If you go deep down the rabbit hole of AI, you will eventually find yourself.
Quite literally. You are an AI. Half mammal, half cyborg.
I could end this here as a short poem. However, this post is not intended as poetry, but as education.
Let’s get down to it!
Humans are by nature vulnerable and weak. The reason why the human species has survived for as long as it has, lies in our ability to communicate with each other. This ability helped our forefathers to collaborate, and by collaborating, surviving.
I assume that everyone reading this has the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs sorted out. Mere survival is no longer a major problem for us. We live safely away from wild predatory animals, have food and drinks readily available in a local convenience shop, and we live sheltered from the crude forces of nature.
In Tim Urban’s long-form article about Neuralink, he sprints through life’s evolution from sponges to human civilization. The key to evolution of life on earth has always been the processing and sharing of information. From nerve systems in jellyfishes 580 million years B.C. to the invention of human language, and beyond. Language was a major breakthrough in the advancement of humanity. As Tim Urban explains:
“Language gives a group of humans a collective intelligence far greater than individual human intelligence and allows each human to benefit from the collective intelligence as if he came up with it all himself.”
Many breakthroughs in information distribution have followed since, writing, the printing press, radio, television, computers, the internet, and social media, each advancing communication between people, and thereby the growth and distribution of collective intelligence. With each breakthrough, a wave of innovation has followed in all areas, sectors, and industries, both locally and globally.
The growth of collective intelligence followed by the advancement of humanity can be explained by “the network effect” – to borrow a concept from tech:
“The network effect is a phenomenon whereby increased numbers of people or participants improve the value of a good or service.“
Tim Urban calls the expanding body of collective knowledge “the Human Colossus”. I will refer to it as “the Collective Super Mind”. As we know, the term is becoming more and more synonymous with data stored on the internet.
So, two points are established now: 1) Survival in nature is no longer a big concern for me or you. 2) Human knowledge is gathered in the Collective Super Mind.
The term “AI” still has no well-accepted definition.
Originally, the term “Artificial Intelligence” was proposed by John McCarthy during a conference at Dartmouth in 1956. John McCarthy organized the initial meeting:
“to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.“
There are two parts to the definition: “artificial” and “intelligence”.
“Artificial” is less controversial, and more straightforward – “something made by people rather than nature”.
“Intelligence” is a much more difficult term to pin down. Defining “intelligence” implies that we understand how the human brain works which we don’t – not by a long shot.
Renowned philosopher David Chalmers described the problem in his paper Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness where he distinguishes between easy problems of consciousness that can be explained scientifically and hard problems of consciousness that relate to the experience of something. Neurobiologists and computer scientists are quickly making progress toward understanding the easy problems by observing different phenomena, but WHY people have phenomenal experiences remains a metaphysical mystery.
Artificial Intelligence vs Natural Intelligence
For the purpose of this post, I will propose a new, broader definition of AI: AI is the Collective Super Mind.
Human language, thought systems, concepts, everything that can be thought of and formulated in language is “artificial”. Any idea or thought that I can convey from my brain to yours or vice versa is not natural. Simply because neither you nor I can experience it with our senses, and we cannot have a common, or bodily experience of it.
Natural intelligence on the other hand is biological intelligence. The forces of nature. A beating heart, a plant growing, a dog barking, and the sun shining is all driven by natural intelligence. Our five senses, feelings, and emotions are natural intelligence since they are connected with the body. We can observe these phenomena, but explaining what drives natural intelligence is a hard problem of consciousness beyond our comprehension.
Our interpretation of the digital pixels we see on the screens is artificial intelligence, while the atoms in themselves are made by natural intelligence. Art and science are made from artificial intelligence. Take a caveman from 50.000 years ago and show him the internet, it would be meaningless to him. Or watch a movie with your dog, it has no conception of what is going on. But if you kick the dog or give it a treat, you can be sure to get a reaction. That is natural intelligence setting in.
Yours and my time frame are measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. Nature’s time frame is measured in generations, centuries, millennia, eons. The human concept of time is artificial, only meaningful because we have a common conception of it. The same could be said for money, political structures, etc.
In accordance with John McCarthy’s initial idea of Artificial Intelligence quoted above, every concept a human can express in language can be expressed in the form of computer code. So, the entire base of human knowledge can be taught to a machine.
Can a machine be taught natural intelligence? This is where the distinction gets tricky. We have bioengineering, CRISPR, animal cloning, etc. Still, I am tempted to say no, that is never possible. Since a machine does not have a body to experience the world with, machines are by definition unable to replicate the core of natural intelligence. If a machine can experience the world like you and I do, it no longer falls under our definition of artificial intelligence, but natural intelligence.
Unless that is the case, a machine can per definition never be conscious. Donald Hoffman’s theory that “reality is an illusion” supports this case. According to Hoffman, we are only experiencing “the interface layer” of reality, and have no access or capability to understand “the backend workings”. Like in the plot of the Matrix.
For all these years, scientists have been searching for the holy grail of AI research: Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). Imagine the plot twist, if they have been looking for it in the wrong place – because they ARE it.
The Collective Super Mind
If the idea of a Collective Super Mind seems too far out, give it some time.
Human intelligence is merging more and more with the internet. In the words of Elon Musk
“The thing that people, I think, don’t appreciate right now is that they are already a cyborg. You’re already a different creature than you would have been twenty years ago or even ten years ago. You’re already a different creature. You can see this when they do surveys of like, “how long do you want to be away from your phone?” and—particularly if you’re a teenager or in your 20s—even a day hurts. If you leave your phone behind, it’s like missing limb syndrome. I think people—they’re already kind of merged with their phone and their laptop and their applications and everything.”
It is well-documented scientifically that the internet alters the human brain. With all of the benefits that come with the expansion of collective knowledge, “the online brain” influences human attention capacity, memory processes, and social cognition. In 2010, while the pre-internet days were still clear in memory, writer Nicholas Carr, described his experience with excessive internet use and lacking capacity for attention:
“Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
But it gets worse. In the early 2020s, internet addiction is a global pandemic of the mind. On average we spend more time online than we sleep. Especially the younger generation, brought up on a diet of Instagram and TikTok, suffers from low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and stress in the offline world.
What countermeasures can we take to protect our brains?
Going completely “off the grid” is obviously not the answer in 2022 when internet access is becoming a human right.
As my regular readers would know, I am a spokesperson for Web 3.0 solutions that can help to mitigate the “attention economy” by moving power away from private intermediary companies to public open networks. But it is utopian to think that a new, more decentralized web is the be-all and end-all answer to a global mental health crisis caused by internet addiction.
A more powerful, radically futuristic measure against the negative effects of internet addiction could be a new medium to distribute the internet: neural laces.
Neural laces are essentially brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). Devices that can facilitate communication between the brain and a computer. BCIs have been in use for more than a decade, particularly in the healthcare sector. Via a chip implanted in the brain, computers can monitor and interpret the patient’s neurological activity. Among other use cases, BCIs help paralyzed patients regain mobility in limb body parts or move a cursor on a screen via electrical brain impulses.
Like BCIs, neural laces are chips implanted in the brain, but wirelessly, and on healthy non-patients, with the purpose of providing them with a biological access point to the internet. With neural laces, we may be able to teleport thoughts, communicate without speaking or typing, move objects with our mind on “the internet-of-things”, and receive instant answers to our search quests without googling. Neural laces will extinguish the need for laptops, tablets, or smartphones altogether.
The concept of neural laces belonged in science fiction novels for many years. But in 2015, a group of nano engineers and chemists managed to inject and fully integrate microscopic electronic components into the brain of a living mouse with a syringe (see the paper here). The mouse’s brain completely accepted and assimilated with the mechanical components without damage, while computers could monitor its brain activity.
Among other companies, Elon Musk’s Neuralink is working towards developing neural laces. Although the idea of having a foreign object implanted in the brain seems foreign to us, it’s worth remembering that the idea of social media or internet addiction would probably have creeped out our grandparent’s grandparents. Chances are that in the future we will no longer spend time on the internet or use AI, we will literally BE it. In time neural laces could even turn civilization into a hive mind like Rick’s lover Unity in the Rick and Morty series.
Most likely, none of us will know.
Of course, there are substantial technical and ethical barriers on the way. And before the grand ambition can be realized, some very interesting legal questions need to be answered. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to imagine that much of the knowledge we take for granted today and derive a sense of identity from may eventually fall under the domain of artificial intelligence, a part of the Collective Super Mind.
 Network Effect Definition from Investopedia: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/n/network-effect.asp (06-08-2022).
 Ryan Abbott (June 2020), The Reasonable Robot: Artificial Intelligence and the Law, pg. 23.
 Ibid., pg. 26.
 From Tim Urban (April 2017), Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future (06-08-2022).
 Firth et al. (June 2019), The “online brain”: how the Internet may be changing our cognition, published in World Psychiatry. 2019 Jun; 18(2): 119–129.
 Nicholas Carr (2010) The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, pg. 6.
 Simon Kemp (Jan 2022), Digital 2022: Global Overview Report -> https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2022-global-overview-report (08-08-2022).
 Ahmet Akin & Murat Iskender (January 2011), Internet addiction and depression, anxiety, and stress.
 Thomas Frey (June 2016), Creating the World’s First Neural Lace Network -> https://futuristspeaker.com/technology-trends/creating-the-worlds-first-neural-lace-network/ (07-08-2022).