In 1950, the brilliant British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing introduced what is now called the Turing Test. It consists of a human interviewing a person and a machine, trying to determine which respondent is the machine. For a machine to pass the Turing Test is considered a significant milestone in the development of artificial intelligence. The test has been administered countless times to date, and while an indisputable machine victory hasn’t happened yet, computer scientists believe it will happen within the next few years.
Alan Turing believed if a machine could pass his test, it was thinking. But most experts do not define thinking and “consciousness” as one and the same. A machine that passes the Turing test is still a machine, an impressive calculator that imitates consciousness, but inside that big calculator, nobody’s home.
That’s hardly the end of the story, of course. In 1988, the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson published Infinite in All Directions, a wide-ranging discourse on humanity’s role in the universe. In his book, Dyson predicts that genetic engineering will enable manufactured organic minds that are merged with electronic components including AI, but inside their biological mental core, they will be alive and self-aware.
According to futurists ranging from Dyson and Ray Kurzweil to Elon Musk, a millennium from now, if not much, much sooner, only a small fraction of the conscious intelligent beings once known as humans will exist as humanoids we would recognize as ourselves. Others, to present a vivid example, could exist as the conscious brain of a starship, with nerves extending into every system of the craft, interfacing with the minds of similarly cybernetic passengers and crew.
That is the future, and perhaps the not-too-distant future. But what about the next 10 or 20 years? What’s going to happen between now and then? In both bioengineering and cybernetics, the possibilities are mind-boggling, too much to even adequately summarize. Nanobots. Artificial limbs, organs, and nerves. Brain implants.
Credible speculation is limited only by one’s imagination, and it’s happening fast. But what does it mean for society in the short run?
In America, the reality of AI running systems as mundane as a thermostat and as complex as an airliner or a power grid leads to something Victor Davis Hanson alluded to in a recent article in American Greatness, where he wrote, “In today’s age of computer-driven avionics, the prerequisite ability to do math, to know something about navigation, to understand computers, or to have the proper temperament to fly a plane doesn’t really matter.”
The Machining of “Merit” and the Coming of the Borg
This where America is headed. Across every institution, Americans are no longer being held to immutable standards of achievement. Instead, in the name of achieving race and gender “equity,” the meritocracy is being not only abandoned but stigmatized as racist. It won’t matter. Machines will do the work.
Coming soon, instead of education, people will have access to implants or neural links that target and enhance specific skills—memory, language, math. Equally likely, and also coming soon, people will be able to edit the genes of their offspring before they are born, choosing their attributes—height, appearance, intellect.
This transhuman future, enabled by technology, is inevitable. But every sovereign nation on earth will handle the rollout differently. In the United States, current trends suggest the big tech oligarchy will view individual “enhancements” as a logical extension of the manipulative power they’ve already achieved with the internet. People will think they’re thinking with more intelligence, but every shred of enhancement they’re accessing will be controlled and managed. They’ll think they’re smart. They’ll think they’re free. And they’ll be nothing of the sort. They’ll be Borg.
For other nations, and the regime that currently rules China comes immediately to mind, the idea of creating a collective of enhanced humans isn’t the least bit repugnant. It certainly isn’t something that requires obfuscation. Perhaps some of China’s cutting-edge research in cybernetics and genetic engineering are military secrets, but the overall goal is openly proclaimed. We will create superhumans. Chinese superhumans. And then we will conquer the world.
Conformity at the Expense of Ability
Americans today need to reflect carefully on the opportunities for physical and mental enhancement that are just around the corner. Because as these new devices worm into our minds in ways more profound and more permanent than smartphones and social networks already have, they will not be merely Pavlovian manipulators, they will be programmed orchestrators. The machines will pick the options, within our own minds, and we will comply.
What is needed more than ever is not a dumbed-down America, where standards are abandoned and the meritocracy is scrapped. For all their totalitarian brutality, the Chinese regime is not making that mistake. Their schools and their scientific institutions may demand conformity, but they also reward ability. America’s institutions, by contrast, are moving at a withering pace towards conformity, while dismissing ability as a relic of oppression.
The creativity and individualism that define American culture and bestow one of America’s most enduring advantages over totalitarian, collectivist cultures depend on nurturing merit, not rendering it irrelevant. Individual, widespread, hard-won competence, unenhanced and rewarded, are the traits that will enable Americans to manage the transition to a species increasingly altered by technology. If America’s policy is to dumb down their population, on the other hand, resistance is futile.
Try to imagine human civilization as it expands into the solar system and eventually to the stars. Shall it be a vibrant society of free individuals or a drab collective? Shall it consist of a federation of diverse, independent nations, with their cultures and traditions grounding them as they reach into the beyond, or an undifferentiated mass of humans controlled by machine implants, ruled by a single politburo?
None of this is far-fetched. The future is coming, and it is going to be sick. Remember that, the next time Joe Biden stumbles through a press conference. Who really runs America, and what do they want for this nation?