During the European Enlightenment the human body was thought of as a kind of clock. That was because the dominant technology of those days was mechanical engineering. Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock in the 1600s, and in the following decades and centuries, all across Europe, the miraculous ticking of interconnected gears and springs felt akin to the periodic and cyclical nature of human biology, and indeed of the whole universe. God was thought of as an architect, or an engineer. Everything in the cosmos was placed by Him in perfect relation to everything else; an idea often referred in philosophy as “determinism”. The human brain was mechanical too, and excreted thoughts and feelings - as other machines excreted gases or fluids – powered by a mystical “soul”. This metaphor for the body and mind mutated by the late 20th century, as western societies rejected religion and adopted a new form of technology: computers.
Computers seemed to do “smart” things, like manipulating numbers, which was something that only humans were able to do till then. Computers did so by codifying a calculating process into a “program” that could then be “executed” on a machine. The program was called “software” and the machine “hardware”. The “smart” part of computing lay in the software, because that was where the knowledge of solving a problem resided. The hardware was important of course, but one could imagine all kinds of hardware, not necessarily built with silicon chips and electronics but with billiard balls, light bulbs, paper clips, whatever. This curious juxtaposition between hardware and software led to the following conclusion: that we can engineer intelligent behaviour as long as we code the right programs (or “algorithms”); executing those algorithms was of secondary importance and independent of the physical substrate. As long as you had a smart algorithm you had intelligence, not unlike having a smart genie that you could then place inside any bottle, or lamp, etc.
Thinking of intelligence as something independent of the physical substrate (the “hardware”) was an idea that originated in computing but nowadays dominates our everyday thinking. We are using the computing metaphor in our everyday speech, as if it is a given. Our brains are the “hardware”, and our minds the “software”. We are thinking of Artificial Intelligence as computers becoming more and more “intelligent” because of algorithms.
The computer metaphor has led people like Stephen Hawing and Max Tegmark suggest that the future of humanity is to “upload” our consciousness onto computers and free ourselves from the frailty and perishable nature of biological bodies; thus bequeathing the keys of biological, and cosmic, evolution to our computer descendants. This is the main thesis of Life 3.0, the new book by Max Tegmark, although the idea is not new and was also explored in the Anthropic Principle by John Barrow and Frank Tippler published in 1988.
Unfortunately, such thinking is fallacious. That’s because these otherwise smart people confuse the computer metaphor of software versus hardware as the real thing. Like people in the Enlightement who thought of the human body as a clock powered by an immaterial soul, Tegmark et al regard the self as an immaterial algorithm trapped inside a biological prison. Such thinking is also irrational because it has not being substantiated by any scientific evidence. In fact, the contrary is true: neuroscience and neurobiology show that intelligence is inextricable from the physical aspects of the brain. “We” are not an algorithm. We are unitary biological creatures.
Confusing metaphor with reality would have been unremarkable if it was not for how it frames the current debate on Artificial Intelligence. When powerful, successful and intelligent people adopt the metaphor when speaking publically about the future of AI they offer validation to a fallacy that could have serious consequences in the economy, society and politiics. Artificial Intelligence is not intelligence but an imitation of intelligence. AI is imitation because it fools us into believing it is the real thing. This idea of “imitation” is fundamental in AI, and was put forward since the beginning from none other than Alan Turing. In his “Imitation Game” paper he suggests how a computer could fool us into believing it was a human.
Once we adopt the computer metaphor without thinking then we render ourselves incapable of distinguishing between reality and the imitation of reality. As a result we are talking about AI “ethics”, or AI “bias”, as if they were real. They are not. Machines cannot have ethics, or uphold values, or have opinions or preferences. These words only have meaning to creatures like us, with the ability of self-refection. It is because we can examine the content and meaning of our thinking that we can decide between right and wrong. Self-refection is a property of biology. Machines cannot have self-reflection, and that is what will forever differentiate them from us. But if they manage to fool us into believing that they have, then we are in danger of becoming dependent on their suggestions. Instead of us reflecting on our actions and thoughts we will trust those “intelligent” know-it-alls to suggest what is right and wrong, whom to parter with and whom to marry, what to do and how to act. And that is where the real danger with AI ethics lies: in that it may replace human personal and moral decisions with mechanical alibi, infantalizing humans forevermore.