Considering the Human Future in the Age of Great Computers

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Steve Rothman
The Record (New Jersey)
January 4, 2019

Will self-learning computers, initially programmed by humans, continue to be governed by the judgments of our relatively slow-thinking homo sapiens species?

According to Yuval Noah Harari, whose three non-fiction books have each spent months on the best-seller lists, humans have created ever-more powerful computers to examine, draw patterns from and create more effective approaches to human productivity, health, happiness, longevity and perhaps immortality.

Among other questions, he asks:  What if the human-programmed mission for these computers causes those machines to shape the human experience itself?

Many theorists, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and the late Stephen Hawking, and others are concerned about a world turned over to computers to make all decisions for all individuals and societies.  Some other scholars believe these fears are overblown. But it is always wise to think about these problems in advance and to proceed with appropriate caution.

After all, given the very “humanness,” read emotional, at many times illogical, destructive and clearly avaricious human impulses and actions, it may be that computers—again, designed by humans to achieve our goals—may determine it is their mission-directed duty to take the reins of decision-making from us.

Just as we note that humans are far more civil, rational and productive than chimps and bonobos, perhaps these self-learning, ever-advanced computers will realize that homo sapiens should no longer be calling the shots about activities here on Earth or out into the universe.

I speak of a future dominated by computers with artificial intelligence capable of studying and learning from past human and machine errors, providing solutions to all problems. The fear is that these “solutions” may well involve the complete takeover of what information each individual receives about ourselves, each other, and the condition of the world and the universe.

It might be a future where most, if not all, tasks are accomplished by machines; where humans are relegated to a life of simulations, drug-induced pleasures, and immortality. It would be a personal world manipulated entirely by computers.

Lest anyone claim that I am missing the benefits to such a time, many are foreseeing the day when computers make a future for us without physical or emotional want.

They also predict that humans will be able to download each of our memories, individual knowledge and experiences into an “artificial body” of our own choosing, that will carry our “minds” for eternity, here on Earth and perhaps beyond.

While that scenario might sound appealing to some, those memories, knowledge and experiences might, nonetheless, be solely the product of the computers’ best “judgments” for what humans need to think about, as opposed to what we as individuals might like to ponder, according to our own, individual “free will.”

Even more harrowing is the question of whether these computers will still deem it necessary to keep purely flesh and blood humans around?  We do, after all, make a mess of many things.

As for me, a future without the carnal, poetic, adventurous, ambitious, daring, loving human spirit might be a future we’ll want to avoid.  Perhaps, that is a choice that our deepest thinkers, including our spiritual and ethical guides, can help us make for ourselves.

But the time for that choice is fast approaching.

As the theft of hundreds of millions of people’s personal data has recently been revealed, we know that all of human behavior is being analyzed by artificially intelligent computers tasked with the advancement of the programmer’s goals.

We know that these super-computers will eventually outpace us, exponentially, in their ability to crunch data and to offer or impose their “solutions” to our problems.

It is up to us to start thinking about how much control of this problem-solving we wish to turn over to these remarkable machines, and how, when and if we will allow that to happen.

Steven R. Rothman served eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is an attorney of 40 years and formerly served as Englewood Mayor and as the Bergen County Surrogate Court Judge. He resides in Englewood.