Beyond Thinking Machines
By Martin LeFevre
What will become of humans when thinking machines outthink us at every turn? That’s about to be the new human condition. As a reviewer of the book, “Seven Games” (checkers, chess, Go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble and bridge) quips: “Every game has its history, its champions, its quirks and its community, and then comes the programmer who believes he can teach a computer to play it. Each time, devotees of the game stake their claim that their pastime is a pure expression of ineluctable human creativity, and then, as the programs improve, the players are stripped of their illusions.” In a much larger sense, we know what’s coming, though few seem to be disturbed by it. The traditional games of the West and East are the least of it. What people have long taken to be “pure expressions of ineluctable human creativity,” from medicine to technological innovation and even art, are ‘augmenting’ humans into second-rate thinking machines. ‘Artificial Intelligence,’ like ‘higher thought’ itself, is based on memory, logic and speed. If it hasn’t already, AI will soon surpass human smarts as our thinking machines exceed our cognitive abilities. To my mind, that means there’s no choice but to transcend thought. The Cognitive Revolution that ushered in ‘fully modern humans’ about a hundred thousand years ago has reached its logical end with AI. Will it be the gradual end of the human mind, or the true beginning of the human being? The reviewer doesn’t realize the implications of his insight: “By the time computers defeated human champions at chess, then poker, then backgammon and Go, the human players had not so much stopped resisting the inevitable as submitted to their betters.”It isn’t just that “the games we thought were an art are just another mechanism, no more inaccessible to the brute strength of microprocessors than, say, assembling an automobile.” For millennia at the core psychological level, humans have seen ourselves as creatures of ‘higher thought;’ at present we’re building thought machines that have higher thought than us. Now that computers are becoming smarter than us, even more ‘creative,’ they threaten to make the human mind redundant, if not obsolete. “You begin to realize that people aren’t playing one another with the help of computers; the computers are playing against other computers, using humans as fleshy armatures to move the pieces.” “We now know that when we play [or work, or think], we are not unique beings with a divine spark of genius but merely models in an obsolete generation of thinking machines.” Therefore it’s become an existential imperative that human beings transcend thought. But what does it mean to transcend thought, and can it actually be achieved, except by a few illumined or semi-illumined people? For the tens of thousands of years, since the emergence of ‘modern man,’ humans have been creatures of memory, especially psychological memory. On one hand psychological memory has been is the basis of the self, tradition, ritual and culture. On the other it has been the source of tribalism and nationalism, of personal and collective grudges giving rise to hatred and war. Civilization has steadily eroded the ancient, indigenous and traditional richness of memory; in the digital age, that erosion has reached exponential proportions. With the loss of the intactness of cultural and generational memory, selves and groups have become increasingly fragmented, superficial and disordered. And the more people try to revert and cling to their tribal, sectarian and traditional identities as separate groups, the more eroded and conflicted man becomes. The current fad of valuing indigenous modes of being in a world that is literally cutting the land, trees and animals out from under the few intact native peoples that remain, attests to how rudderless we’ve become as a species in the digital age. Once again, thinking machines irreducibly depend on memory, and humans have heretofore been creatures of memory. Memory has become redundant in the digital age, and psychological memory increasingly dysfunctional and destructive. Then what essentially distinguishes the human being from the thinking machines that humans have created in their own image? The mind/brain of the human being, unlike that of all thinking machines (however advanced AI becomes) has the capacity to attend to itself, awaken spontaneous stillness, and self-knowingly delete unwanted memories. To AI in the near future, a quiet mind is a ludicrous proposition, attained only if and when the machine is unplugged from a power source. No so-called intelligent machine, however much techies try to imbue them with sentience, will ever be able to attend and transcend memory. But to a human being, a quiet mind has become sine qua non to being human. Stillness of mind is always a spontaneous phenomenon, never the result of effort, goal or idea. Stillness ‘happens’ when the flame of attention burns strongly enough to incinerate every thought and emotion as they arise. However the flame of attention can only grow fierce within us when we don’t seek stillness as a goal or idea, but simply, passively watch every sensation, thought and feeling as they occur in the present, without evaluation or preconception. Though family and society condition us that living is a matter of accumulating memories, it’s actually just the opposite. As one gets older, memories calcify in the brain and suffocate the heart. The human race stands at a juncture. We have to redefine what it means to be a human being, or we’ll lose our capacity to realize our spiritual potential as human beings, perhaps forever.
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Martin LeFevre, a contemplative, philosopher and writer in northern California, serves as a contributing writer for The Seoul Times. His "Meditations" explore and offer insights on spiritual, philosophical and political questions in the global society. LeFevre's philosophical thesis proposes a new theory of human nature. He welcomes dialogue. email@example.com