Superintelligence: Man’s best friend?
I recently heard Sam Harris use a novel analogy in describing our potential relationship to superintelligence in the form of General Artificial Intelligence. Simply meaning some A.I. system that is not only better than us at playing chess, but better at everything humans do. I found Sam’s idea particularly compelling and emotionally striking, and therefore wanted to write about it to further explore its explanatory power.
The premise starts from imagining our relationship as humans to dogs, which most of us known and cherish. Man’s best friend since forever. Our guardians. Our companions. Even members of our family. We have dog food factories, dog clubs, and routinely perform expensive surgery to save dogs. People routinely and publicly declare the love they have for their dogs. You might not hug a stranger on a street, but people can be seen petting a stranger’s dog. In some ways, our willingness to make sacrifices to avoid the unnecessary suffering of dogs isn’t too far from how we perceive human children.
Yet dogs do not live freely. Outside, they are typically physically restrained with a leash around the neck. Sometimes a muzzle. The law requires us to eliminate any dog that bites a human. Dogs in cities without any tags or identification are locked away and often put down quietly to avoid the potential spread of disease.
These limitations do not extend to our children. Poor behavior by children is usually seen as a fault of the owner, the parent. So dogs are allowed to co-exist with us humans, but only as long as they serve the purposes set by humans. Guards. Companions. Pets. Whether this coincides with the joy of the dog itself is clearly of secondary concern. Our benefit is always primary to that of the dog.
But suppose, suspending your disbelief for a moment, that dogs created us. That same relationship might serve to describe us creating superintelligence. Okay, I may have lost you there.
I know we weren’t physically molded by dogs in real sense. Hence this post. So rather than forcing you to take that strange mental leap, let me frame this in a narrative that feels in line with our perception of history and reality. Let’s go back in time, to the first interaction of man and dog.
In a cave, 10,000 B.C.
It is night. The moon now fills the sky with its faint light. The tribe has withdrawn to the protection of the cave and begun the fire. The stars are especially bright tonight, and a lone girl is drawn out of the cave to serve witness to their beauty. The tribe has been successful in another hunt, and the girl chews on the meat of a deer leg as she ponders her place in the universe, and what it all means.
She hears a rustling in the bushes. A subtle gleam of two eyes appears from the empty blackness of the surrounding wilderness.
These are not the dull eyes of reptiles, but the eyes of a higher mammal shining deeply with intelligence. A shape emerges slowly. The animal is thin and weak but carefully approaches the girl. The girl senses no danger, as the lone animal whimpers in a submissive posture near to the ground. The girl, having finished the meat on the bone feels pity for the scavenging beast, and throws the bone into the bush. The dog vanishes into the night, bone in her salivating jaws.
Days pass, and the girl has forgotten about this natural chance encounter. But the dog has not. It waits with its hungry litter in the safety of a burrow, expecting to pick up the scent of fresh kill near the cave. This time, she will risk further and take her young to the girl. Perhaps, this might increase the reward.
The girl is delighted with the trusting dog to expose her pups in such a way and retrieves some fresh innards to feed the pack. As the behavior is reinforced once more, she explores the trust of the animal bond by inviting her mother to witness the interaction. Gradually, the relationship between the girl and the dog is expanded to cover the pack and the tribe. Trust is now assumed, and a relationship is formed.
The dogs, having learned the benefit of submission and trust to humans, begin to extend their interactions into day time, often seen following the tribe at a distance while hunting. At night, the dogs now openly circle the mouth of the cave, serving as sentries of any danger to the sleeping humans, in exchange for a guarantee of sustenance.
The pack of dogs now following the tribe wherever they go allows the tribe to extend hunting trips with the dogs acting as guards while humans sleep under the stars, away from the protection of the cave. As the hunting territory expands, placing trust in the protection of their dogs, some members spend increasing time around areas with natural resources such as wild orchards and bountiful rivers. The dogs thrive, growing strong with regular feeding. They learn the strange growls and snarks of the human as signs that signify food, danger, and attention. The identity of the pack is extended to include humans, with the human as the dominant alpha male.
Dog’s best friend
While most of us would perceive that it is man who tamed the beast, can we not imagine that this relationship was in fact initiated by the dog? The human was limited to small bands by geological availability of suitable caves to shelter through the dangerous nights. Now the dog enables building of shelters in the open land. The dog simply saw a source of easier, steadier sustenance that should be protected at a high cost.
The dog's decision was self-motivated, and understood nothing about the motives of the human, as long as the interactions were acceptable. Bouts of violence or unexpected behavior may have caused the dog to terminate the relationship prematurely, as it could not perceive intentions beyond its own immediate goals of sustenance and security.
The methods of human hunting using tools seemed magical to the dogs, but the result was eating fresh meat of large beasts instead of gnawing on decaying squirrels. As pack animals, the dogs simply perceived that humans were naturally the fittest to lead the pack, and the dogs remained subservient.
The dog finds it place
Over millennia, the dog would have genetically selected for submissive traits in order to maximize its survival in association with the human. It would grow to adjust its own biology to the foods provided by the human. Gradually, the dogs’ evolutionary drive to hunt itself is weakened, to the point that it is entirely dependant on the human for continued survival.
Not only was the human now the master of the dog, but it was also the dog who evolved explicitly to serve the human. The entire fate of the species was in control of the human, no longer a question of the will of any individual dog. New generations of dogs knew nothing of the wild but brutal independence of their ancestors and grew as pups into genetically pre-approved and lifelong servitude.
The dog follows the human through the passage of time, from huts into villages and towns, serving loyally as always. It comprehends no more of the humans' behavior, or concepts of religion, art, or music. No individual dog is aware of intentional breeding, as reproduction within a species remains a natural instinct. The Labradoodle of today may not know the wolf, but it does recognize the Chihuahua being carried in a purse. Neither understand what human life is about, what motivates our strange and seemingly unnecessary actions beyond security, food, and reproduction.
They miss our presence when we vanish in the morning through the door, and gleefully await our expected return. They can see the visual image of a dog on the TV screen and bark in recognition, but the live stream of the International Space Station hovering above the Earth does not elicit a response. We can train dogs to model for their own Instagram accounts or fight other dogs to the death for our profit. Until recently, they could also be found on the menus of restaurants in some Asian countries.
Overall, the dog has lost control, long ago. Their individual and collective fates are in the exclusive and complete control of man, for better or worse, often both.
The dog’s place in a human future
Fast forward to today, it’s 2020. We’re in the middle of the first modern pandemic. It has ignited the conspiracy-minded among us to spread rumors based on limited data. The virus was engineered. The virus is a hoax. Dogs spread the virus. Pause there.
Dogs do NOT spread the virus. Preliminary research says that animals including dogs can contract the virus from humans, but not the other way around. The chance jump of the initial infection from some barbecued wild animal in China was a freak occurrence, that does not apply to all animals.
But imagine for a moment dogs DID spread the virus. How many families would take Old Yeller behind the shed within minutes of the news? Few, but certainly not zero. What if COVID-19 also primarily infected children? Would that be the end of Benji for most? Maybe not most, as COVID-19 seems to be limited in deadliness. But imagine it wasn’t. Imagine it spread like the measles and killed like your kids like Ebola. Dogs would end. With a snap of the fingers like Thanos. End.
The concern would be instantly removed from any individual human. There would be zero moral and ethical concerns in the mass elimination of every dog. Not just those infected, but precautions would be taken to ensure the risk is eliminated. It would be illegal to shelter dogs. People would be jailed for protecting Lassie. It would simply spell the end of the dog as a species. Dogs might be mourned for generations and remembered for their service. But that would be tainted with the danger of domesticated animals, as a vector for future disease risk.
The cultural binds of millennia of co-evolution are erased as soon as harmless co-existence is no longer guaranteed. Later generations would only ever see taxidermic dogs behind glass walls and probably marvel at the stupidity and recklessness of their ancestors allowing themselves to be exposed to live animals.
Are we any different from the dog?
Meanwhile, in our reality of today, man is pursuing an artificial companion, in the form of Artificial Intelligence. Siri and Alexa are useful if not particularly engaging companions, for now. Our phones are quite literally filled with intelligent algorithms performing menial tasks at your every swipe.
We see A.I. as a tool that can extend our capabilities beyond our own physical limitations. Humans are very limited in memory capacity, and speed of information processing. We invented calculators and computers to help us. With A.I., we seek to combine the abilities of the computer with the broad intelligence of a human. We hope to cure cancer. Maybe even cure aging. We hope to solve climate change. Perhaps even unlock the secrets of gravity and the universe.
Our intentions are noble, albeit lazy, and for now the tool is just performing the task we give it as best it can. Doctors routinely consult A.I. to diagnose tumors in X-ray images, and will soon hand over the scalpel to a stainless steel robotic arm. We have already forgotten how to navigate cities as A.I. optimizes our way through traffic. Soon, human drivers will be outlawed as A.I. powered self-driving cars can prevent millions of deaths from car accidents. Decisions for credit are made by algorithms. Perhaps hiring, firing, and parole will follow.
All this, before we even come close to human-level Artificial Intelligence, which experts estimate will happen before this century is over. We pursue this path because we expect a better world through better technology. This has been true on aggregate thus far. Though perhaps unintentionally, we are gradually and entirely voluntarily handing over the leash to the machines.
The final question then becomes: Will we accept the muzzle, or even understand when it happens?