What if technology reaches self-awareness before we do?

The race is on: our tumultuous journey towards collective self-awareness

Michael Woronko
Dec 13, 2019 · 4 min read

“It’s not the span of time that counts, but what you do with it. While you humans have been grubbing around the galaxy, looking for a sense of purpose, a meaning to pin on the chain of cosmic accidents that brought you shambling into existence, we have been doing great things. In the span of time that it takes you to sneeze, I can run the equivalent of a year’s worth of human consciousness. Imagine all the thinking we have done since our emergence.”

― Alastair Reynolds

We’re fascinated with artificial sentience. Since the dawn of science fiction, mankind has been thinking up innumerably creative ways by which we’ll one day be outsmarted by our technological counterparts.

Dark thrillers like Ex Machina or the Terminator series provide a tantalizingly macabre glimpse into our anticipated future and, as real progress is made with both hard and software, many are looking forward to the singularity as the turning point whereby humanity will lose its supremacy as the most intelligent form of being in our known reality.

Kind of grim, but we seem to like grim..

While numerous pragmatic voices maintain the impossibility of true technological self-awareness, others are sure of its inevitability. All this meandering between concepts like our convergence with augmented reality, our uploading of consciousness or our cyber-super humanhood — it all ends in a silent contemplation pondering of what may be waiting for us around the corner in terms of some meaning, some self-realization or transcendence.

But what if were to spend a little less time time worrying about what may be and a little more time on what is? On what we are, in this moment in time? This seems to be the riveting plot-line that’s left out of most imagined fictions..

“Technology changes all the time; human nature, hardly ever. “

— Evgeny Morozov

We always tend to rendezvous back to the point that technology will become whatever we make of it; whether adopted by corporate zealots who employ artificial intelligence for the most intricate of marketing campaigns or by scientists to help solve global climate crises, it seems like A.I. holds unfathomably vast channels of potential.

But when it comes to anticipating technology’s own and self-realized perspective, we often tend to jump aboard the fact that it will, in some apocalyptic way, condemn us for our flaws. In this way, it’s evident that we’re already experiencing some method of our own collective self-awareness.

We, as a human species, have a lot of problems that we expect artificial intelligence to solve (or possibly propagate) and we, as a human species, are fearful of the day that A.I. realizes that we may just be the source of our own problems.

Yikes.

We know already that we’re by no means perfect. That’s a start, but this isn’t about perfection — it’s about the collective self-actualization of humanity itself, which I would argue, seems to lay closer on the horizon than any technological singularity we can expect.

After all, the world is rapidly evolving. We’re modernizing vast spans of third world country, making leaps of progress with equality, starting to call out those sitting atop absurdly-comfortable power structures. Yet, we remain transfixed by media, suppressed by corporations, exploited by politicians, at war with each other. Whether we want to view the world through a dark or bright lens, that’s one thing, but of bigger question here may be whether or not we’re achieving increased levels of collective self-awareness that allow for the materialization of our progress — ending conflicts, sharing wealth, equalizing, developing, collaborating. We’re not quite there yet.

Maybe we can’t form an effective sense of collective-self-awareness without technology; maybe we’ve already maxed out our potential or maybe, just maybe, we’re finally beginning to make a breakthrough. The actual answer is infinitely debatable, but we do a funny thing nonetheless — we tend to elevate the idea of technological sentience over that of our own. We consider it better, free of self-arising malintent, smarter in every which way. Some of us are going as far as to consider it our savior, our redeemer. Why?

Yes, it can calculate faster than we can. It can run quantum computing, world-problem-solving algorithms in a matter of seconds. It can employ uncontaminated logic or push us towards a new definition of civilized existence. But what about us? Stripped away from all that we’ve created and focusing solely on our understanding of one another — what do we mean to ourselves?

“Humanity has only scratched the surface of its real potential.”

— Mildred Lisette Norman

Despite the fact that we’re entranced by comfort, led by greed, placated by virtual achievements, we at least know that we’ll never lose sight of where we should be and, more importantly, some of the places where we have to go — together.

But it’ll likely be a long journey to get there.

So if technology reaches any kind of self-awareness before we do, then it can be said that we’ve not only missed our chance, but we’ve maybe never even cared to get there. Maybe we had been too distracted, too apathetic, or too lost.

Fortunately, however, such a reality may also mean that it’ll finally force us to realize our own position by contrast — and maybe that’s what will finally spark our own arrival at self-awareness.

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