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Does Watson put our future in jeopardy?

Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that surpasses them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.

Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share

Watson, an IBM-designed computer, just defeated two of "Jeopardy's" best players. While this is not the first time a computer beat humans in a game — Deep Blue topped a chess champion several years ago — Watson's victory is striking. Before a national audience, computer intelligence outdid its human creator and adversary in speed and memory. And it did so by displaying new skills in detecting the nuances of language and performing creative "mental" maneuvers. To only hear the game, Watson seemed humanlike.

Much more is to come. Watson is already being sought to assist hospital doctors and staff with advising on medical databases and informing patients. Genetic counseling and even marital advice might soon be next. Some ardent advocates of artificial intelligence (AI), such as members of the Singularity movement, emphasize the larger leap: Within 30 years, the linkage of human consciousness, brains and silicon chips will be so accomplished that an individual might envision "living" (whether in a continually regenerating body or in disembodied form that preserves the mind) for eons. Immortality beckons from the horizons again.

This cannot be welcome news from Earth's perspective. It likely views humans as houseguests who have overstayed their welcome. We raid the refrigerator, leave our dirty clothes wherever we go, and routinely terrorize the other inhabitants. If population experts are accurate, in 2045 there will be 9 billion human beings on the planet; that is the same year Singularity members expect Watson and its offspring will triumph as the most intelligent species.

A utopian dream or dystopian nightmare? In evolutionary terms, there is no reason to assume the human mind represents a final pinnacle. Just as some species are displaced by others with greater speed, strength or beauty, so too could humans yield to more intelligent beings. Curiously, AI supporters assume a smooth evolutionary shift, as if the new species will gratefully serve its human designers. But evolution also involves struggle and conflict. With energy resources and living space becoming ever scarcer, the future Watsons of the world might no longer be content just to defeat humans in games of memory and speed.

This longing for immortality is one of the most enduring of human pursuits. Since our supposed exile from paradise, humans have sought magical elixirs, exotic animal organs, perfect climates and cryogenic caskets to extend their lives indefinitely. Current efforts rely on the possibility that consciousness lies in our brain — the original computer — whose synapses and neurons can be transferred to silicon chips and nanotechnology databases.

But human consciousness is more than the knowledge stored in our brain. A child learns the world through the touch in his or her fingers. Our ears intuitively distinguish the harmonies of a Bach concerto from the cacophonies of a committee meeting. Delicate sensors of the tongue inform the wine drinker of a rare find or an overpriced bottle. The skin immediately reacts to a caring touch or an unwanted grasp. Neurocardiologists now claim that the heart itself alerts us to the approach of a lover or the presence of a danger. These are not just bits of information but a body of knowledge that comprises the human self.

One English biologist, Aubrey de Grey, seems unfazed by such observations. A Singularity enthusiast, he believes that human bodies and brains can be likened to antique cars. He would replace aging or damaged parts with updated or regenerative versions.

Yet we do not experience one another as a collection of interchangeable parts. Though often indefinable, there is something irreplaceable in a living creature. To ignore that in search of immortality is a movement that will always surpass and undermine human existence.

Woe to those who conclude that this search amounts to little more than changing a tire.

Alexander E. Hooke is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University. His e-mail is ahooke@stevenson.edu.

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