The eyrie of query and the knell of tell
Are we asking the right questions?
It is widely accepted that we have entered a stage of humanity’s development in which our ability to influence the future is formidable but the future we perhaps ought to want is obscure. All our upbringing and most of our education and training has consisted of those who know teaching those who they think ought to know. Were the people they taught really the people who should know? Were farmers educated in the consequences of fertilisers? Were chemists shown the husbandry side of cultivation? Did religious students learn about science? Was the role of faith explained to scientists? Does anyone understand how vital their political vote is?
All that was happening when information was pint size and had to be transmitted in small doses. Those who absorbed the most got a degree. Those who used their pitcher of knowledge to invent, received a Nobel Prize. Information today is a limitless ocean available to all who know what questions to ask. ‘Search’ has become AI, so we can even ask it ‘what is the question?’ Before we accept AI’s answer, should we pause and ask ourselves if answers based on the sum of the knowledge that has produced humanity so far are the right ones?
Is the loss of thousands of lives in war the best way to settle disputes over who owns what? Is the death and maiming of millions of people on the roads, in order to speed our transfer from one TV set to another, a good bargain? Is the short-lived pleasure of drug addiction worth the agony imposed on the drug taker and all connected with them? Does excess luxury for some compensate for the unacceptable poverty of others? Our world is pretty good for many people. Would we be happier if it was pretty good for most people?
Sages and prophets down the years have tried to explain the foundations of a good life. Their suggestions have often been accepted as profound wisdom, but then ignored in practice. Some sort of inherent wickedness, thought to be lodged in the brains of humans, has been used to explain this bizarre phenomenon. The nearest scientific explanation of it is Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. Survival of the fittest has devolved some of the strongest physical species but humanity is a creature that has developed its mind, something observed in a few animals but only to an early stage of evolution.
Our physical growth from primitive animals has been overtaken by mental evolution to the point where we can communicate, interrelate, analyse, rationalise, forecast and hone our senses to appreciate and enjoy at a level not yet reached by most creatures. This should enable us to cooperate on a scale beyond the reach of other species. Yet we do not use our advanced abilities well enough even to avoid the worst consequences of competing to survive – including risking the destruction of the planet and, at the same time, perhaps the race.
The prospect of our having invented a rival intelligence that is already faster than our own thinking and, as a result, may become wiser than humans, as well as being able to dominate us, raises the question of how should we handle it? The development of our own mentality, for all its rapid increase in the past few centuries, is still slow by comparison with the speed of the development of artificial intelligence. The human race has avoided dominance by one source of power so far, though not without repeated efforts to control by one faction or another.
Attempts to answer the strategic question of ‘what do we want?’ are being swamped by the tactical answers to what AI could become. Any examination of humanity’s failings shows that most of them emanate from a failure to define our purpose.
Now is a rather important time to do so, isn’t it?
Are you focusing on humanity’s purpose? If so, please tell us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. We have much to learn and shall be very grateful to you.
27 February 2023