I make a point of always trying to listed on the EconTalk podcast each week — a venue in which George Mason University economics professor Russ Roberts conducts a roughly hour-long interview with an author or academic about some topic related to economics. A couple weeks ago, the guest was Robin Hanson, also an economics professor at GMU, who was talking about the “technological singularity” which could result from perfecting the technique of “porting” copies of humans into computers. Usually the topic is much more down-to-earth, but these kinds of speculations can be interesting to play with, and there were a couple of things which really struck me listening to the interview with Hanson, which ran to some 90 minutes.
Hanson’s basic contention is that the next big technological leap that will change the face of the world economy will be the ability to create a working copy of a human by “porting” that person’s brain into a computer. He argues that this could come much sooner than the ability to create an “artificial intelligence” from scratch, because it doesn’t require knowing how intelligence works — you simply create an emulation program on a really powerful computer, and then do a scan of the brain which picks up the current state of every part of it and how those parts interact. (There’s a wikipedia article on the concept, called “whole brain emulation” here.) Hanson thinks this would create an effectively unlimited supply of what are, functionally, human beings, though they may look like computer programs or robots, and that this would fundamentally change the economy by creating an effectively infinite supply of labor.
Let’s leave all that aside for a moment, because what fascinates me here is something which Roberts, a practicing Jew, homed in on right away: Why should we believe that the sum and total of what you can physically scan in the brain is all there is to know about a person? Why shouldn’t we think that there’s something else to the “mind” than just the parts of the brain and their current state? Couldn’t there be some kind of will which is not materially detectable and is what is causing the brain to act the way it is?
Most of us are familiar with some concept of artificial intelligence, be it Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, C-3PO and R2D2 from Star Wars, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Skynet from The Terminator, or Joshua from War Games, to name a few popular examples. We’ve long been introduced to the notion of the struggle to determine if artificial intelligence constitutes life whether these beings, which we have created, deserve rights. We’ve also come across the notion of whether we need to restrict these beings so that they cannot turn and extinguish human life (think Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, and movies like The Terminator and The Matrix, where the artificial intelligence has turned on humankind). Yet we very rarely hear the debate as to whether such artificial intelligence can ever be a reality. In fact, and partially due to the promises made in the 50’s and 60’s, many people think that super-intelligent machines are destined to occur any day now.