Forget Self-Aware Machines—We Need Self-Aware Humans

There's been a lot of talk lately about the rise of self-aware machines, yet we are already in danger of AI even though it is not yet self-aware and still unable to act independently of its program. The reason for this is not because AI is currently capable of dominating us with its superhuman power, it’s because we humans are not self-aware, and therefore are easily dominated by other humans who are clever enough to use AI to manipulate entire communities into doing their bidding. In addition, because the majority of humanity can’t see beyond their own fears, angers and opinions, our technology is advancing faster than our social reflexes, and we are changing the surface of the planet in irreversible ways.

Philosophers have been trying to wake us up for centuries. Take Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, written in 520 C.E. At the time, the concept was quite advanced for most people, but today in America, where public education has been around for about one hundred years, we still aren’t able to grasp the Allegory of the Cave as a group, and it appears we are becoming very dangerous due to our technology.

A friend of mine shared two very important articles with me this weekend that emphasize the importance of inner development at this time; A Planet with Brains by David Grinspoon, and The Rise of theWeaponized AI Propaganda Machine by Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath.

In A Planet with Brains, Grinspoon suggests that, “we have entered a new epoch of geologic time, the "Anthropocene," characterized by humanity as a new geologic force.” This is no small thing to consider—what is at stake is the idea that humanity as a collective group is now considered a geological force, right up there with wind, water, erosion, tectonic plates, magma and the Ice Age.

How many of us have ever considered that as human beings, we might just be considered a force of nature? One so great that we could change the surface of the Earth forever? A force similar to the atmospheric rivers now plaguing Northern California, for example. I am currently living in this storm system, and each day I wake up to new changes in the terrain around me. Roads washed away, mountain sides plummeting, avalanches, bridges collapsing, all of this due to the power of wind and rain. And not just a little water—as much as several Mississippi Rivers have been dumped upon us. This force is so great it has completely annihilated much of our infrastructure, major highways are closed and in all honestly, we’re held hostage by this force of nature. Stormfather, as I’ve taken to calling it since the constant gray clouds and heavy rain seem like my neighbor now, is a geological force and I’m helpless to its whims.

And it seems that thanks to technology, humanity is also a geological force, and as humanity carves, mines, paves, harvests, chops down, and poisons the world around it, it may just be time to admit we have as much power as Stormfather, and like a powerful hurricane, we’re not very discerning with how we go about business.

Here’s the thing—storms are raw, powerful, elemental energy. A hurricane or cyclone has a life of its own, but the system is unable to reflect upon its actions. It JUST DOES. Humanity on the other hand is not only raw, powerful, elemental energy. We also have our minds, and our ability to reflect, to be aware, to ask questions and assess the situation. Neil Young may have likened his lover to a hurricane, but that is not a complement. Toddlers are a force of nature, one that can bring down a house if left unattended. Adults however, should know better, shouldn’t they?

As a species, we must begin to consider that our power is as strong as a storm, as influential as glacier and as devastating as a tornado. Collectively we are a force of nature, but nature has endowed us with a failsafe—our consciousness. Isn’t it time we step into our roles as co-creators and use our power for good, rather than bumble around demanding profits, instant gratification and adoration, throwing tantrums if things don’t go our way?

Here’s the irony of this moment in time—thanks to our technology we MUST see ourselves as a geological force acting upon the planet, or else we’ll destroy it, but that same technology has been pulling us further apart from one another and the Earth’s cycles, destroying the village and instead replacing it with first little cutout houses in the suburbs and now making each of us an individual hiding behind a screen, glued to our devices while we argue and divide and set the world on fire.

The great Masters have been teaching us for centuries that we must awaken, we must use our higher faculties, and teach one another to do so. Were they preparing us for this moment?

It appears they were, and in their article The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine, authors Anderson and Horvath have made it very clear that we have a long way to go before we’re self-aware enough as a global population to take on the responsibility of being a geological force. Essentially, while we wring our hands fearing the rise of AI, the more devious elements of the human race have been priming and using our social media technology to take our data, understand what it means about us as individuals, and then manipulate or deepest fears and wildest fantasies to get us to vote for whom, or what, they want. The major player behind this evolving field of AI is a company called, CambridgeAnalytica, and they’re responsible for the successful passing of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the brief, yet flashy rise of Ted Cruz during the Republican primaries. It’s one thing to help a candidate win, it’s another to own a sophisticated AI that according to Professor Jonathan Albright is,

“…a propaganda machine. It’s targeting people individually to recruit them to an idea. It’s a level of social engineering that I’ve never seen before. They’re capturing people and then keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting them go.”

How can this be possible? How can humanity, an actual geological force of nature, be so vulnerable to such manipulation? And how can we inoculate ourselves against such a blatant takeover of our cultural commons?

The answer is simple—we need to become self-aware. The same work that will enable us to be a geological force that is constructive, rather than destructive, will also free us from this powerful, dangerous, social engineering. Humanity’s refusal to become self-aware, to see the bigger picture, to deeply engage with one another and the earth around us, is killing us both within and without.

Grinspoon suggests that to responsibly take up our mantle as a geological force, “…would require that we reach a stage where we have a deep understanding of nature and an ability to forestall natural disasters, as well as the deep self-understanding necessary to forestall self-imposed disasters. In other words, it will require both technical and spiritual progress.”

We have the technology to destroy or create. Now we need the spiritual willpower to become self-aware and chose our path. I can’t help but wonder, what if we can’t do it? Rather than invest all our efforts in making our machines self-aware, why not focus on ourselves? We cannot embrace our role as a geological force if we’re busy fighting made-up cultural wars injected into our minds by a massive propaganda machine.

It’s time to stop believing that “we’re just human” and understand that together we’re something much, much more.

Amusing Ourselves Beyond Death

This morning a friend of mine shared a fantastic article in the Guardian by Andrew Postman, son of Neil Postman, author famous for his book titled, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Of all the commentary slung around on the web right now, Postman’s piece really hit home. In a nutshell, we have two legendary pieces of science fiction that have captured our imaginations for decades: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell. Since Trump’s election, most people have been focusing on 1984, it even sold out on Amazon last week. But in 1985, Neil Postman suggested that it wasn’t an Orwellian world we should fear, but rather the dystopia depicted in Brave New World.

Amusing Ourselves to Death went on to basically predict the rise of “alternative facts” and a celebrity president like Donald Trump. Ronald Regan was in charge when Postman released his book, and he saw that presidency as evidence of this trend. Not because the politicians themselves had changed, but the citizens had. Decades of being fed an image-based media diet had made us weak in the mind, needing flashy headlines and entertainment, not just from our crime TV shows, but also from our news and of course, our politicians.

I agree with Postman and we have arrived at what he predicted — yet this is only the beginning. As a software engineer and writer, I’ve been struggling to put into words a warning that has been living within me for years. Eventually I decided that the best way to express my concerns was to do what Huxley and Orwell did, write a story. Three years ago, I published eHuman Dawn, a novel in which everything, including humanity, is a device on the network. Several reviewers have compared it to Brave New World and while I’m no Aldous Huxley, I do think that the human situation in the eHuman novels could be a next step for the world Huxley described. For while Postman said we’re on the road to amusing ourselves to death, I think we’re actually now on the road to amusing ourselves BEYOND death.

In eHuman Dawn, humanity has succumbed to its desire for constant entertainment. As a result of being immersed in unlimited games, programs, information, tv shows and movies, Virtual Reality became much more desirable and in their love affair of entertainment, the population willingly leaves their physical bodies behind to live forever in machines, essentially achieving the great dream — the end to both physical and emotional suffering.

But what price do you pay for such a gift? When we give ourselves to technology, we give ourselves to the owners of that technology. Are they worthy?

While I don’t think we’ll ever figure out a way to upload our consciousness into machines, what I do think is that our attention is already more online than offline. Most people live inside of their phone, constantly checking the news, or watching a YouTube video, or commenting on the latest outrageous idea that comes from the Oval Office. Our attention is a part of our consciousness, and we seem to be placing it outside of ourselves, away from our immediate surroundings, and inside of the network, searching for connection within our minds, rather than with what’s right before us.

I realize the body is fragile. I also realized that life in the real world can be painful. We’ve longed in some way to escape it, or at least exit reality for even a moment, for all of our history. This is why we invented instruments, storytelling and of course figured out that certain mushrooms are pretty damn fantastic at out-of-body experiences. But the body is also the only thing that is truly ours. The body is the only place of true human freedom.

This is why we fight so hard for our right to make choices about our bodies. Bodily autonomy is what allows the alpha male to rule, for he’s the one who has traditionally been able to keep his body for himself. Bodily autonomy is what drives slaves to rebel, for the sale of one’s flesh to another is a crime above all others. This is why rape is illegal, for a woman only wants a man of her choice to be inside of her. Or perhaps no man at all. It’s what drives biohackers to push the boundaries and young people to tattoo their arms or dye their hair purple. Bodily autonomy extends even to your corpse.
The body is what makes us human. It puts us in the flow of life, interacting with one another. When we stop paying attention to our bodies, when we need to be entertained or high in order to find any joy in living, then we not only allow ourselves to be controlled by our media, we also set ourselves on a path to the ultimate control — technology ruling our bodies. And because we’re so busy falling in love with the virtual world, we don’t notice the laws being passed that take away our bodily autonomy, until it’s too late.

Take for example the conservative’s viewpoint that a woman shouldn’t be allowed to have an abortion. This is an obvious violation of her bodily autonomy. Because of their religious beliefs that can’t ever be questioned, even if unproven, they pass legislation that takes away a woman’s liberty. The liberals have their own agenda against bodily autonomy, also passed in good faith, their dogma being science that can’t ever be questioned. In this case, mandatory vaccinations without any public debate. On paper, both of these groups appear to be saving the lives of children by removing the right of bodily autonomy from adults. What gives the state the power to pass these laws? And why do we fall for them? Making any medical procedure mandatory isn’t much different than forcing a pregnancy. Both violate a person’s right to his or her own body.

What does this have to do with Brave New World? Simply that we have entered the age Huxley portrayed in his novel. Postman is correct. In addition, while we binge on information, our politicians pave the way for the ultimate control, not just of our minds (which they already have) but of our bodies as well, and we don’t have to wait until someone actually figures out the impossible and separates our consciousness from our bodies, allowing us to gorge on VR forever. The solution is closer than you think.

Consider an anti-aging device that you can wear behind your ear that is augmented into your body, and designed to monitor your heart rate, blood flow, platelets and certain genes in your DNA. Scientists are getting very close to understanding why exactly aging, the ultimate disease, happens. There’s some evidence that a gene flips from one state to another, causing our telomeres to begin to shrink. In order to prevent aging, the idea would be to keep that gene from flipping. The device in your ear could constantly send information about your body to your “doctors” in the cloud (most likely a software program) and take medical action if the aging gene flips.

Who wouldn’t want that? If it gave you an extra 20 years? 30? 100? This sort of innovation takes everything to the next level, and while it seems wonderful, it absolutely has the potential to completely deny us all bodily autonomy in two key ways — first your body is constantly monitored by the cloud, you can NEVER unplug, and second something like this has the potential of becoming mandatory. Think about it, if our population has no problem forcing any vaccination the state deems necessary on our children in order to save them, what sort of parent would you be if you didn’t have this device inserted into your child? Do you dare keep longevity from them? For their good, they must be plugged into the system. Oh, and while they’re logged on, let’s keep them entertained.

There are many ways this can play out, but step one has already happened. We’re totally amusing ourselves to death, and with the rapid advancement of technology, combined with legislators hell bent on convincing us that we can’t make our own decisions about our bodies, combined with an endless entertainment loop convincing us that the virtual world is better than the body anyway, it isn’t a stretch to say there’s a potential path in which we amuse ourselves beyond death — to a place where we can never unplug.