AI is about to become a tool with godlike powers. What does that mean for humans? This article explores the profound human identity crisis that arises as a result of AI’s advancements and discusses the need for adaptation in the face of a technological leap.
The Great Human Identity Crisis
“For four billion years the ecological system of planet earth contained only organic life forms and now—or soon—we might see the emergence of the first inorganic lifeforms, or, at the very least, of inorganic agents,” said Yuval Noah Harari, a keen observer of new technologies such as AI, during a recent keynote speech.
However, AI will not only challenge the meaning of earth’s ecological system, but also transform the essence of human existence. In this article, I argue that humanity must confront a significant identity crisis in order to adapt to the forthcoming technological leap that AI promises to bring.
“Soon we might see the emergence of the first inorganic life forms.”Yuval Noah Harari
What Does It Mean to Be Human?
First, let’s examine our current position, our trajectory, and why the question of “what makes us human?” has transitioned from being solely philosophical to becoming a practical concern.
Presently, AI has the capability to convincingly create and manipulate text, audio, and video content. The advancement of video generation technology is expected to be swift and transformative. Consider this: the TV show you loved but was cancelled years ago? Imagine being able to drag and drop your favorite episodes into an AI application that can generate countless new “classic” episodes. Similarly, when provided with a chat history and photo archive, an AI application could potentially ‘resurrect’ deceased loved ones (e.g. ‘grief-tech’ is actively working on this). Of course, the tech will be used to create fakes with malicious intentions. But most of all we need to be aware that it could create desirable fakes. For example, chances are that the porn industry will be among the early adopters of text-to-video AI.
In fact, AI already surpasses humans in numerous areas, and due to its rapidly self-improving nature, it may soon excel in almost every imaginable domain. It could also develop qualities that were previously thought to be exclusively human.
Let’s look at some traits that are traditionally assumed human:
- Being able to feel complex emotions? Sure, it might forever remain a philosophical question whether a machine is able to feel anything. From a practical standpoint, it is a question of nervous receptors, brain chemistry, and other agents that could be simulated by a combination of hardware and software features.
- Being conscious? Again, the question of consciousness is a largely philosophical one. In psychology, consciousness has been defined by the qualities of sensory perception, mental imagery, inner speech, conceptual thought, remembering, emotional feeling, volition, and self-awareness. Most of these qualities can already be exhibited by AI models. Insiders, including DeepMind’s CEO, do not dismiss the possibility that AI might become self-aware one day.
- Having a body? Physicality really is a trait of all lifeforms and could easily be acquired by AI. Just think of robots.
- Reproduction? Combine AGI with CRISPR/Cas9 and other technologies developed for genetic manipulation, and you essentially enter the realm of Huxley’s Brave New World, where individual humans are completely detached from the process of reproduction
- Being mortal? Long thought of as a most basic, unifying human quality, even mortality is ‘threatened’ by AI. I’m not referring to chatbots that continue to post on Twitter after we die. Think about life-prolonging technologies (FYI: aging has recently been reversed in lab mice for the first time) and hardwired ‘brain-backups’ that might enable us to create immortal surrogates.
With AI taking over more and more of our tasks and qualities as the ones mentioned above suddenly being on the table for not being uniquely human anymore, we find ourselves confronted with questions such as: What will the relationship between humans and inorganic lifeforms look like? What will we even need humans for? And what will we do with our time?
Sure, most people wouldn’t mind outsourcing their spreadsheets and tax declaration forms to a machine. If it can do it better and quicker than a human, why not? Surely, we will always excel over machines in the arts. But wait! AI is already being utilized to create astonishing pieces of art, it can recreate the style of Shakespeare or Van Gogh more convincingly than a lifelong student, it can surprise with originality that shows awareness of context, and chances are that customized AI-created art will become increasingly competitive.
So even our age-old desire to create art for arts sake is to some extent challenged by artificial intelligence. It is reasonable to anticipate that ongoing advances in AI will continuously redefine what it means to be human, ultimately leading to an identity crisis for humanity.
What can we do? Maybe we’ll have to redefine what it means to be human.
“Today, we find ourselves significantly detached from our roots as multifaceted and multitalented beings”
In a future where AI handles most mundane tasks, humans are liberated to explore the depths of their potential. In the best-case-scenario, we can redirect our energy towards cultivating our unique interests and abilities.
Homo sapiens were never designed to perform the same task for eight or more hours a day, whether it be plowing a field or working on spreadsheets! Biologically, we are meant to walk at least 20 kilometers every day, acquire a diverse set of skills—from reading tracks to making tools—enjoy a varied diet, and spend our nights gazing at the stars, allowing them to ignite our imagination. Despite the risks of typhoid and other ailments that modern science has eliminated, the life of a hunter-gatherer was not all that bad. However, today, we find ourselves significantly detached from our roots as multifaceted and multitalented beings with an inherent thirst for learning and understanding, living in a world of microplastics, professional specialization, and global financial transactions.
In a way, we could utilize AI to find back to our roots. We can explore new avenues to enhance our mental and physical well-being, strive for maximum alignment with our natural biorhythms, and perhaps even contemplate abandoning daylight savings and other questionable inventions of peak-human control…
Let the robots attend to our material concerns, so we can embrace our human essence! And if there is one thing that I am convinced of, it is that learning and education will never cease. Just like art, they arise from a deep desire within us that transcends the era we live in. We will always continue to learn; however, the subjects we learn may evolve. Consider this: in the context of real life as experienced by the majority of Homo sapiens throughout history, skills like cooking or sewing hold considerably greater value than the ability to solve differential equations or acquire extensive knowledge of the legal system. Yet, if we observe how society values the work of a lawyer versus that of a cook, we might find our current societal perspective to be flawed. Perhaps the wickedness lies in our failure to recognize truly valuable skills.
If we can reinvent humanity as a collective of beings who strive to reconnect with our biological dispositions, then experiencing a temporary identity crisis may not be too high a price to pay.
The power to shape our future lies firmly in our hands. After all, like any technology, AI is merely a tool, and it is up to us to determine how we wield it.
From the Toolbox of Gods
Yes, AI is just a tool. But it is an incredibly powerful tool. It has the capacity to fulfill almost any imaginable task and more. It can debug itself and possesses the potential to solve problems that might otherwise leave humanity stuck in the bottleneck of evolution.
It’s of utmost importance that we use this tool responsibly. And by that, I don’t mean “regulate the shit out of it”. Recent regulatory efforts can be seen as a business strategy aiming at enabling market leaders to limit competition. Meanwhile, open-source AI projects like Vicuna are rapidly advancing and already achieving 90% of the quality of ChatGPT. Moreover, it is questionable whether a new software model can be fully regulated. Imagine if only one company were allowed to produce operating systems, anti-virus software, or any other program—wouldn’t that be absurd? Also, such a scenario would likely be undermined by the vibrant community of open-source coders and script kiddies who would create their own alternatives.
Using AI responsibly means that each of us must strive to utilize this technology as a tool that enhances and improves things in a positive manner. Imagine the potential of an ASI discovering a breakthrough in cold fusion or finding a permanent cure for cancer. We cannot disregard the fact that further development of this technology holds immense potential for improving the fate of humanity.
To address the inevitable malicious applications that will arise, we must educate ourselves, develop our sensibility, and prepare future generations. We live in a world where nothing you hear on the phone or see on a screen can be trusted anymore. That distressed call from a friend claiming to have been robbed and urgently needing money? It could very well be a scammer employing a convincing AI-generated voice. Your friend responds to messages as usual, but later you discover that they have actually been kidnapped? They had set up a personalized chatbot on their phone, allowing them to disappear unnoticed. Essentially, anything not communicated or carried out in person could be fake in today’s world.
We might be heading toward a future where all significant interpersonal interactions must once again be conducted face-to-face. We might have to physically go to places, engage in direct conversation, shake hands, build trust… doesn’t sound all to bad, does it? Thus, ironically, this new technology might bring back certain aspects reminiscent of the pre-communication era.
Epilogue: God Remains Dead?
When Nietzsche penned his famous words “God is dead,” he captured a collective trauma that humanity experienced as the universe gradually became explainable solely through science, eliminating the need for a supernatural deity to comprehend the world.
However, with AI’s potential to create immortals, resurrect the dead, manipulate reality and, — e.g. in face of the climate crisis — promise salvation to humanity, the concept of God may regain life, albeit in a manner Nietzsche could not have envisioned.
Nietzsche’s renowned quote continues: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
But who knows, as humanity surpasses this new collective identity crisis, we might be able to rewrite this line to proclaim: “God is alive. And we have created it.”
What do you think? How will advances in AI impact humanity? Let me know in the comments.
This post is also available in German.
This article was created with the assistance of a human.
Really enjoined your post. Not that I agree with all, but there is certainly food for thoughts.