The issue of species dominance is about whether humanity should build godlike, massively intelligent machines this century, with mental capacities trillions of trillions of times above human level. In certain circles, this is widely thought to be the singularly most important issue of the 21st century, due to its profound consequences for humanity’s survival once these “artilects” (artificial intellects) come into being.
As with any issue, species dominance had to start with a few intellectuals crying in the wilderness. Thinkers such as I. J. Good in the 1960s and then Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil and myself in the 1980s did just that.
In the 1990s, the second stage occurred, namely the establishment of interest groups concerned with the issue such as the Transhumanists and the Extropians, among others. The number of people concerned with the the rise of the artilect (or as the Americans say, the “singularity”) has reached a critical mass, to the point that 2011 is the year the issue has gone mainstream in the (American) media.
One of the major reasons why this media interest has occurred has been due to Kurzweil, that one-man publicity machine, famous for his message of “exponentially increasing technologies.” His book “The Singularity is Near” (2005) caught the attention of filmmaker Barry Ptolemy, who made a movie based on Kurzweil’s life and work called “Transcendent Man,” which attracted a lot of media attention, even reaching the cover of Time Magazine.
At about the same time, my book “ The Artilect War” (2005) caught the attention of the History Channel, which made a 90-minute documentary called “Prophets of Doom,” prompting Newsweek to write a similar feature article. The Discovery Channel is now making a major documentary on the species dominance theme, to be broadcast in 2011.
With so much publicity, it’s clear that the issue of species dominance will be reaching the American public this year. These US documentaries will then find themselves on the internet and will spread around the world. The next few countries to take up the torch will be Canada, Australia, the UK, and then Europe. In time, the world’s media will start devoting more coverage to what I believe is the biggest story of the 21st century.
Phase three, a major milestone in the issue’s ability to attract public attention has been passed: journalists are now spreading the message to a global audience. So the time is now ripe for phase four to begin; it’s time to make species dominance political.
The environmental movement got its start in a similar fashion, with a single intellectual crying in the wilderness. In that case, the lone voice belonged to American conservationist Rachel Carson, who published her seminal work “Silent Spring” in 1962. Her book pointed out that humanity was polluting the environment with toxic chemicals such as DDT killing birds, spurring Carson’s evocative vision of a spring without bird calls. Environmental consciousness spread and eventually political parties known as the Greens came into being. This movement is now particularly powerful in Germany.
Species dominance awareness has not yet reached the political phase. This essay proposes ideas on how the fourth phase in the general development of a social movement on this topic can be promoted and stimulated.
Politicizing the Species Dominance Issue
This section will examine how the species dominance issue can become more political, entering the fourth phase in its development as a social movement.
Continue the debate
There is not yet any real consensus among interest groups on whether the rise of the artilect is a good thing for humanity. Debate on this and related issues needs to continue at annual conferences such as the Singularity Summit in the US and Australia. Organizers should continue making efforts to attract journalists to these events.
Kurzweil is very optimistic about the rise of intelligent machines in the coming decades and thinks that human beings and machines will merge, allowing humans to acquire superhuman abilities. He is an undiluted optimist, for which he is widely criticized.
I, on the other hand, sit at the opposite extreme. I’m claiming that a sizable proportion of humanity (the “Terrans”) will not tolerate human beings becoming the subordinate sentient species on Earth and, if pushed to the limit, will go to war against the creators of the artilects (the “Cosmists”) to stop them building the creations of which the latter dream. This “Artilect War” will cause billions of deaths, because it will be waged with 21st century weapons capable of killing far more people than past conflicts fought with comparatively primitive weaponry.
Most thinkers in the species dominance debate lie between these two extremes. The various issues involved need to be given a lot more thought, considering the critical importance of this topic.
Extending the debate
Personally, I will be very happy to see the species dominance debate move beyond techies’ discussion circles., Unfortunately, people with hard science backgrounds are usually politically naïve and too young to have any real experience of how negative human nature can be, particularly when it comes to warfare.
However, techies’ dominance of the debate up to now has been has been perfectly natural, since they are the ones who are creating the problem by striving to build artificially intelligent machines. Normally, they are the first to see the writing on the wall since they are the ones doing the writing.
For example, my first two published articles on the topic were in 1989. I started building artificial brains in 1993 in Japan, when the term sounded rather exaggerated, but is now fully accepted. Since I was helping to create the species dominance problem, it made sense that I and others in a similar position were the first to write about the issue.
Now that the species dominance issue has gone mainstream in the media, a wider academic audience can get in on the act. I would particularly like to see social science experts bring their training to bear on the problem, notably political scientists, historians, philosophers and psychologists. I would also like to see Europeans get more involved. The current debate is still dominated by American techies who are way too optimistic and naïve. They know intellectually that the last century was the bloodiest in history (200-300 million people killed for political reasons), but fail to translate its equivalent in the 21st century into an emotional reality. I will be very glad to see historians and political philosophers bring their more balanced viewpoints into the debate.
A lot more books need to be written on the topic
The species dominance issue is so important for humanity in the 21st century that a flood of books should be written on the topic. Look at Karl Marx for example, and the number of books written on his ideas. Marx’s question of the ownership of capital dominated global politics in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the question of who or what should be the dominant species will dominate the 21st century, it deserves to be covered just as extensively. Universities have a strong obligation to get involved.
Once a flood of books has appeared, think tanks can get in on the act. The “tankers” can read these books and listen to the intellectual debates in the media (to the extent that they exist in corporatist-controlled, dumbed-down America). Their role should be to translate the ideas in the books and the media into future political activity. For example, they should start thinking about future political policies to be formulated as advice to political parties. In fact, the issue is so dominant, probably new political parties will be formed to deal with it (see below).
Most issues in politics are not important enough to have a political party define itself with that issue. For example, the US does not have an Abortion Party that pushes for free abortions. In many European countries, the issue of better rights for workers was considered so important that a pan-European labour movements sprang up, with active political parties promoting its interests across the continent through vehicles like Britain’s Labour Party and Germany’s Arbeiter Partei.
As the species dominance debate heats up, we can expect new parties to be formed with names such as the Terran Humanity First Party or, at the opposite pole, the Cosmist Transcendent Party.
Think tanks will have their hands full, thinking up all the many political consequences of the rise of the artilect in the coming decades. They should start thinking now.
Text books and new courses at universities
Once the species dominance issue is widely discussed, professors can collate the ideas and put them into textbooks, creating new courses for their students. This way, the issue will be widely studied and far better understood. Upon graduating, students will be able to help contribute to the political discussion.
Lobbying the politicians
Once the general public has taken sides on the species dominance issue (becoming Cosmists, Terrans or Cyborgists wanting to become artilects themselves by adding artilectual components to their own brains), the various factions can then start lobbying politicians, forcing the latter to take sides. This may be difficult for conventional politicians because experience so far shows that the question of whether or not to build artilects (or advanced cyborgs) sharply divides people right down the middle. Politicians will be pulled left or right with equal force.
New political parties
Once large numbers of people start getting passionate about the issue as the spread of cyborgs starts alienating the Terrans, the latter should organize and form their own political parties, making plans on how to combat the Cosmists. The Cosmists, not to be outdone, should also form their own political parties.
As the debate really heats up, the Terran and Cosmist parties should start making plans for military action. In the case of the Terrans, they will be terrified of being superseded by the artilects and cyborgs, eliciting a visceral rejection of the growing number of cyborgs in their midst. The Terrans should prepare for an extermination campaign against the Cosmists and cyborgs for the sake of preserving humanity.
The Cosmists should also prepare themselves militarily, because they know that the Terrans cannot wait too long. The Cosmists know that the Terrans must strike first, while the latter still have enough intelligence to win a war against foes whose intellectual capabilities are quickly improving. The Cosmists cannot afford to be caught off-guard by the Terrans and should hit back immediately when the Terrans hit them. Both sides should also be thinking about various scenarios in the case of gigadeath–scale casualties (in the billions) from 21st century weaponry.
Alternatives to gigadeath?
The prospect of a gigadeath–scale Artilect War is so horrible (billions of humans killed) that a major effort needs to be made by the planet’s best thinkers to find ways to avoid it. I have been unable to find one, which is why I am so pessimistic. I am glad I am alive now, since I will probably have the luxury of dying peacefully in my bed. I will live long enough (into the 2030s probably) to see the species dominance debate heat up and rage, but will not see the Artilect War. My grandson will, however. He will be caught up in it and probably destroyed by it.
If there is a way to avoid an Artilect War, then it is critical for humanity to find and plan for it. Personally, I’m cynical that such a way exists, otherwise I think I would probably have thought of it, having considered the issue for over two decades. Still, many heads are better then one. Perhaps someone out there will dream up a strategy that can save us.
I don’t see Kurzweil’s cyborg route strategy being the solution. This would involve all human beings becoming cyborgs, upgrading themselves into fully blown artilects and thus avoiding a conflict between Terrans and Cosmists; there will be no humans left to disagree amongst themselves. Instead, I foresee Terrans’ growing horror at watching humanity being gradually destroyed as its individual members are transformed bit by bit into utterly alien creatures relict humans cannot relate to at all. Rejection will bloom with murderous speed, fueled by deepseated revulsion.
Kurzweil’s cyborg route is part of the problem, not the solution. Since the potential computing capacity of a nanoteched grain of sand is a quintillion (a million trillion) times greater than that of the human brain, a human body with a cyborged grain of sand will be an artilect in human disguise, making Terran paranoia all the greater.
This essay will hopefully motivate people concerned by the species dominance issue to start acting politically, by spreading the word to the media, to the general public, to universities, to think tanks and to politicians, eventually creating their own political parties to prepare for when the issue reaches boiling point.
The species dominance issue is the most important problem facing the 21st century and will color our age. It has now reached the third phase in the development of social movements, having gone mainstream in the media. The time is now ripe to move on to the fourth phase, into politics. Hopefully, some of the advice given in this essay will prove to be useful towards that end.