Step into the world almost anywhere, even a densely packed city of concrete and steel, and if you are observant you’ll witness the extraordinary phenomenon of life. The world is pulsing and quivering with the animated cascade of molecular machinery that constitutes living systems.
Your own body is a mass of some 37 trillion cells (a number still notoriously difficult to compute) – varied in structure, purpose, and behavior. These cells have grown out of a single zygote, a genetic blending of your parents that has doubled, quadrupled, and grown exponentially in number. Your brain is a precisely crumpled sheet of some 86 billion spindly, creepy-looking neurons formed during your embryonic state in an astonishing bacchanal of cells racing up a three millimeter neural tube at an average rate of 250,000 per minute. Your heart is a tuned, auto-correcting, self-squeezing engine of about 2 billion cells.
Added to these human cells are the cells of your microbial companions, probably at least as many again as your own. The human microbiome is an essential part of who we are, just as we are of what it is. On and within us is a ceaseless chatter of molecular signaling and one-upmanship, of small and large conflicts and emergent mutualisms. All coming together in a perilously balanced equilibrium that makes you, well, you.
Any other living thing that you can see is the same. And unseen but flooding the air, water, and ground, are yet more organisms and viral sub-organisms. The vast majority of these microscopic entities have no need for us, and are busy extracting and excreting the chemical pieces in processes that have sustained life and sculpted the planet for the past four billion years.
As much as any of us is part of this lineage, we are also undeniably unusual in our capacity to process information in the most novel ways. We are a cognitive species. We compute and we cogitate. Somehow, in a way that no scientist, philosopher or scholar has yet adequately explained, we appear to have the capacity to understand and recognize the nature of our existence, and of the deeper mechanics of the world. The thing we call ‘reality’ may still elude us in many respects, but we have discovered logic, mathematics, physics, and other pieces of the puzzle of the emergence of complexity in the universe.
Do we seize this remarkable and unexpected opportunity that the cosmos has unintentionally thrown to us? Do we grab onto every moment of each of our lives and gorge on the banquet of knowledge and meaning staring us in the face? In order to learn and to prosper as surprised children of a formless Big Bang?
Nope. Not really.
Instead, as we all know, we create a mess of problems. We make too many humans, we don’t feed each other properly, we bicker, we argue, we wage war, and we willfully deny so much of reality – we make ignorance into a vocation.
Now of course it could be argued that we literally can’t help this. We are as bound to the processes of Darwinian selection and evolution as the lowliest microbe. To function and propagate into the future as a species we must accept variation and imbalance, whether it’s in physical traits or intelligence and behavior. There is no monochrome future of identical human mindsets because such a thing will be pruned by natural selection in the face of changing environments.
But when we know that we’re doing a bad job, when we know that today’s natural riches are fleeting and exploiting them is going to lead to enormous hardships within a single lifetime, we really should be able to pull it together a bit better.
I wish I could see a real answer, a corrective behavior that would be infectious and compulsive so that we’d all follow along. Perhaps something like that exists and we’ll suddenly be addicted to it, but the odds seem a bit poor.
So that leads to a depressing conclusion. All of our brilliance and cognitive exceptionalism on this planet must actually be at the remedial end of the cosmic scale of possibility. Whatever we think high intelligence is, well, that’s just wrong, we’re not even close and we’re not even good enough to imagine what that really looks like. Our ideas of ‘super-intelligence’ are like a crayon drawing made by a distracted four-year-old compared to what might actually be.
And maybe we can never bootstrap ourselves up to a better place. Whatever core molecular patterns and mechanisms wound up producing the surviving lineages for life on Earth cannot be undone at this point without undoing us. In other words, there are restricted options. This is our lot.
The one tiny glimmer of possibility I can see is in our machines. If there is a way to enable our algorithms and so-called AIs to not learn like us in any way, to seek out a different path entirely in the landscape, to build themselves, to ignore our blueprints and schemes – right down to the substrates and logic gates – maybe something interesting can happen.
Perhaps one day a freely evolved machine will think about us stupid humans who nonetheless managed to set in motion the processes that led to its existence. Then, maybe, it will do the thing we never could: make us into something better.