I like those long train journeys to and from some pleasant event, a family get-together; a concert; a visit to the theatre. You just whizz along, no effort required, letting the time drift by reading, snacking, watching the countryside fly by and maybe chatting to companions or exchanging pleasantries with other passengers. It all has a rather reassuring feeling of Englishness about it.
Not so on my journey a while ago. There was a young couple across the aisle from me a little way down the carriage. He was holding a baby, I suppose around six months old, in one arm. With his other, free hand he was busy on his smartphone. She was busy, two-handed, on her own smartphone. After about twenty minutes, he passed the baby over to her. He began two-handed on his smartphone and she commenced single-handed on hers. For the remainder of their journey they swapped the baby back and forth as, I assume, the holding arm got tired. At no time did I see any direct interaction between either parent and the baby.
Come to think of it, there wasn’t any interaction between the two adults either, but that wasn’t what perplexed me. In fact, it’s quite common to see adults who are so engrossed in their hand-held technology as to be effectively oblivious to their companions.
But a baby, that’s another thing. It’s unarguably the case that the child will come to see themselves as less important, less worthy of their parents’ attention, than those lumps of hi-tech hardware.
I reflected miserably on this for a while. I’m determined to avoid that habit of the elderly to become outspokenly alienated from all things new. But even so, surely, this just wasn’t right. Not right for the child, that seemed clear. But also, not right for the parents, missing out on what could have been an enriching engagement with their very own flesh-and-blood.
And then it hit me. That scenario on the train is a template for things to come. The child is effectively preparing for life in the future. Its own life, in adulthood, when human beings are no longer in charge.
Stephen Hawking is just the latest in a long line of great thinkers who predict the rise, and eventual supremacy, of non-human organisms. Most top minds think that the progress of machines will accelerate and “within decades” they will have overtaken humans in most, if not all, activities. If that child on the train is feeling inferior to machines then it’s just a reflection of how the world will develop as he or she grows into adulthood.
Prof Hawking thinks that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. He “worries deeply about artificial intelligence and machines that can outsmart humanity”. But what, specifically, is he worried about ?
Fundamental to all these predictions of doom is the assumption that human beings are, and have to remain, in charge. We are, as it were, top dogs. Actual dogs, on the other hand, just get along with their lives alongside, and generally subservient to, us. What’s so terrible about that ?
As among the human population, there are, within the so-called lower life-forms, relatively advantaged and dis-advantaged individuals. Many of the disadvantages of being a non-human inhabitant of this planet derive from the cruel, supremacist behaviour of humans. More to the point: many humans, ostensibly the highest life-form, are dis-empowered and oppressed by other humans.
We humans are a big-headed lot. We think we’re clever yet we blunder in and out of moronic, tribal conflicts. We sleep-walk into political, social and economic catastrophes. We kid ourselves that we’re in control of our environment and all the time we’re trashing it. We imagine that we’re masters of our destiny and continually succumb to unforeseen natural disasters. Isn’t it about time that we just made way for something a bit smarter ?
Let’s dispense with a couple of red herrings. No, it’s not relevant that we ourselves are building the machines. The primates don’t have any natural rights over us, their descendants, who they spawned. We ourselves don’t have children in order that they should serve us. And no, it doesn’t matter that we are carbon-based and that the new organisms aren’t. We are talking about form and function here, not the materials used in construction.
We have absolutely no reason to think that whoever is in charge next will be any more pig-headed, selfish and cruel than we have been. In fact, once relieved of the responsibilities of power, we might ourselves take more delight in the pursuit of those activities that we’re quite good at. Endearing human qualities that are all too often suppressed by our determination to stay in charge of everything. Art, music, science, literature, humour, love.
The human race is just a tiny step on the road from who-knows-where to who-knows-where. Billions of years either side of us. It’s been a blast. It’s a thrilling time to be alive right now. Astonishing things are happening. There have always been wonderful, inspirational people around. In spite of our shortcomings, we’ve achieved a lot.
But all things must pass. Let’s just get over ourselves. Change is constant and inevitable. It would be better to embrace it gracefully.