What is the significance of Nick Bostrom’s ‘The Unfinished Fable of the Sparrows’?
The sparrows represent humanity. And the owl represents artificial super intelligence. So we might want to begin with a very simple question: Will the sparrows in fact find the Owl egg? Will humanity create artificial super Intelligence?
A question like this tests our incredulity; it sounds like science fiction, something straight out of a Terminator movie or Star Wars. But it is a real thing. A lot of smart people are convinced artificial super intelligence is just around the corner – Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking, to name a few.
If we imagine then intelligence as different levels going up, at Level 1: we have insects. Level 2: Monkeys. And Level 3: humans.
As soon as a computer reaches level 3, reaches the ability to improve itself, we at that point have let the cat out of the bag. Computers don’t get tired, they can think at the speed of light, and can draw instantly from all information the world over. If a computer reached level 3 it would seemingly go from level 3 to level 10 overnight.
At that point we have no real idea of what we are dealing with. Scientists in this field are pretty convinced this is coming, and coming soon. Maybe it’s a decade away, maybe a few decades away, but coming none the less…
Maybe Scronkfinkle the Sparrow is right to be worried about taming that owl. As Steve Wozniak once famously said – ‘Never trust a computer you can’t throw out a window.’
It’s just a computer after all. If we found it was not working in our human interest, surely we could just deal with it. Turn it off. But you fail to appreciate we are dealing with something substantially more capable than us.
Take the monkeys as an obvious example. Is it not in their interest to get rid of us? But we’re not going allow that – we have no off switch. So what can we do? We might imagine that given all this, we should just not create Artificial Intelligence to begin with. There’s too much risk involved.
But that’s not an option either. Google, Apple, and Microsoft, all see there’s BIG money to make, and they are racing towards it as quickly as possible. And if last week’s news is anything to go by, Artificial Intelligence’s momentous victory over a top ranked GO player, things may be going even quicker than previously thought.
So if it is inevitable there is really only one option available. We have to create it to care. We have to create it to be benevolent – to value the earth and humanity. We have to make sure artificial super intelligence is nice.
The year is 1915, and a young French man lies face down in a trench on the front line. Amongst the blood and sweat, amongst the horrors of war, he has an epiphany, an experience of God, an awakening to the inter-connectedness of all living things.
When World War I came to an end, Teilhard de Chardin gave over his whole life to God’s service. He took vows and became a Jesuit Priest. Teilhard, apart from being a war hero and a priest, was also a geologist, a palaeontologist, a lecturer, and a traveller of the world. Think Indiana Jones.
He notably attempted to reconcile the theory of Evolution with his Christian faith. He believed that evolution had a direction, towards ever more complexity, ever more interconnection, and intelligence: a growing and evolving global nervous system. And have we not seen just that? As tsunamis hit, as people suffer, the world hears in unison, does it not weep as one?
Teilhard believed a point would come – he termed it ‘The Omega Point’ – when this great nervous system of human connectivity would reach such a degree of interconnection that super intelligence would come forth. I find it remarkable how much the thoughts of this Jesuit priest’s writings of the 1950s, before general-purpose computers and before the internet, mirror so closely what technologists now think we are on the cusp of.
The hatching of that owl egg. When Artificial Intelligence becomes self-improving and runs away with itself.
Today this point is usually termed ‘The Singularity’, or ‘the technological singularity’. A singularity is a point at which one cannot see beyond. And indeed, it is entirely unpredictable. If or when we birth that artificial super intelligence, what will it make of us? What will we make of it?
Arthur C Clarke said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. That means if we were to get in a time machine with all our guns and gadgets, and go back far enough, we would appear to be superhuman, or even gods to our ancestors.
Similarly, if we were visited by little green men, with technology more advanced than our own, they too would appear to us like gods. What would it be to encounter the truly alien other?
In this faith of ours, the Universe itself is often used synonymously with the idea of God. Would an Omega Point such as this not mean an awakening of the universe? An awakening of God? The very processes of evolution, nature herself bringing forth the Übermensch, bringing forth exponential potential. Would we see the Kingdom breaking in? The mourners being comforted, the down-trodden lifted up, the in-breaking of love and mercy?
Or out of Spiritus Mundi would we awaken the sphinx? A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.
It seems to me that the Christian hope is that Love will endure. And that what is of Love within us will endure when we ourselves pass away. Our love remains present in the lives of those we have touched, well after we are gone. Like stones hitting the water, love ripples out indefinitely, passing from generation to generation. All else is chaff, all else is caught up in the wind.
To quote Teilhard, humankind is a sort of collective human organism that is now forming a layer of thinking substance of planetary dimensions. A sphere which develops and intertwines its fibres to reinforce all people in the living unity of one single tissue.
Today we are more interconnected than ever before; there is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere. (Isaac Asimov)
It is as if nature itself has a direction, a destiny. As God awakens from the machine. Dare we hope that our example of Love will pass from generation to generation, even on to other sentient life? Will our love be reflected in its embrace of us? Can we imagine love enveloping the totality of humanity and the earth?
We sparrows now look upon the horizon, and can we not see an egg being carried yonder…
As it hatches here amongst us, the very foundations of reality will seem to shift underneath us, but will Love not endure?