Some fear we will be enslaved and killed by our robots. The tricky word in this sentence of course is “we.” You could say that we will create robots who will kill us or you could say we will evolve into robots. You could say that when we first developed rational thought and language we took the first step. The hominid who could speak was an animal running a computer program — language — and thus cyborg, so when he defeated or assimilated his animal peers (by killing them or teaching them language) those hominids were conquered by robots. Or they became robots.
Recently my former colleague Eric Schwitzgebel reacted to the philosopher Susan Schneider who worries we will be conquered by conscious-less robots from outer space. It could happen! Some asshole group of Martians could create an even more ass-a-holic group of robots that entirely without awareness spread across the galaxy mining planets and killing folk. It would be something like astronomical cancer. I hope they didn’t and if if they did I hope we win the war, or go down looking good.
Many horrible things could lurk beyond the stars — fungus men or evil orange dictators of gold thirty light years high or crazy rape seals who flood our world and violate us all. However the paper is not just science fiction horror-gathering. It stems from, first of all, a philosophical confusion, which is that consciousness is something weird, metaphysical, and undetectable.
This is, I believe, a philosophical confusion. If consciousness is an immaterial undetectable substrate, there is no reason to believe that rampaging robots from beyond the stars are not conscious. If it is an undetectable metaphysical substrate there is no reason for me to believe I am conscious. Of to believe that everybody but French people are conscious, or only French people are conscious. If consciousness is undetectable then it doesn’t matter.
So this leads me to believe the worry comes from something deeper. The worry is that what we find most deeply human will not hack it — it doesn’t matter. Consciousness is a stand-in for what we most deeply care about. The pessimistic fear is that that doesn’t matter — we will be squelched out by something newer, better, and more successful and lacking humanity.
I don’t know. SETI has not spoken. But judging from the data handy it’s worth reflecting on what the one planetary apex predator we know about is like — us. We conquered the planet and we have humanity which makes us capable of compassion and also atrocity. We have, and I do not mean this metaphysically, or religiously, soul We have soul in the way that a piece of music, despite being entirely physical, has soul.
Why is soul physical? Because it lets us do entirely physical, entirely detectable things. Like care about meaning, respond to beauty, love, hate, be jealous and envious or giving or spotaneously kicky, wonder about what it all means, and respond to the paradoxes and ambiguities of life.
We are soulful robots.
The future evolution of humanity may be soulful too, or we may replace ourselves with horrendous soulless robot monsters. I hope we don’t. And our first alien contact may well be with soulful aliens, soulful alien robots, or perhaps soulless bureaucrats, spiritually dead, just trying to optimize their bloodless alien goals.
If that’s the case we should fight them or wake up their souls.