You Are Already Living Inside a Computer – The Atlantic

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This new cyberpunk dystopia is more Stepford Wives, less William Gibson. Everything continues as it was before, but people treat reality as if it were in a computer.

When seen in this light, all the issues of contemporary technology culture—corporate data aggregation, privacy, what I’ve previously called hyperemployment (the invisible, free labor people donate to Facebook and Google and others)—these are not exploitations anymore, but just the outcomes people have chosen, whether through deliberation or accident.

Among futurists, the promise (or threat) of computer revolution has often been pegged to massive advances in artificial intelligence. The philosopher Nick Bostrum has a name for AI beyond human capacity: “superintelligence.” Once superintelligence is achieved, humanity is either one step away from rescuing itself from the drudgery of work forever, or it’s one step away from annihilation via robot apocalypse. Another take, advocated by the philosopher of mind David Chalmers and the computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, is the “singularity,” the idea that with a sufficient processing power, computers will be able to simulate human minds. If this were the case, people could upload their consciousness into machines and, in theory, live forever—at least for a certain definition of living. Kurzweil now works at Google, which operates a division devoted to human immortality.

Some even believe that superintelligence is a technology of the past rather than the future. Over millions of years, a computer simulation of sufficient size and complexity might have been developed, encompassing the entirety of what Earthly humans call the universe. The simulation hypothesis, as this theory is known, is of a piece with many ancient takes on the possibility that reality is an illusion.

But the real present status of intelligent machines is both humdrum and more powerful than any future robot apocalypse. Turing is often called the father of AI, but he only implied that machines might become compelling enough to inspire interaction. That hardly counts as intelligence, artificial or real. It’s also far easier to achieve. Computers already have persuaded people to move their lives inside of them. The machines didn’t need to make people immortal, or promise to serve their every whim, or to threaten to destroy them absent assent. They just needed to become a sufficient part of everything human beings do such that they can’t—or won’t—imagine doing those things without them.

There’s some tragedy in this future. And it’s not that people might fail to plan for the robot apocalypse, or that they might die instead of uploading. The real threat of computers isn’t that they might overtake and destroy humanity with their future power and intelligence. It’s that they might remain just as ordinary and impotent as they are today, and yet overtake us anyway.


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