Decoupling Consciousness From Intelligence

by stephenpalmersf

In recent months I’ve noticed a few mentions of something that was at the heart of my theme for The Autist: decoupling consciousness from intelligence. One of the mentions was in Yuval Noah Harari’s new book 21 Lessons For The 21st Century.

Why should we be very worried about this decoupling? Well, there is one main reason. Modern human beings 100,000 years ago had millions of years of evolution behind them. Their conscious minds evolved in bodies, and those minds existed in vibrant, intense societies. Consciousness evolved to answer the problem of humanoid primates facing increasingly complex and difficult to understand behaviour. By using the self as an exemplar, individuals both understood others and made their societies far more effective and likely to survive. There was a strong evolutionary selection pressure in favour of consciousness.

Consciousness therefore exists in unavoidable synchrony with other human attributes: compassion, insight, and especially empathy. I would argue that empathy is in fact an inseparable part of human consciousness, unless absent through genetic illness or other rare factors (e.g. as in psychopaths). Our ability to feel the pain of another by imagining their personal experience is vital for human survival.

Human intelligence, then, exists only in parallel with insight, compassion and empathy, and that union comes about because our mental experience exists inside our own bodies. To use Nicholas Humphrey’s term, the experience is privatised. Because of compassion and empathy, human beings of 100,000 years ago and earlier healed and otherwise cared for their tribal kin; this we know from archaeological bone finds where serious injuries have healed over time. Chimpanzees show no empathy, and have for instance been observed eating meat from the still-living kills of their own kind. But because we understand the terrible consequences of pain, normal human beings in normal circumstances don’t do such things. (Of course, we can be trained to be sadistic by a process of dehumanisation, i.e. suppressing natural empathy, as in standard army training for soldiers.)

AI by contrast exists as isolated abstract structures. Algorithms do not have a body. You can put a primitive AI inside a robot body, but its sensory equipment is a minuscule fraction of what we have, and at a much lower resolution. But it is with AIs and algorithms that the real danger lies, not in some robot apocalypse.

My new novel The Autist extrapolates from where we are now. Unlike Zeug the solitary AI android of my novel Beautiful Intelligence, or the society of bi entities created by Manfred Klee in the same work, in The Autist I wanted to write about something much more terrifying. An AI without a body cannot be conscious. Such an entity is a partial model of the world lacking all our natural humane attributes. It is intelligence alone, without insight, compassion, empathy. It exists as a remorseless learning entity: all perception and no sensation. It can never understand human beings as we understand one another. It sees us as individual mathematical entities, or, in societies, as sociological aggregates.

I agree with Yuval Noah Harari when he says that the decoupling of consciousness from intelligence is one of the main three perils of the 21st century. We are creating isolated, abstract intelligences and we are giving them the power to control human beings through economics (which therefore means politics), and even via culture. To me, that does not seem wise. Perhaps we over-reached when we named ourselves sapiens.

The Autist front cover