Advances in Artificial Intelligence have brought the equivalent of a gold rush in the information technology industry, leading to hopes of great improvements in our lives, but also fears of imminent disaster. Many are concerned that the machines could threaten humanity’s future by developing a will of their own, turning against their human creators.
AI learns by finding patterns in enormous quantities of data, processing data trillions of times faster than our brains. It is already widespread in most of our lives, gathering information through which advertisers and others can track our personal wants and needs.
ChatGPT, a language processing tool that will converse and write for you, learned its skills by reading hundreds of billions of words on the web. Robots are under development that will cook, mow lawns, and help care for the elderly. There is talk of every child having an infinitely knowledgeable AI tutor.
So-called deep learning by AI involves neural nets, which process data using structures that resemble the human brain. Instead of having instructions for every task, the machines are given suggestions on how things should be done, and can then learn for themselves, drawing on vast amounts of data. One new AI, for example, has watched 100 million YouTube videos.
AI is already proving better than doctors at certain types of diagnosis. It is being equipped to judge what people are thinking, to help blind people to see, and to master and cite legal decisions and processes in microseconds. It is making molecular discoveries that may lead to better, precisely targeted treatments, and even reverse ageing.
Despite this promise, most experts in the field agree that regulations are needed, since an unrestrained race to create ever more powerful digital minds may lead to machines with intelligence that no one, not even their creators, can understand, predict or control. To meet the goals they are set, they sometimes even hallucinate, filling gaps in their knowledge with made-up ideas.
But I believe the popular science-fiction idea of robots willfully turning on us will not become a reality. That is because there is an essential difference between living entities and machines.
I do not think AI has any real understanding, or emotion. Robots will never become angry, or sad, though as they become more advanced they will be able to simulate a wide range of emotions.
Still, as the entrepreneur Elon Musk has said, AI doesn’t have to be evil to destroy humanity. ‘If AI has a goal and humanity just happens to be in the way, it’ll destroy humanity as a matter of course, without even thinking about it – no hard feelings!’
The challenge may go still deeper. The spiritual journey has taught me that an enormous amount of what I used to think of as my own intelligence was in fact artificial, to the extent that it took me away from awareness of my own inner being. I now see real human intelligence as an ability to see the world and others around me with kindness, happiness, and peace. That becomes possible the more I ally my consciousness with spiritual knowledge and experience. When I look at the world through glasses of fear and selfishness, I am not seeing straight. Meditative practices help to displace a false sense of pride, or limited attachment to people or possessions, ideas or ideologies.
How much of that kind of truth is guiding AI machines in how they learn, and how they will be used? Many of the scientists often quoted as leaders in the field have a completely materialistic perspective. They are creating an artificially limited view of the human being, perhaps dangerously misleading the machine intelligence.
The systems cannot envision a better future. If our past is all they have to go on, they could end up simply deepening and amplifying our mistakes. In contrast to that, those on the spiritual journey feel they are drawing on timeless truths to build a better future.
As Douglas Rushkoff, an American professor who runs a Team Human podcast chronicling AI developments, says: “If they really are using our behaviours to model what they do, and how they interact with us, and what they’re going for, then the only way to raise good AIs is for us to start acting good ourselves.’
Perhaps one reason why so many of us are fascinated by robots is that they are a reflection of the degree to which we have become robotic ourselves, divorced from our true nature. The greatest benefit of the AI revolution may be in awakening us to what truly distinguishes us from machines – our humanity.
Neville Hodgkinson is a UK-based author and journalist, and a long-time student of Rajyoga.