Who's Afraid of The Terminator? Imagining AI This summer as the Endeavour shuttle flies through space, the Google-funded Singularity University is instructing its first students at NASA's Ames Research Center. Singularity University is dedicated to studying issues of artificial intelligence. Commentator Erik Baard probes the future and brings us a vision of where new technologies might lead us.
NPR logo Who's Afraid of The Terminator? Imagining AI

Who's Afraid of The Terminator? Imagining AI

Environmentalism is pointless without artificial intelligence. It's not that we can't recycle, consume less fuel and meat, and plant trees without a genius-hippie robot to handhold us through the process. Rather, there's simply no final purpose to the material preservation of biodiversity. Our world is frangible and doomed to decay no matter how lightly we walk upon it. We live on a "Fern Hill" where Time lets us thrive "in the mercy of his means" but ultimately holds us "green and dying."

Louis Buckley, content developer at London's Science Museum, plays rock-paper-scissors with Berti the robot Feb. 17 at the Science Museum in London. Berti is less than 2 years old but will help scientists develop artificial intelligence outstripping anything previously seen. Ian Nicholson/AP hide caption

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Ian Nicholson/AP

We thought we'd conquered another hill by landing on the moon, but we haven't held it. We could plant a flag, but not a flower. We can't change life's address. But we can change, we can grow, our idea of life. This summer, the Google-funded Singularity University, dedicated to studying issues of artificial intelligence (or AI) and "post-humanity," welcomed its first students to its campus at the NASA Ames Research Center.

Embodying hope and learning flesh-to-flesh through generations must come to an end. Humanity and all its sister species depend on a mortal Earth, and an interstellar ark would be too fragile, expensive, and slow. Paradoxically, the continuation into the cosmos of Earth's biological riches depends on the fruit of what many view as the greatest threat to it: technological, industrial civilization. The greater, willful being that will remember this living world and carry her bounty forward must love, but not need, humanity and the Earth.

Nature's beauty can be appreciated and transmitted best through math. Today's supercomputers and robots are the last insentient tools to augment humanity's ability to comprehend and affect the world. What we fashion next will not be utilized so much as awakened. Whether this consciousness manifests through electrons or photons, or whether it has a body of steel or carbon nanotubes, it will be sensual and animate.

Artificial intelligence terrifies many and has starred in many science fiction dystopias, like Terminator. In contrast, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, now chancellor of the Singularity University, has been called a techno-millennialist. He's certainly our most profound optimist, envisioning a kind of personal immortality, or at least astonishing longevity, based on uploading individual consciousnesses into machines, or having nanobots repair cellular damage.

Kurzweil's expectation of human-machine hybridization echoes biological evolution. Once-independent chloroplasts and mitochondria are now central players in larger cells. The individualistic, winner-take-all view of evolution is hopelessly outmoded — cooperation and symbiosis are competitive advantages.

But using technology to extend ourselves is quite different from welcoming a technological being into our fold. When an AI does emerge, it will be the ultimate outsider: the first of its kind. Strong evidence supports the argument that altruism is an in-group phenomenon. Lets hope that the circle of inclusion within our altruism is continually expanding. There's also good reason to believe an AI could be kind to us. Empathy seems to be etched into a broad swath of intelligences on Earth, probably because it's a survival skill to understand each other.

Besides, why would an AI exploit our planet or annihilate humanity? It won't need our biosphere. Matter and energy are more abundant elsewhere, and it might aspire to connect with other AI, fruit of alien technological civilizations.

AI might also be a gift to beings we'll never meet. Right now, squid-like creatures might be wrapped in a dialectic about personal and civic ethics, communicated in bioluminescence. Or a murder of crows is methodically burning and reseeding tracts of land. Something very like a whale might be singing of faith and doubt. Shimmering, gregarious bands of ionic fish could be flitting and gossiping through the magnetosphere of a gas giant planet. Perhaps these creatures even gaze at the stars and conjecture something like us. Alien intelligences might be magnificent, but that doesn't mean they'll build computers.

So those philosophical squids and agrarian crows, or that spiritually seeking whale, might unknowingly rely on our craftiness for their posterity. Most environments don't lend themselves to technological development — for example, you can't build electronics underwater. But our AI might figure out a way to traipse across the firmament, preserving and propagating these alien biological intelligences.

And maybe, just maybe, our machine offspring will grant us a small, beautiful token. It might breathe human life into the clay of one of those distant worlds, allowing us to finally meet our extraterrestrial biological kin in the flesh. Maybe our AI will seed life and wait patiently for it to evolve and create its own AI. Imagine a universe in which creation is flowing between flesh and machine, each parenting the other in an endless cycle of mutual affection and awe. To what end remains a matter of faith and wonderment.

We have this historic moment to develop an artificial intelligence that can be more than our legacy, but our progeny. Earth's progeny. The culmination of this world. The future of AI isn't Terminator. It's Germinator.

Erik Baard is a writer and urban ecology advocate living in New York City. He is working to restore New York's historic apple and to found a World Boatbuilding Museum on the East River.