Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts — Søren Kierkegaard
A significant part of the world is busy imbuing Artificial Intelligence (AI) in machines. Another part is busy putting its intellect behind identity politics and yet another is busy propogating identity politics to make a quick buck.The people on different sides of these identities don’t talk to each other. They have been progressively dehumanized to the point where there are no humans anymore. There are only symbols of a particular ideology. The people with a cosmic identity i.e. the people in the middle don’t know how to bridge the gap and restore sanity. They want to help but simply don’t know how. In software terms, there is no API (glue) that brings disparate world views together. This article explores the irony behind breathing humanity in machines while losing our own.
I don’t know whether to feel happy or sad when I hear the terms Application Programming Interface (API) or sandbox. Apparently, API’s are the glue that allows applications (such as the one on our cell phones) to talk to each other. Quite ironic considering humans don’t talk to each other but are busy making programs talk to each other. I am not saying API’s are not great. In fact, they can herald an era of inclusive finance if we chose to deploy them to do so. However, we are busy trying to bracket ourselves to limited identities while training computers to have a larger consciousness. There is no sandbox where differing world views can play together and co-create something new — a middle ground of sorts. We always talk about a sandbox where the government and private enterprise can collaborate to create new innovative technologies. How, then, are we missing the larger priority ie the future of humans as a species? This is not a set of words describing a doomsday scenario. These words are a requiem for us to not wait for an existential threat to unite us. Although, we are very close to such a scenario.
Our planet is approximately 4.57 billion years. Geologists typically measure the age of the planet depending on layers of rocks formed at every stage. There are four stages of rock formations i.e. primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary. Another way of looking at time is the obvious — years. An epoch is approximately 3 million years. The epoch we are living in today is called the Holocene epoch. Although many scientists also called it the Anthropocene i.e. the period of time since the earth started feeling the effects of human existence. According to the National Geographic, we are barely 11, 500 years into the Holocene epoch but a new epoch called the Anthropocene or new man epoch has already begun.
What does all of this mean? Practically, it is a way of measuring the age of our planet. Actually, it is a measure of when the disastrous effects of mankind’s existence started leaving an imprint on the layers of rocks. Since our existence on earth, environmental change, radioactive discharge due to atomic explosions, habitat destruction and extinction of species will ensure that we leave our signature on the planet. Scientists are now busy defining which marker to use.
One of the other reasons for a push to rename the epoch as Anthropocene is to impress on the world the existential threat caused by our parasitic existence.
As a high school student, I made a small project on the depletion of the Ozone layer i.e. a layer in the Earth’s atmosphere that keeps the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun from destroying life on Earth. One of the primary reasons for that depletion was the use of aerosols which generate Chloro Fluoro Carbons (CFC’s). CFC’s start depleting the Ozone layer pretty quickly. The point I am trying to make is that even a mundane task of applying a deodorant can result in a ‘butterfly effect’ that reverberates across the world. On a daily basis, we engage in countless such activities such as using fossil fuels for our cars, consuming meat (livestock rearing results in release of methane in the environment. Efforts are on to develop synthetic meat).
Nature has a balance. Our ecology is one large closed loop system where the output is recycled and reused to restore balance. On the other hand, many systems designed by humans are open loop systems ie the waste generated by the system cannot be reused resulting in pollution and degradation of the world we live in. Take plastics for example. When we designed our systems, we did not design them to be self balancing. For instance, using plastics created non-recyclable waste on earth. Using fossil fuels released carbon monoxide into the air and there was no way of converting noxious gases to useful ones. If we do the same things with designing AI systems ie we do not adequately provide for employees displaced by computers, we will be repeating our old mistakes. Only, in this case, the consequences could be disastrous.
While we continue a global debate on climate change, the numbers tell a compelling story. Forget numbers, if I visit Delhi, Shanghai or Mumbai today — the air in these cities will support what we have been suspecting all along i.e. we have been destroying our environment at a rapid pace with no sight of cohesive and well thought out solutions.
Besides these obvious facts, NASA keeps a track of major indicators of climate change on its website : Carbon Dioxide levels are up 409 parts per million, Global temperature is up 1.8 F since 1880, Arctic ice levels are down 13.2% each decade, sea levels are rising 3.2 millimeters every year and ice sheets are melting at 413 giga tonnes per year. You do not need to go into the scientific basis of each of these measures. Simply, notice the difference in weather each year. You will notice the world is becoming hotter. It is hard to imagine life if the temperature keeps going up. We are looking at an existential threat.
The disappearing coral reefs, extensive waste dumped into the sea, extinction of species are all outcomes of us cannibalizing the lives of other creatures in this world. Animals such as the Pika, the Amur leopard, Saola and the Bornean Orangutan amongst a long list of others are on the brink of extinction. By some estimates, we have between 5,100 to 7.8 million years before we are extinct. This is not some morbid discussion of our end. Rather, scientists are urging us to either start galaxy hopping soon or to change our ways. In either case, time is slipping fast from our hands.
Like most technologies, Genetic engineering has developed in spurts. I started reading about genetic engineering in the late 80’s. Based on whatever little I know, the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA (Deoxy Ribonucleic Acid) by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 was a pivotal moment in the human journey to discover the blue print of all living organisms on the planet.
The US National Library of Medicine explains DNA: DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus (where it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria (where it is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA). Mitochondria are structures within cells that convert the energy from food into a form that cells can use.
The information in DNA is stored as a code made up of four chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of those bases are the same in all people. The order, or sequence, of these bases determines the information available for building and maintaining an organism, similar to the way in which letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences.
Another important concept to understand is RNA or Ribonucleic Acid. In simple terms, DNA is an encoded blueprint of all life which is passed on from generation to generation. RNA interprets the code.
The second significant development in genetic engineering was the Human Genome Project — a 15 year global project tasked with sequencing and identifying all three billion base pairs in the human genome. The International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium published the first draft of the human genome in the journal Nature in February 2001 with the sequence of the entire genome’s three billion base pairs some 90 percent complete (source: NIH.gov). The entire sequencing of the genome was completed in 2003. This was a monumental project because it laid out the entire blueprint of humans. It was also profound in a negative way. Once we know what DNA sequence implies that a person has a particular disease, insurance providers may stop providing insurance based on the genetic blue print. It also meant that — as soon as editing techniques become available, rich parents will be able to create super children resulting in an almost unbreachable level of inequality. A dystopian future imagined in Hollywood movie fare.
Needless to say, the next advancement in genetic engineering came with the development of gene editing techniques such as CRISPR CAS -9 and the more recent RNAi (RNA Interference). CRISPR CAS-9 is a unique method that is an easy, efficient way for scientists to remove, add or edit parts of human DNA. It consists of two parts i.e. an enzyme called CAS-9 that can cut the required strand of DNA at the right spot and a guide RNA that finds and binds to the specific sequence of DNA.
Already, economic and political systems such as capitalism and democracy respectively have enabled rent seeking behavior and have resulted in a yawning gap of inequality between the top 1% and the relatively poor rest of the world. If we add the ability to discriminate at birth by using gene editing techniques like CRISPR CAS-9, RNAi (RNA interference) and as yet unknown advancements in genetic engineering, we would have totally reshaped the world into a perpetually chaotic place. Perhaps, this short description will help you understand the profound, unimaginable and ‘exponential’ nature of this technology.
Artificial Intelligence And The Weaponized World
Just as genetic engineering evolved over time, so did Artificial Intelligence (AI). There are two important aspects to AI i.e. the hardware and software. The hardware has progressed from processors to Graphics Processing Units (GPU’s) i.e. chips used to power graphics in video games to ASICS i.e. chips that are manufactured for specific uses and finally to Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA’s) i.e. chips that can be programmed to perform specific tasks such as Machine Learning after the chips are manufactured. Other significant advances include advances in cloud computing and availability of big data.
In terms of software, advancements in Machine Learning ( a subset of AI) provided momentum. Today, Deep Learning has taken over. Various algorithms using Back Propogation, Convoluted Neural Networks and regression algorithms are trying to mimic the neurons in the human brain.
Some of the notable scientists leading developments in algorithms are Geoffrey Hinton, Andrew Ng, Yan LeCun and Yoshua Bengio. The CEO of Deep Learning Demis Hassabis is another individual whose work has had a significant impact on the AI world.
Applications range from face detection to speech detection and chat bots. Every field of computing is susceptible to automation. In other words, most of the tasks that humans can do can be automated. As per TIME magazine, 2045 is the year when computers surpass humans in computing power resulting in an event called the ‘Singularity’. In fact, the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge predicted in 1993 that Singularity will occur in the next 30 years. There are varying estimates but the message is the same i.e. AI will render humans obsolete as far as most tasks are concerned. There are ideological differences in the tech community-take the Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk public debate for example. Finally, advances in AI have renewed an economic debate on Universal Basic Income (UBI).
AI will transform the world in more ways than one. From banking to warfare, it will be a force for immense positive change.
It can sift through a universe of data, which humans are not capable of, to diagnose diseases, to identify environmental disasters and to reduce menial tasks while freeing up humanity for more creative pursuits. However, there are two sides to every coin. If employed for destructive pursuits, it can weaponize the world and trigger a mutually assured destruction the size of a global nuclear holocaust.
The next leap in Artificial Intelligence will be the advancement of quantum computing. As per recent reports, China seems to already have tested ‘quantum teleportation’ between space and earth which provides it an edge in quantum computing. Plus, it also opens up a new battleground — outer space. Think about the new masters of the universe and two things are needed to rule the world of the future i.e. access to data and ownership of algorithms.
How Will History Remember Us?
There are many questions in my mind. How did we embark on a journey to imbue machines with intelligence when we do not understand our own brain enough? There are so many mysteries of the human brain we haven't solved for. Yet, we embark on teaching machines how to think. Of course, there is a practical aspect to AI. Forced by a demographic time bomb, many economies need to leverage AI to automate mundane tasks at first. Slowly, humans will be left to pursue creative tasks. When maverick billionaires such as Masayoshi Son announce a war chest of investments in AI through his $100 Billion vision fund, the world sits up and takes notice of the economic potential of AI. Of course, Venture Capitalists have been channeling money into AI startups for years.
Geographically, the USA and China are leading the world’s efforts in advancing AI. This AI arms race has significant political implications in the balance of power. If you apply game theory to this scenario, one of the implications is a Prisoners’ Dilemma i.e. even if one super power blinks, mankind can face an existential threat.
As described above, any one of the above exponential technologies i.e. AI, climate change or genetic engineering has the capability to wipe out the entire human race on its own. The problem is that we are facing these threats simultaneously. We do not have enough time to think. We need to fight these threats, both at the individual and at the global level every single waking moment of our lives. It also means that we should quickly collapse all artificial divisions created by humans i.e. race, sex, caste, ethnicity and move on to the bigger challenges. Karl Marx said: “Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex”. This aphorism still holds true and we have to come together to just think of humans as humans. Period.The more time we devote to being divided, the less time we have to face existential threats. Today, this is the irony of fools i.e. focusing our lives on petty politics when the survival of the entire species (Homo Sapiens) is in question.
When our children learn history, we should not let our generation be the prime example of the biggest irony our world has ever witnessed. There is still time. The question is : are we ready??