Our Unconscious Overlords – Conscious Entities


alien-superWe are in danger of being eliminated by aliens who aren’t even conscious, says Susan Schneider. Luckily, I think I see some flaws in the argument.

Humans are probably not the greatest intelligences in the Universe, she suggests; others probably have been going for billions of years longer. Perhaps, but maybe they have all attained enlightenment and moved on from this plane, leaving us young dummies the cleverest or the only people around?

Power Quadrant

Schneider thinks the older cultures are likely to be post-biological, having moved on into machine forms of intelligence. This transition may only take a few hundred years, she suggests, to ‘judge from the human experience’ (Have we transitioned? Did I miss it?). She says transistors are much faster than neurons and computer power is almost indefinitely expandable, so AI will end up much cleverer than us.

Then there may be a problem over controlling these superlatively bright computers, as foreseen by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates. Bill Gates? The man who, by exploiting the monopoly handed to him by IBM was able to impose on us all the crippled memory management of DOS and the endless vulnerabilities of Windows? Well, OK; not sure he has much idea about technology, but he’s got form on trying to retain control of things.

Schneider more or less takes it for granted that computation is cogitation, and that faster computation means smarter thinking. It’s true that computers have become very good at games we didn’t think they could play at all, and she reminds us of some examples. But to take over from human beings, computers need more than just computation. To mention two things, they need agency and intentionality, and to date they haven’t shown any capacity at all for either. I don’t rule out the possibility of both being generated artificially in future, but the ever-growing ability of computers to do more sums more quickly is strictly irrelevant. Those future artificial people of whom we know nothing may be able to exploit the power of computation – but so can we. If computers are good at winning battles, our computers can fight their computers.

Schneider also takes it for granted that her computational aliens will be hostile and likely to come over and fuck us up good if they ever know we exist. They might, for example, infect our systems with computer viruses (probably not, I think, because without Bill Gates providing their operating systems computer viruses probably remained a purely theoretical matter for them). Sending signals out into the galaxy, she reckons, is a really bad idea; our radio signals are already out there but luckily it’s faint and easily missed (even by unimaginably super-intelligent aliens, it seems). Premature to worry, surely, because even our earliest radio signals can be no more than about a hundred light years away so far – not much of a distance in galactic terms. But why would super-intelligent entities behave like witless bullies anyway? Somewhere between benign and indifferent seems a more likely attitude.

To me this whole scenario seems to embody a selective prognosis anyway. The aliens have overcome the limitation of the speed of light, they feed off black holes (no clue, sorry) but they still run on the computation we currently think is really smart. A hundred years ago no-one would have supposed computation was going to be the dominant technology of our decade, let alone the next million years; maybe by 2116 we’ll look back on it the way we fondly remember steam locomotion.

Schneider’s most arresting thought is that her dangerous computational aliens might lack qualia, and so in that sense not be conscious. It seems to me more natural to suppose that acquiring human-style thought would necessarily involve acquiring human-style qualia. Schneider seems to share the Searlian view that qualia have something to do with unknown biological qualities of neural tissue which silicon can never share. Even if qualia could be engineered into silicon, why would the aliens bother, she asks – it’s just an extra overhead that might add unwanted ethical issues. Most surprisingly, she supposes that we might be able to test the proposition! Suppose that for medical reasons we replace parts of a functioning human brain with chips, we might then find that qualia are lost.

But how would we know? Ex hypothesi, qualia have no causal powers and so could not cause any change in our behaviour. Even if the qualia vanished, the fact could not be reported. None of the things we say about qualia were caused by qualia; that’s one of the bizarre things about them.

Anyway, I say if we’re going to indulge in this kind of wild speculation, let’s really go big; I say the super-intelligent aliens will be powered by hyper-computation, a technology that makes our concept of computation look like counting on your fingers; and they’ll have not only qualia, but hyper-qualia, experiential phenomenologica whose awesomeness we cannot even speak of. They will be inexpressibly kindly and wise and will be be borne to Earth to visit us on special wave-forms, beyond our understanding but hugely hyperbolic…

Posted by Peter on December 18, 2016 at 9:00 pm.

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