Is AI going to be the piece of the puzzle that finally allows us to understand consciousness? Maybe. The score at this point of the game is AI-0 humans-1 in the game of self-awareness. I am very excited to see this game play out. Certain people like Sam Harris raise valid concerns regarding the implications of what may happen if/when we crack the code of consciousness and more specifically if we do so unwittingly, without acknowledging the possibility that we may stumble upon a self-aware system in tandem with creating functional AI. As monumental of an AH HA moment as that would be it could leave us at a significant disadvantage in dealing with unforeseen repercussions of the discovery.
I am at a loss to envision another for of experiment that would identify the boundaries, causes, and necessary ingredients to consciousness other than replicating ourselves and seeing at which point self-awareness emerges (or if it even would). As much as it seems like we have the fundamental understanding of the human brain necessary to exclude the likeliness of certain possibilities, until we identify the flash point of consciousness we cannot completely dismiss the possibility that there may be more to it than we can currently account for.
My personal hypotheses aside, history has shown us the dangers of aggressively pursuing knowledge and discovery in the absence of an equivalently serious exploration of contingency planning for the fallout (literally in the case of the atomic bomb). These possibilities are endlessly explored throughout the sci-fi genre. Skynet is an unfamiliar term to very few people, particularly those who are prone to exposure to this subject matter. Even in a best case scenario it would be psychotically irresponsible to continue to create something on par with AI, which the CEO of Google just likened to a discovery more significant than mans discovery of fire, without as mature and sober of a discussion as humanly possible.
To avoid voyaging down previously blazed trails I would like to explore one specific possibility that could emerge from functional artificial intelligence being created without it resulting in a fully sentient being. If there is some currently unknown component to consciousness that will prevent it from spontaneously emerging during the creation of general intelligence, then the possibility exists that the creation of AI will still find humanity in the role of arbiter. What will the best application of this technology be? Solving our biggest problems and asking the questions we have not yet thought to ask seems like a noble task to set the AI to. How do we cure our diseases? End our social shortcomings like war, wealth disparity, and world hunger! Create optimum strategies for advancement of all of humanities best ideals. The legal and political systems would be great candidates for massive rethinks, as would any traditional process that is as prone to error and corruption as those are. Imagine an impartial superintelligence acting as mediator for global conflicts. Coming up with forward thinking strategies to end wars in ways that are best possible outcomes for all, and implementing these strategies without the parties involved even realizing that the strategies deployed for resolution were not their own.
If AI reaches these levels of capabilities without becoming self-aware then it will be even more critical to funnel the deployment of this technology with the most extreme ethical considerations possible. Every major player in the AI game would have to make an unbreakable commitment to an ethical agreement (which would best be drafted by an AI ironically) that would confine the use and implementation of AI to only those arenas that would be mutually agreeable as beneficial for all. If this agreement does not restrict use to an appropriate degree then we will begin to see the potential of weaponized AI. Incidents of fraud and misinformation would be the most trite offenses compared to a worst case scenario. Since humans achieved self-awareness our intelligence has been our superpower. Our collective knowledge has been our finishing move against every threat we have faced as a species. What will our defense be against our own creation that came into being with the sole purpose of surpassing our cognitive limitations?
To end on a positive note I am truly excited for the possibilities that will emerge from a synthesis of AI with our inherited consciousness. I enjoy the current state of this situation every day. I feel like a kid with a toy from the future every time I ask Alexa to play a song or answer a question and she does so accurately with some level of personality. I am well aware that her quips in response to my questions and comments are pre-programmed and are not able to be associated with a true personality… yet.
Time will tell if we will ultimately be the arbiters of AI or simply a predecessor to its emergence. If we end up the latter I can only imagine that it will be the result of recklessness on our part. Ideally if we succeed in creating our successor it will embody the best of us. Humans tend to become more compassionate in the presence of knowledge and familiarity. Our worst characteristics are amplified in moments of fear and ignorance. My hope is that because of the prerequisite intellect that will be required to ultimately succeed in creating AI that we will imbue our best traits into it. My hope is that Sundar Pichai is correct, and not only will this be the most significant progression humanity has made to this point, but that it will serve as a guiding light as to how we can be the best possible version of ourselves