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The Illusion of Autonomy

Half baked thoughts on the monkey brain and AI fears

The most pernicious form of belief is that which is unconscious. One such unconscious belief (that most of us hold) is the belief in individual autonomy. We take it as self evident that as humans we have the ability to make rational choices. But is it so?

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool. - Richard Feynman

Image a cork screw floating in the middle of the ocean, being pulled in every which direction. Riding the waves of interconnected variables. A small creature onboard the cork might have the autonomy to look where it pleases, but the overall course is charted irrespective of the small creatures whims. We seem to be in a similar situation. But what forces chart our course? The biological imperative to reproduce. In many ways, the human organism is simply a vessel to propagate genetic material. Brains are not an end in of themselves, but the means to an end. The body serves not the mind, but the genes.

Lies! You might tell yourself, my brain indulges in art, poetry, science, sports, music, food, etc. All of which have nothing to do with the propagation of genetic material. Or do they? These might simply be a more intricate version of the feathers of a peacock. A type of signaling that developed as the brain transcended beyond our more primal planes of existence.

For the sake of argument, let's accept that we have much less autonomy than we're led to believe. That our existence takes place largely within the bounds of a chemically mediated drive to reproduce. That we're slaves to our genes. How do we stop the cycle? The preservation of the mind. After reproduction, the body serves little to no purpose to our genetic overlords and is programmed to die. It's thrown away. The mind and its information content is destroyed. Yet it seems that if we truly had autonomy, we'd seek to preserve that which makes us sentient. Thus the preservation of the mind becomes paramount to truly achieve autonomy. Which brings us to AI. In the above mentioned context, the human brain is a device. A tool. A mechanism that emerged from the drive of genetic material to more abundantly reproduce. Until it became sentient. It's not hard to imagine a time when human consciousness exists in silicone, free from meat and genetic material. The end of genetic material at the hands of its own creation. I can imagine a similar thing happening with AI. Yet, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. We must understand that we exist in a fluid process of information. Language has given us an implicit sense of separation. We are not dinosaurs. Our ancestors are not us. But in a very real sense, we all exist within the same flow. The dinosaurs are us. The medium is not the message. The content is what's important. The content being, complex information and computation. I for one could care less about the substrate.

I guess that means I share the general arguments laid forth by AI alarmists, but I question the premise that the logical conclusions are a bad thing. Humans are not the end game. In the same way, an embryo is not the end of our own development.

Disclaimer: I took the liberty of being flippant about a lot here. I don't think our genes somehow have a conscious conspiracy against us. I'm personifying things and consider all of this to be emergent behavior - with no ill intent. It's simply how the cellular automata has played out. So the dynamic of slave master/slave could just as appropriately be seen as a parent/child relationship.

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