As the power and capability of our AI systems increase by the day, the essential question we now face is what constitutes peak human. If we stay where we are while the AI systems we are unleashing continually get better, they will meet and then exceed our capabilities in an ever-growing number of domains. But while some technology visionaries like Elon Musk call for us to slow down the development of AI systems to buy time, this approach alone will simply not work in our hyper-competitive world, particularly when the potential benefits of AI are so great and our frameworks for global governance are so weak. In order to build the future we want, we must also become ever better humans.
The list of activities we once saw as uniquely human where AIs have now surpassed us is long and growing. First, AI systems could beat our best chess players, then our best Go players, then our best champions of multi-player poker. They can see patterns far better than we can, generate medical and other hypotheses most human specialists miss, predict and map out new cellular structures, and even generate beautiful, and, yes, creative, art.
A recent paper by Microsoft researchers analyzing the significant leap in capabilities in OpenAI’s latest AI bot, ChatGPT-4, asserted that the algorithm can “solve novel and difficult tasks that span mathematics, coding, vision, medicine, law, psychology and more, without needing any special prompting.” Calling this functionality “strikingly close to human-level performance,” the authors conclude it “could reasonably be viewed as an early (yet still incomplete) version of an artificial general intelligence (AGI) system.”
The concept of AGI has been around for decades. In its common use, the term suggests a time when individual machines can do many different things at a human level, not just one thing like playing Go or analyzing radiological images. Debating when AGI might arrive, a favorite pastime of computer scientists for years, now has become outdated.
We already have AI algorithms and chatbots that can do lots of different things. Based on the generalist definition, in other words, AGI is essentially already here.
Unfettered by the evolved capacity and storage constraints of our brains, AI algorithms can access nearly all of the digitized cultural inheritance of humanity since the dawn of recorded history and have increasing access to growing pools of digitized biological data from across the spectrum of life.
Once we recognize that both AI systems and humans have unique superpowers, the essential question becomes what each of us can do better than the other and what humans and AIs can best do in active collaboration. The future of our species will depend upon our ability to safely, dynamically, and continually figure that out.
With these ever-larger datasets, rapidly increasing computing and memory power, and new and better algorithms, our AI systems will keep getting better faster than most of us can today imagine. These capabilities have the potential to help us radically improve our healthcare, agriculture, and manufacturing, make our economies more productive and our development more sustainable, and do many important things better.
Soon, they will learn how to write their own code. Like human children, in other words, AI systems will grow up. But even that doesn’t mean our human goose is cooked.
Just like dolphins and dogs, these alternate forms of intelligence will be uniquely theirs, not a lesser or greater version of ours. There are lots of things AI systems can't do and will never be able to do because our AI algorithms, for better and for worse, will never be human. Our embodied human intelligence is its own thing.
Our human intelligence is uniquely ours based on the capacities we have developed in our 3.8-billion-year journey from single cell organisms to us. Our brains and bodies represent continuous adaptations on earlier models, which is why our skeletal systems look like those of lizards and our brains like most other mammals with some extra cerebral cortex mixed in. Human intelligence isn’t just some type of disembodied function but the inextricable manifestation of our evolved physical reality. It includes our sensory analytical skills and all of our animal instincts, intuitions, drives, and perceptions. Disembodied machine intelligence is something different than what we have evolved and possess.
Because of this, some linguists including Noam Chomsky have recently argued that AI systems will never be intelligent as long as they are just manipulating symbols and mathematical tokens without any inherent understanding. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone interacting with even first-generation AI chatbots quickly realizes that while these systems are far from perfect or omniscient and can sometimes be stupendously oblivious, they are surprisingly smart and versatile and will get more so… forever. We have little idea even how our own minds work, so judging AI systems based on their output is relatively close to how we evaluate ourselves.
Anyone not awed by the potential of these AI systems is missing the point. AI’s newfound capacities demand that we work urgently to establish norms, standards, and regulations at all levels from local to global to manage the very real risks. Pausing our development of AI systems now doesn’t make sense, however, even if it were possible, because we have no sufficient ways of uniformly enacting such a pause, no plan for how we would use the time, and no common framework for addressing global collective challenges like this.
But if all we feel is a passive awe for these new capabilities, we will also be missing the point.
Human evolution, biology, and cultural history are not just some kind of accidental legacy, disability, or parlor trick, but our inherent superpower. Our ancestors outcompeted rivals for billions of years to make us so well suited to the world we inhabit and helped build. Our social organization at scale has made it possible for us to forge civilizations of immense complexity, engineer biology and novel intelligence, and extend our reach to the stars. Our messy, embodied, intuitive, social human intelligence is roughly mimicable by AI systems but, by definition, never fully replicable by them.
Once we recognize that both AI systems and humans have unique superpowers, the essential question becomes what each of us can do better than the other and what humans and AIs can best do in active collaboration. We still don't know. The future of our species will depend upon our ability to safely, dynamically, and continually figure that out.
As we do, we'll learn that many of our ideas and actions are made up of parts, some of which will prove essentially human and some of which can be better achieved by AI systems. Those in every walk of work and life who most successfully identify the optimal contributions of humans, AIs, and the two together, and who build systems and workflows empowering humans to do human things, machines to do machine things, and humans and machines to work together in ways maximizing the respective strengths of each, will be the champions of the 21st century across all fields.
The dawn of the age of machine intelligence is upon us. It’s a quantum leap equivalent to the domestication of plants and animals, industrialization, electrification, and computing. Each of these revolutions forced us to rethink what it means to be human, how we live, and how we organize ourselves. The AI revolution will happen more suddenly than these earlier transformations but will follow the same general trajectory. Now is the time to aggressively prepare for what is fast heading our way, including by active public engagement, governance, and regulation.
AI systems will not replace us, but, like these earlier technology-driven revolutions, they will force us to become different humans as we co-evolve with our technology. We will never reach peak human in our ongoing evolutionary journey, but we’ve got to manage this transition wisely to build the type of future we’d like to inhabit.
Alongside our ascending AIs, we humans still have a lot of climbing to do.