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NEXT: The Possibilities (and Threat) of Artificial Intelligence

David Staley David Staley NEXT: The Possibilities (and Threat) of Artificial IntelligencePhoto via Pixabay.
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I have been thinking a lot about the Neanderthals. Or, rather, what happened to the Neanderthals. Or, more specifically, whether or not our homo sapiens ancestors had anything to do with the extinction of the Neanderthals.

For the longest time, the theory was that modern human beings arrived in Eurasia around 70,000 years ago, and battled the technologically — and intellectually — inferior Neanderthals to extinction.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari wonders if “competition for resources flared up into violence and genocide. Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark,” Harari writes, using his term for our species, homo sapiens sapiens. “It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.”

Another theory has recently emerged: that humans did not hunt or eradicate the Neanderthals, in fact our two species interacted with each other more than we previously thought. Genetic analysis reveals that upwards of 4 percent of our DNA is from Neanderthals, suggesting that we interbred. That suggests a very different relationship between humans and Neanderthals, one of cooperation and interaction.

The Neanderthals certainly disappeared, but it was not because they were eradicated by modern humans. The climate of Eurasia changed, and modern humans were better able to adapt to the changes than Neanderthals could.

“Neanderthals were fairly specialized to hunt large, Ice Age animals. But sometimes being specialized isn’t such a good strategy. When climates changed and some of those animals went extinct, the Neanderthals may have been more vulnerable to starvation,” says paleoanthropologist Briana Pobiner. “We also think Homo sapiens had a competitive edge over Neanderthals. There is evidence that early Homo sapiens had long-distance trade networks, possibly buffering them against times of climate change when their preferred foods were not available; Neanderthals did not.”

Homo sapiens were better adapted, not genocidal, according to this theory. Indeed, we might even speculate that humans aided those Neanderthals who were unable to adapt to changing conditions.

That scenario is explored in Claire Cameron’s latest novel The Last Neanderthal. This is a fictional imagining of the lives of a small band of Neanderthals. They die off because they live in a harsh, unforgiving environment, an environment that the homo sapiens they encounter are better able to adapt to.

The interactions between humans and Neanderthals are the most fascinating part of the novel, where Cameron imagines not hostility but curiosity between the two species, even cooperation and friendship. There is even the hint of a sexual coupling between a Neanderthal and a human.

Cameron’s novel is grounded in science, and so her imaginings are not entirely fanciful. It suggests that we as a species are not inherently genocidal but cooperative and compassionate.

Why does all of this matter, and why would a futurist be interested in an event that occurred tens of thousands of years ago?

Harari seems to conclude that Sapiens are intolerant and violent, and that the eradication of the Neanderthals is but one early case of our species’ violence toward those we deem inferior. One could argue that we are living at a parallel moment when two intelligent “species” are occupying the same space.

The development of artificial intelligence parallels the arrival of homo sapiens into Eurasia. Today, a potentially intellectually-superior “species” interacts with another (intellectually-inferior?) species. Will the encounter between human and artificial intelligence be characterized by cooperation or hostility? Will there be friendship or genocide?

Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak have all warned that advanced artificial intelligence has the capacity to wipe out all of humanity. The chief science officer of MetaMed Research, Michael Vassar, says that, “If greater-than-human artificial general intelligence is invented without due caution, it is all but certain that the human species will be extinct in very short order.”

This is not just the stuff of science fiction: very serious people are very seriously worried that the rapid, logarithmic development of artificial intelligence is sowing the seeds of our eradication. Indeed, as we develop technologies that become as smart as us—and even smarter than us—we begin to appear like the Neanderthals in comparison.

Nick Bostrom has warned that “Machine intelligence is the last invention that humanity will ever need to make.” Let’s assume these predictions are correct, and that artificial intelligence soon exceeds human intelligence. Why must we assume that AI will seek to eradicate humanity? Why predict that “it is all but certain that the human species will be extinct in very short order?”

Because that is exactly what we would do in the same circumstance.

We assume that artificial intelligence will behave just like homo sapiens. If we believe that our ancestors hunted Neanderthals to extinction, then it is no wonder that we would also predict that a superior intelligence would inflict the same upon us. We assume that artificial intelligence will be as genocidal as we have been.

But what if the extinction of the Neanderthals was not our doing, and that we rather coexisted fruitfully with each other? Perhaps we should assume that humans and artificial intelligence will similarly live together cooperatively and compassionately. That narrative of a benign relationship between Neanderthals and homo sapiens suggests a very different future for humanity.

David Staley is interim director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is president of Columbus Futurists and host of CreativeMornings Columbus. The next CreativeMornings Columbus will be Friday September 15 at 8:30 a.m. at the Columbus Museum of Art. Brandi Lust will speak on the theme “Compassion.”

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday, September 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.). Will Petrik will share his “Vision for the city of Columbus.”

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