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IEET Fellow Susan Schneider Interviewed in the cover story for The Humanist (Sept/Oct)
Sep 4, 2014   The Humanist  

Can consciousness be created in a machine? Is the mind/brain simply a computational system? IEET Fellow and University of Connecticut philosopphy professor, Susan Schneider, was interviewed by The Humanist on these pressing topics. What kind of technology will exist in a transhumanist world the humanists are starting to question…

Clay Farris Naff: No one has yet produced a testable and accepted theory of consciousness. Yet, you and others seem confident that a working copy of the contents of a human brain could, in principle, run on a computer. Is this really something to worry about?

Susan Schneider: Cognitive science is increasingly showing that the brain is a computational engine. Thus far, it looks like sophisticated artificial minds could be reverse-engineered from the human brain, at least in principle.

An AI system could quickly become more intellectually powerful than we are, and even if we program ethical constraints in initially, there’s no guarantee that as a system evolves it won’t override them. I worry a lot about how to design benevolent AI. I don’t think it can be done effectively. AI can change its own algorithms. Its primary goal could be something that leads to our destruction, but I don’t know what to do about it. You can’t have a global ban on AI.

CFN: How will we know if there is a sentient superintelligence among us?

SS: Philosophers and scientists work towards creating criteria for identifying sentience and consciousness in AI systems. Here, science fiction can be useful. If we begin to interact with creatures that behave as Samantha (in Her) or Rachel (in Blade Runner) we are definitely in the terrain of possible conscious beings. The trouble is what to do when AI systems don’t have human physical or emotional traits and don’t behave in ways that make sense to us, perhaps because they think in a far more sophisticated way than we do.

CFN: Some say the answer is for us to become the super AI. But can even the strongest claim for brain upload be anything more than a claim for a snapshot replication? Surely, the personal trajectory of a mind would be radically altered the moment it began to run on a computer, if for no other reason than because it would occupy a radically different perch in the cultural cloud.

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​Can Humanism Survive the Coming Transhumanist Revolution?

IF YOU DON’T keep up on your fearmongering Christian commentary, you may have missed this item from the online WorldNetDaily:

Secret experiments now underway in the U.S. and elsewhere are sparking fears of a potential extinction-level event hastening the Second Coming of Jesus … [S]cience fiction of the past could become science fact of our immediate future, with human minds connected wirelessly to computers and bionic bodies outperforming top athletes by leaps and bounds. That prospect has some sounding alarm bells about the fulfillment of End-times Bible prophecy…

Well, why not? For two millennia nothing else has done the trick. Still, the eschatology industry is not alone in worrying about the impending technological revolution. Indeed, for humanists, the urgency may be even greater. Bedrock concepts of humanism—equality, individual autonomy, education, and democracy, among others—face seismic upheavals. The very idea of what it means to be human may be overturned.

No less prominent a figure than cosmologist Stephen Hawking recently joined with three other luminaries to warn that artificial intelligence (AI), rapidly proliferating through our most intimate devices, could evolve into a catastrophe for humankind. In an article that appeared in the Independent in May, Hawking and his coauthors Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark, and Frank Wilczek write:

If a superior alien civilization sent us a message saying, “We’ll arrive in a few decades,” would we just reply, “OK, call us when you get here—we’ll leave the lights on”? Probably not—but this is more or less what is happening with AI.

But hold on. Before you take down your Luddite ax from over the hearth, consider this: in many ways technology has and is making life better for most people on the planet. Thanks to smartphones and solar panels, impoverished villagers in Africa now have access to news, entertainment, and, most important, markets. This has meant an astonishing one percentage point per year drop in extreme poverty in Africa over the past decade, even without the fundamental reforms and lasting peace that everyone agrees are necessary.

Civilization has been lumbering up a long hill of progress. What happens next may feel like the thrilling moment a rollercoaster goes over the top. It may be like the scene in Star Warswhen the Millennium Falcon makes the leap to hyperspace. Or, it may be as terrifying as the instant in Jaws when the great white jumps into the back of the boat.

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