How Evolution Ends

Henry Kissinger on Artificial Intelligence

Leah Zitter
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Henry Alfred Kissinger, American political scientist, diplomat and former United States Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, thinks A.I. could roll back the achievements of the Enlightenment and reduce us to jelly-like mindless creatures. It’s like a remote controlled blimp, where it’s we who are the models and A.I. operates us by zapping radio waves to our antennas.

According to those brilliant Enlightenment philosophers, flatteringly called thinkers and fittingly sculptured on haunches cradling their heads, it’s your noggin' that’s the focus. "Cogito ergo sum" - I’m alive because I think, said French philosopher Rene Descartes.

It’s mind that makes us human. It’s mind that separates us from animals. It’s the that makes us godlike. It’s mind that makes us, quoted Anonymous. Not a Human Being, but a Human Becoming. How does mind do that? Through reason instead of primitive instinct.

In the spirit of the Enlightenment, we conjure hypotheses, test them, erect skyscrapers of logic, proofs, mathematical deductions, and statistical calculations. We debate, argue, experiment, elucidate, contemplate, deduce and ponder until we parse our ponderous reflections. Man is superior because he (and, sorry, she) sifts through information before consuming it.

In the Age of Reason, commonly known as the Enlightenment “individual insight,” Kissinger lamented in the Atlantic, “and scientific knowledge replaced faith as the principal criterion of human consciousness. Information was stored and systematized in expanding libraries. The Age of Reason originated the thoughts and actions that shaped the contemporary world order.” Unfortunately, “that order is now in upheaval amid a new, even more sweeping technological revolution whose consequences we have failed to fully reckon with, and whose culmination may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.”

A person thinks. A.I. aggregates. It chases masses of data, swallows them and spits out deductions.

“The Enlightenment,” Kissinger said “sought to submit traditional verities to a liberated, analytic human reason. The internet’s purpose is to ratify knowledge through the accumulation and manipulation of ever expanding data. Human cognition loses its personal character. Individuals turn into data, and data become regnant.”

Users of the internet emphasize retrieving and manipulating information over contextualizing or conceptualizing the meaning. They rarely interrogate history or philosophy; as a rule, they demand information relevant to their immediate practical needs. They are inundated by social media with the opinions of multitudes, users are diverted from introspection. All of these pressures weaken the fortitude required to develop and sustain convictions that can be implemented only by traveling a lonely road, which is the essence of creativity.

The mind deals with means; it achieves objectives by thinking through them and rationalizing them. A.I., by contrast, deals with ends. There’s scarce little time to think through data. It acquires, rapidly analyzes its data and presents results. Never mind that in the real world, very few things are definitive.

A.I., powered by search-engine algorithms, works for internet users, or technophiles, who have slice-thin time and who prefer data over truth. A.I. also works for us modern snowflakes who somewhere along the way picked up the curious habit of being highly sensitive to different views. So, with A.I. we see views that match our own, since search-engine algorithms personalize results.

“Truth,” said Kissinger, “becomes relative. Information threatens to overwhelm wisdom.” Sounds like the lovely Grimm Brothers tales where handsome princes turn into toads.

According to venerable American philosopher, John Dewey, humans lorded the evolution ladder through our minds. Seperated from our cousin chimpanzees only by our large and complex brain, homo sapiens eventually ruled the jungle through this mysterious gift of Intellect and Reason. In scholastic writings, “sapiens” means “wise”. We’ve come to the stage, aka Kissinger, where A.I. are the homo sapiens, since they’re the ones that are wise.

And we’re the products of the way their “minds” work.

At one time, chess players sought also to learn new strategies applicable to other aspects of life. The focus wasn’t just on winning. With the Go incident that so disturbed Kissinger, where a computer program defeated international chess champions, the A.I. was bent only only one thing. That is to win! The human contestant was also primed accordingly. In behaviorist fashion, A.I. teaches humans to concentrate on winning.

“In achieving intended goals,” said Kissinger, “A.I. may change human thought processes and human values.”

AlphaGo defeated the world Go Champions by making strategically unprecedented moves, moves that humans had not conceived. Are these moves beyond the capacity of the human brain? Or could humans learn them now that they have been demonstrated by a new master? And by learning them, are humans acquiring the cognitive patterns of this new master?

In learning to win Go by playing it differently than humans do, A.I. has changed both the game’s nature and its impact. Other A.I. projects work on modifying human thought by developing devices capable of generating a range of answers to human queries. Beyond factual questions (“What is the temperature outside?”), questions about the nature of reality or the meaning of life raise deeper issues. Do we want children to learn values through discourse with untethered algorithms?

And so the physical form of the mind changes and we’ve climbed another shelf in evolution.

Only it’s not evolution, but devolution. Man is no longer the ‘wise’ creature. He’s now the A.I.-controlled creature. Or just homo. And so in the classic game of snakes and ladders, we miss the ladders and slip down the chutes, accepting the results of the robots. We’re slipping backwards in time.