Artificial Speculation

Scanning is a tool used in foresight to uncover weak signals that herald shifts within different industries, behavioral changes, and other emerging movements that will shape the future. To uncover the types of signals that give way to true breakthroughs, our goal must not simply be breadth of exploration, but also depth of analysis if we are to understand the driving forces of the future and the implications they will have. 

The Social Robotics Lab at Yale University has a long-standing project looking into the cognitive and behavioral development of people through studying artificial intelligence. Nico is a humanoid robot with heavy visual modules and a whole lot of processing power that recently did something amazing: it recognized itself in a mirror. While seemingly a minor accomplishment that could be achieved through a bit of programming trickery, this paves a much larger path for artificial cognition when we consider how few species can accomplish this task (the Great Apes, dolphins, killer whales, elephants and apparently, magpies). While Nico’s accomplishment may be one of self-recognition as opposed to self-awareness, Nico has still been able to connect together a basic feedback recognizing changes in motion in a mirror as being directly correlated to its own actions. It gets that it’s a reflection.

Signal: Deconstructing Selfhood
The obvious progression of this field of study will jump from self-recognition to self-awareness. Upon an AI achieving self-awareness, this immediately calls into question the nature around and definition of “self.” While theorized and lamented for decades by Science Fiction’s greatest, we still haven’t come to full terms of what a fully self-aware AI means. An artificially sentient being brings into question everything we know about life, the mind, and how we understand our existence. It follows that if we can create a sentient AI from a bottom-up approach, then our own minds can be deconstructed into their most basic elements and rebuilt from scratch. Uncovering artificial intelligence means that we must simultaneously unlock the basic building blocks of biological intelligence. It means that the human brain should no longer hold any secrets.

Perhaps the most exciting implication of this realization is that sentient artificial intelligence should, in theory, mark the end of death. If we understand the human mind well enough to replicate it as a new, sentient being, then we should also be able to make copies of existing minds. This means that while our bodies may die, our consciousness should be able to live forever, whether by transferring into new vessels as we wear out the old, or by floating around in the digital world. It means that we will have achieved a sort of “digital transcendence” whereby our very being can be uploaded out of the human world and into the digital world, to continue living, learning, and growing.

In addition, this technology would enable us to create unlimited copies of our own intellect; a sort of “mind clone.” Whether or not we give these clones bodies, a person could theoretically have countless versions of themselves floating around in the world, each creating a slightly different variation of the original through the experiences and interactions they have. We could have conversations with ourselves, collaborate and create with ourselves through a sort of out-of-body multiple personality disorder, and in even love ourselves in a way never before possible.

Or, if none of this holds true, then at very minimum, we will have near-irrefutable evidence of the existence of the human soul.

Signal: Biomimetic Copycats
The other signal present in the work around Nico is a look in the mirror back at humanity and how we approach the world. Nico, like 99% of the robots in the world, has been biologically inspired by the cognitive development of human beings in order to build up and construct an artificial intelligence in our own likeness. Nearly all robots pay homage to some form of biomimetics, whether of people or other species. Even the historical development of artificial intelligence has followed a path similar to that of infants in terms of cognitive growth. We appear to be obsessed with ourselves and the natural world around us to the point where we cannot think and explore beyond these limitations.

This means that we’re simply not all that creative. Most of us are unable to think of anything truly innovative and, at the end of the day, just keep on trying to copy and improve on the biological workings of nature. Not just in the field of robotics, but observing most of the technology in our lives, it becomes clear that most is just a clever copy of animal physiology. Motors are muscles, pumps are hearts, cameras are eyes, microphones are ears, speakers are vocal chords, and computers are brains. No matter how creative and great we think we are, we’re still playing a game of catch-up with Mother Nature.

However, this implication comes with an opportunity. It means that our technological development has a blind spot, or a giant whitespace. It means that if you can be individual or organization to push the boundaries of thinking and development outside of our understanding of the animal body, there is a chance that you could stumble across an entire new world of robotics and technology. This is no small task and certainly not one that will be accomplished in this article, however, the potential payoff is huge.