takeoff AI because it’s all being done in the dark, and things that are done in the dark, even if they have good intentions, always go wrong. That’s the secret of Michael Crichton movies and books, is whatever tech arrogance he’s warning about was done in secret.
Following up on that theme of breaking up power, in Existenceyou write a future about the 1% types on the verge of taking full control of the world, in terms of outright power. What is the David Brin view of what is going to happen with wealth and wealth distribution and the access to these technologies, and how do you think the future’s going to unfold? Is it like you wrote in that book, or what do you think?
In Existence, it’s the 1% of the 1% of the 1% of the 1%, who gather in the Alps and they hold a meeting because it looks like they’re going to win. It looks like they’re going to bring back feudalism and have a feudal power shaped like a pyramid, that they will defeat the diamond shaped social structure of our Enlightenment experiment. And they’re very worried because they know that all the past pyramidal social structures that were dominated by feudalism were incredibly stupid, because stupidity is one of the main outcomes of feudalism. If you look across human history, [feudalism produced] horrible governance, vastly stupid behavior on the part of the ruling classes. And the main outcome of our Renaissance, of our Enlightenment experiment, wasn’t just democracy and freedom. And you have idiots now out there saying that democracy and liberty are incompatible with each other. No, you guys are incompatible with anything decent.
The thing is that this experiment of ours, started by Adam Smith and then the American Founders, was all about breaking up power so that no one person’s delusion can ever govern, but instead you are subject to criticism and reciprocal accountability. And this is what I was talking about in the only way we can escape a bad end with AI. And I talk about this in The Transparent Society. The point is that in Existencethese trillionaires are deeply worried because they know that they’re going to be in charge soon. As it turns out in the book, they may be mistaken. But they also know that if this happens—if feudalism takes charge again—very probably everyone on Earth will die, because of bad government, delusion, stupidity. So they’re holding a meeting and they’re inviting some of the smartest people they think they can trust to give papers at a conference on how feudalism might be done better, on how it might be done within a meritocratic and a smarter way. And I only spend one chapter—less than that—on this meeting, but it’s my opportunity to talk about how if we’re doomed to lose our experiment, then at least can we have lords and kings and priests who are better than they’ve always been for 6,000 years?
And of course, the problem is that right now today, the billionaires who got rich through intelligence, sapience, inventiveness, working with engineers, inventing new goods and services and all of that – those billionaires don’t want to have anything to do with a return of feudalism. They’re all members of the political party that’s against feudalism. A few of them are libertarians. The other political party gets its billionaires from gambling, resource extraction, Wall Street, or inheritance – the old-fashioned way. The problem is that the smart billionaires today know what I’m talking about, and they want the Renaissance to continue, they want the diamond shaped social structure to continue. That was a little bit of a rant there about all of this, but where else can you explore some of this stuff except in science fiction?
We’re running out of time here. I’ll close with one final question, so on net when you boil it all down, what do you think is in store for us? Do you have any optimism? Are you completely pessimistic? What do you think about the future of our species?
I’m known as an optimist and I’m deeply offended by that. I know that people are rotten and I know that the odds have always been stacked against us. If you think of Machiavelli back in the 1500s – he fought like hell for the Renaissance for the Florentine Republic. And then when he realized that all hope was lost, he sold his services to the Medicis and the lords, because what else can you do? Pericles in Athens lasted one human lifespan. It scared the hell out of everybody in the Mediterranean, because democracy enabled the Athenians to be so creative, so dynamic, so vigorous, just like we in America have spent 250 years being dynamic and vigorous and constantly expanding our horizons of inclusion and constantly engaged in reform and ending the waste of talent.
The world’s oligarchs are closing in on us now, just like they closed in on Pericles in Athens and on the Florentine Republic, because the feudalists do not want this experiment to succeed and bring us to the world of Star Trek. Can we long survive, can we renew this? Every generation of Americans and across the West has faced this crisis, every single generation. Our parents and the greatest generation who survived the Depression and destroyed Hitler and contained communism and took us to the Moon and built vast enterprise systems that were vastly more creative, and fantastic growth under FDR’s level of taxes, by the way. They knew this – they knew that the enemy of freedom has always been feudalism far more than socialism; though socialism sucks too.
We’re in a crisis and I’m accused of being an optimist because I think we have a good chance. We’re in Phase 8 of the American Civil War, and if you type in “Phase 8 of the American Civil War” you’ll probably find my explanation. And our ancestors dealt with the previous seven phases successfully. Are we made of lesser stuff? We can do this. In fact, I’m not an optimist; I’m forced to be an optimist economically by all the doom and gloom out there, which is destroying our morale and our ability to be confident that we can pass this test. This demoralization, this spreading of gloom is how the enemy is trying to destroy us. And people out there need to read Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, they need to read Peter Diamandis’s book Abundance. They need to see, that there is huge amounts of good news.
Most of the reforms we’ve done in the past worked, and we are mighty beings, and we could do this if we just stop letting ourselves be talked into a gloomy funk. And I want us to get out of this funk for one basic reason—it’s not fun to be the optimist in the room. It’s much more fun to be the glowering cynic, and that’s why most of you listeners out there are addicted to being the glowering cynics. Snap out of it! Put a song in your heart. You’re members of the greatest civilization that’s ever been. We’ve passed all the previous tests, and there’s a whole galaxy of living worlds out there that are waiting for us to get out there and rescue them.
That’s a wonderful, wonderful place to leave it. It has been a fascinating hour, and I thank you so much. You’re welcome to come back on the show anytime you like. I’m almost speechless with the ground we covered, so, thank you!
Sure thing, Byron. And all of you out there – enjoy stuff. You can find me at DavidBrin.com, and Byron will give you links to some of the stuff we referred to. And thank you, Byron. You’re doing a good job!
Byron explores issues around artificial intelligence and conscious computers in his upcoming book The Fourth Age, to be published in April by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Pre-order a copy here.