The field of artificial intelligence poses special problems for how we think about the relationship between information, matter, and life. One premise of AI is that we can design and arrange matter into machines that can replicate one of the most distinctively human aspects of life, intelligence, by conceiving of it as a form of information processing. As AI has moved from a subject of science fiction to reality, increasing attention is being paid to its practical aspects, including the ethical and political questions it raises. Consider the report on AI published by the White House during the final months of the Obama administration. The report, called Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence, begins in this way:
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to help address some of the biggest challenges that society faces. Smart vehicles may save hundreds of thousands of lives every year worldwide, and increase mobility for the elderly and those with disabilities. Smart buildings may save energy and reduce carbon emissions. Precision medicine may extend life and increase quality of life. Smarter government may serve citizens more quickly and precisely, better protect those at risk, and save money. AI-enhanced education may help teachers give every child an education that opens doors to a secure and fulfilling life. These are just a few of the potential benefits if the technology is developed with an eye to its benefits and with careful consideration of its risks and challenges.
Notably absent from this list, and indeed from the report as a whole, are artificially intelligent humanoid robots that might serve as companions, caregivers, or sexual partners. Yet creating such AI devices, which would arguably have more need of a human-like form than other machines, is a possibility being pursued by many roboticists.
This article is not yet available online. You can find it in the print edition of the journal, available on newsstands, or by ordering here. To read the full contents of new issues of The New Atlantis as soon as they are printed, subscribe today.
Charles T. Rubin, a New Atlantis contributing editor, is an associate professor of political science at Duquesne University, and the author of Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress (New Atlantis Books/Encounter, 2014).
Charles T. Rubin, "Mind Games," The New Atlantis, Number 51, Winter 2017, pp. 109–127.