Will robots outsmart humans? Erasmus philosophical anthropologist Jos de Mul thinks such beliefs show a gross overestimation of the capacities of robots. Self-replicating robots could take over, he thinks, but they would be inferior to their human counterpart. Instead of robots taking over, De Mul believes humans might develop like bees: sharing their individual psyche to form a shared supermind.
‘Plato was scared of the ability to read and write. He thought script would be a dead memory without the ability to think creatively. In the same way people now are scared of computers. But script and computers are just means, extensions of ourselves, allowing us to do certain things better.’ No, Jos de Mul is not scared of robots and algorithms, but he is urging us to think carefully about how we use them.
Zillions of neurons united
The fear that robots could become autonomous is justified, but they will not be superior in their intellect for a long time to come, De Mul believes. ‘Perhaps they can beat us at chess but they have had trouble learning how to walk up stairs or recognise faces. That’s not so strange, if you realise the human brain has billions of neurons, and so far we haven’t even managed to simulate the complete network of a species with very few neurons, like the Caenorhabditis elegans – a roundworm.’
Imagine what would happen if we could put all our neurons together. We’re already heading towards such a ‘swarm mind’, De Mul emphasises. ‘It’s already happening when you buy a book online and the computer suggests titles that other buyers of that book have bought. Amazon recently got a patent on an algorithm that can predict what book is going to be sold where, so they can send it before you realise you want it. “Anticipatory shipping”, they call it.’
Human integrates computer
Such developments may not have had the intention of creating a global superbrain, but they can still function as the little steps that lead towards that future. And things are moving rapidly, with companies like Facebook working on a Brain Machine Interface (BMI)-project that implants the internet directly into your brain. ‘First we had a few mainframes per country, now every person has their own smartphone. It’s just a small step from where we are now to planting chips in people, like a built-in smartphone that does not require internet.’
Experiments with robots sharing sensor-data with humans have already proven that the human consciousness is not attached to its biological body. A mind could be anywhere, at any time - like in virtual reality. Once detached from its physical manifestation, can a post-individual consciousness develop, like it did in bees and termites?
Superintelligent, or superstupid?
‘If superintelligence will develop, it will develop as a combination of human and artificial intelligence,’ the philosophical anthropologist expects. And just like the script altered our ways of thinking, so will today’s new technological means. ‘Oral cultures were based on direct communication between its members. The development of script allowed us to communicate over larger distances and to think on a more abstract level, but it also led to estrangement. You might regret that, but it is not a path that can be changed.’
‘As an anthropologist, I see that the world around us is getting ever more complex. To deal with issues like the environmental problems we are facing we need to combine human intelligence in a network that allows us to manage these complexities. So I am not against the swarm mind, though personally I do have a problem with the way companies like Google and Facebook use it: to make more money, sell us more stuff we do not need. We may not be able to stop the supermind, but we may be able influence its development. I think we should listen to people like Jaron Lanier, who suggests Google pays us for our likes, instead of vice versa - stop the rich from getting richer, make the system work in a way that promotes equality.’