During the Enlightenment the human body was thought of as a kind of clock. That was because the dominant technology of the day was mechanical engineering.Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock in the 1600s, and in the following decades and centuries, all across Europe, the miraculous ticking of interconnected gears and springs felt akin to the periodic and cyclical nature of the human biology, and indeed of the whole universe. God was thought of as an architect, or an engineer. Everything in the cosmos was placed in perfect relation to everything else; an idea referred in philosophy as “determinism”. The human brain was mechanical too, and excreted thoughts – as other machines exhaled gases or fumes or fluids – and was powered by a mystical “soul”. This metaphor mutated by the late 20th century, as western societies rejected religion and adopted a new form of technology: computers.
Computers seemed to do “smart” things, like manipulating numbers, which was something that only humans were able to do till then. Computers did so by codifying a calculating process into a “program” that could then be “executed” on a machine. The program was called “software” and the machine “hardware”. The “smart” part of computing lay in the software, because that’s where the knowledge of solving a problem resided. The hardware was important of course, and necessary, but one could imagine all kinds of hardware, not necessary built with silicon chips and electronics, but with billiard balls, light bulbs, paper clips, whatever. This curious juxtaposition between hardware and software led to the following conclusion: that we can engineer intelligent behaviour as long as we code the right programs (or “algorithms”); executing those algorithms was of secondary importance and independent of the physical substrate. As long as you had a smart algorithm you had intelligence, not unlike having a smart genie that you could then place inside any bottle, or lamp, you liked.
Thinking of intelligence as something independent of the physical substrate (the “hardware”) was an idea that originated in computing and nowadays dominates our everyday thinking. We are using the computing metaphor in our everyday speech, as if it was a given. Our brains are the “hardware”, and our minds the “software”. We are thinking of Artificial Intelligence as computers becoming more and more “intelligent” because of algorithms.
The computer metaphor has led people like Stephen Hawing and Max Tegmark suggest that the future of humanity is to transfer our intelligence and consciousness to computers; to “upload” our consciousness and free ourselves from the frailty and perishable nature of biological bodies; thus bequeathing the keys of biological, and cosmic, evolution to our computer descendants. This is the main thesis of Life 3.0, the new book by Max Tegmark, although the idea is not new and was also explored in the “Anthropic Principle” by John Barrow and Frank Tippler published in 1988.
But of course, such thinking is fallacious. That’s because these otherwise very smart people confuse the computer metaphor of software versus hardware as the real thing. Like people in the Enlightenment who thought of the human body as a clock powered by an immaterial soul, Tegmark et al are regarding the self as an immaterial algorithm trapped inside a biological prison. Such thinking is also irrational because it has not being substantiated by any scientific evidence. In fact, the contrary is true: neuroscience and neurobiology show that intelligence is inextricable from the physical aspects of the brain. “We” are not an algorithm. We are unitary biological creatures.
Confusing metaphor with reality would have been unremarkable if it was not for how it frames the current debate on Artificial Intelligence. When powerful, successful and highly intelligent people adopt the metaphor when speaking publicly about the future of AI they offer validation to a fallacy that could have serious consequences in the economy, society and politics. Artificial Intelligence is not intelligence but an imitation of intelligence. It is imitation because it fools us into believing it is the real thing. This idea of “imitation” is fundamental in AI, and was put forward since the beginning from none other than Alan Turing. In his “Imitation Game” paper he suggests how a computer could fool us into believing it was a human.
Once we adopt the computer metaphor without thinking then we render ourselves incapable of distinguishing between reality and the imitation of reality. As a result we are talking about AI “ethics”, or AI “bias”, as if they were real. They are not. Machines cannot have ethics, or uphold values, or have opinions or preferences. These words only have meaning to creatures like us, with the ability of self-refection. It is because we can examine the content and meaning of our thinking that we can decide between right and wrong. Self-refection is a property of biology. Machines cannot have self-reflection, and that is what will forever differentiate them from us.
Advanced technological civilisations would be impossible without an Aristotle and the host of haphazard historical circumstance that preserved his thought through the ages. Aristotle was the first real scientist. That’s because he assumed that in order to understand the world you must observe it, and that all knowledge comes from our senses. His notions contrasted with the notions of Plato, his teacher. Plato believed the opposite: that the world of the senses was an illusion, and that all there was to know was in the mind. For Plato reason came first and was adequate in itself. For Aristotle it was first observation, then reason.
Most of us know that Alexander the Great was a student of Aristotle. However, although Alexander admired his teacher when he was young, he became quite paranoid later and thought that Aristotle was plotting to kill him. Aristotle was very disappointed that Alexander declared himself divine; this was hubris in every Greek sense of the word. But Aristotle had another student too: Ptolemy, a friend of Alexander, then a general in his army and, after Alexander’s death, the king of Egypt and the originator of the Ptolemies, the Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt until its last queen Cleopatra killed herself as Octavian’s armies approached.
Ptolemy was instrumental in realising Aristotle’s scientific vision. He sponsored the founding of the Library of Alexandria, where all knowledge of the world was stored. And he encouraged scientists and engineers to explore nature. As a result, Alexandria became the scientific capital of the world. Some of the greatest scientific and engineering minds worked there. The influence of Alexandria across the Mediterranean was immense, and scientists started appearing in other places too, like Archimedes in Syracuse and Hypparchos in Rhodes.
The legacy of the Aristotelian Ptolemies passed to the Arabs who during the Middle Ages developed a rich scientific and engineering tradition, while Europe languished in Platonic introspection. Thankfully, in Renaissance, Europe awoke to Aristotle (St Thomas Aquinas played a major role in that), and that’s how the scientific revolution was made possible.
Perhaps therefore, we can now somewhat explain Fermi’s paradox: life ought to be common in our galaxy. Evolution ought to have evolved highly intelligent creatures in several thousands planets. Why haven’t we heard of them yet? Why haven’t they discovered radio waves?
Assuming that their neurophysiology is comparable to ours (and that is a big assumption) perhaps they never had an Aristotle. They only had Platos. They exist, but have not discovered radio waves, have not built telecommunication antennae, or spaceships. The are stuck in endless, theocratic, Middle Ages.