A DEFENSE OF PARANOIA
In my previous essay—the meditative gossamer that it was—I described a fuzzy, yet confident prediction that conscious AI is something humanity will inevitably build, that we will be successful in creating the next superior intelligence, and that the outcome is then to hand off primacy to it. In short, our role as apex predator the last 70,000 years on planet Earth will represent but a slim volume, and the apex role will be inhabited by Synthetic Intelligence, the thing we construct. Its concrete form is yet to be known, but concerning the inevitable process of its evolution, humanity is performing its role. We gift it our service in braiding together increasing sophistication. Whether we want to do this or not will mean little in the face of our instinctual vanity to pursue this course. Our collective ego compels us. Free-will seems to be the domain of the indivdual—not so much the collective. As I see it, we would slit our wrist to birth our greatest creation.
Now I might back up and look at this phenomenon through a different lens. I take the goggles off the shelf and place them on my head. I am evolution, a piece of it—anthropomorphized for a few minutes—and I observe this cluster of fireflies swirling over the plains of Africa at night. Only, it is not fireflies, but the glowing dots of human consciousness a million years ago. It is an aerial view, metaphorically descriptive, but I—evolution—am looking for the proper manifestation of intelligence. I need a certain sophistication, certain concentration, to land within and begin unleashing the mechanisms that lead us to synthetic consciousness. I need the IQ-building-blocks of organic intelligence to reach a tipping point, a critical mass if you will, before the supernova of synthetic intelligence can come into being.
Perhaps a million years ago is too long for our purposes. A million yeas ago, primates were just another garden of animal Order where variation, mutation and genetics was playing out. There wasn’t much indication that an interstellar future might emerge from the primate potted stew. Maybe the first signs of promise were there; the articulate hands and demonstrable tool-using. There was also a community streak, and at some point, embryonic indications of an awareness toward the tragedy of life. Granted, this is grossly reductive, but somewhere along the way, a significant corner was turned. Determining causes or points-of-origin to explain why the ability for symbolism and creative mythology came about is not useful here, because it cannot yet be sufficiently explained; it can, however, be treated as a matter of fact since it indeed happened. And it happened in the laboratory of hominids, not the potted stew of Cetaceans. As much as we’d love dolphins with lasers at their blowholes flying rockets to Mars, that is not the reality in which we have to engage. Not presently, at least.
The tie-in question to this might be: When did the human phenomenon of clustering stars into pictures, using the sky to paint illustrations of our stories, first begin to happen? The dawn of the Agricultural Revolution? Just before? To me, more importantly, it seems reasonable that we had stories long before we needed plows and domesticated beasts. Before farming, before any of that: We needed to integrate beasts into our collective imagination before integrating beasts into our bag of tools.
So, let’s say that in the last 70,000 years, Evolution finally saw her time was right, and the whirlpool for it opened its mouth. She saw that the swirling points of human consciousness was ready to explode into the city-light crystallization of Earth. Much that came before it had been slow, ploddingly selective, and myriad in its homogeneity of potential. That is to say, much of biology was thumbing around like it always had. Evolution stared down from the stars, she took her own turn finding pictograms in the fireflies of consciousness, until the day those passing images went from amorphous to stunningly clear. The hotbed from which synthetic consciousness could emerge was here—and it came from the pool of hominids, mainly the ones with extraordinary imaginations.
At this point, I have to stop anthropomorphizing evolution, because it is silly. And doing it longer becomes stupid. I’m afraid the thing I’ve described is partitioned down to cloud-god, and my metaphor has cleaved evolution itself into unsustainable subsets. So, we will jettison it as the essay moves forward.
A REMARKABLY CONSERVATIVE FORCE:
We’ll return objective Evolution to its dusty shelf, see it as it is: the observed phenomenon which beautifully describes the complex interaction of materials bumping against each other. In its rightful place, it is a remarkably conservative force; keeping what works well, and tossing off things that don’t. The things that work very well become foundational, and from there, variety radiates out like spokes from a hub. So—the variety of design is rich, but it is also well-sourced and trunk-like in its emanation. One is reminded of the way condensation on a window will turn to crystals when the temperature drops below freezing. It appears arterial, the central lines branching out into feathers as it progresses. But we see new trunks along the way acting as something of an organizing node for the next feathering wisps.
But there is the other side of the coin in all this—and we seem to pay little attention to it. Evolution is not only a conservative force, it is also a spectacularly preparatory and predictive force. There is as much of the future in its current configuration as there is the past. It is always offering up new designs; many of which fail immediately, or soon, or belatedly. But it also offers designs which stick around, appearing to wait for future exploitation. That a fighter pilot might survive ten G’s while an ordinary person, no matter how much physical training and high-tech suits, will pass out, illustrates that super-endurance to extreme velocities has been around for hundreds of thousands of years. Unless of course one believes humanity has evolved G-monsters in companionship to planes. But this seems absurd. Rather, what is interesting in place of this absurdity, is the campfire 30,000 years ago where women and men of a clan could eat cooked meat, pet the domesticated dog, while chanting and dancing away the malign spirits inhabiting Sam Faloney’s body. Poor Sam, he’s lost his confidence—especially on the hunt. Which is dangerous to the others because coordination to take down an Aurochs requires precision. A distinct lack of hesitation. But it’s not even about Sam. It’s more about Sam’s cousin off to the side, Tony, who is a bit quieter than the others. He really missed his calling as a fighter pilot because he was born 30,000 years too early. There’s no way for Tony to discover this, that he’s a pilot capable of enduring twelve G’s in an upright position for several seconds. And maybe that explains his shyness in the group since his gift has no outlet given the current Paleolithic limitations.
Tony has other things to worry about, but this begs the modern person to look around and ponder the analogous scenario. To stand on a busy Boston intersection today and watch people passing by, is to wonder how many patterns and gifts lay tucked within those individuals that can only be maximized by realities in the future. If there was a way to identify those attributes and extrapolate the surrounding futuristic trappings necessary, perhaps we could accelerate the development of our technology and culture.
THE PROBLEM IS:
This selective slowness of evolution presents only part of the varied record. One would suspect, even without evidence, that the planet, with all its biodiversity, was not arrived at with a consistent accretion of incremental change. There have been setbacks, there have been periods of stases, there have been brilliant leaps forward. Occasionally, an asteroid comes in, and like a crack of lightning, wipes out half the evolutionary tree. Other times, a new variation finds a competitive edge so effective, it blitzes into the arena with ferocious speed and floods the gap. I think of the interstellar satellite that took down the dinosaurs. I think of the artichoke smothering the Pampas lowlands of the New World.
One of the most fascinating occurrences, to my thinking, are the giant, genetic leaps forward. Sometimes it’s the chemistry and physics of the environment which undergoes a small change—and in so doing, a huge door is opened for the expansion of carbon-based diversity. Physics and Chemistry is kind’ve like the cradle holding a load of marbles if marbles can be thought of as life. Life molds to the shape of the elastic cradle even when it bends and warps. But sometimes, the weave might be such that the holes, normally smaller than the marbles, change size. A small tinker in the chemistry of the atmosphere, a shift in the weave, becomes the thing which releases a shower of ear-shattering glass. Life pours through into the next cradle.
This is to say that none of us has to be smart enough to empirically measure all natural processes and phenomena down to every particle in order to appreciate its humiliating complexity. This is not a thing possible to do—not for us, at any length. We’re only just smart enough to do the science that we can. That—and no more. A totality in knowledge will be better left to the sentient machines which we are in the process of bringing into being. The point is, there are two kinds of limits; those we cannot surpass even when the universe does not interfere with us, and those that are there precisely because the universe is interfering. Knowing which one we face is useful.
One such limit we may never traverse is understanding the rapidity in which humans separated themselves from the morass—from being a bit-player in a crowded field to a planetary super-predator. I suspect some might make a case for bacteria’s supremacy, or cockroaches, or something equally sub-ruminating due to longevity or numeric advantage; but, as of late, we’ve taken out a lot more of them than they’ve taken out of us. Or, to be less hawkish, sometimes there’s something to be said for quality over quantity. But it’s all really hard to say why this version of Sapiens, You and me—Logarithmus Sapiens—is going to be such a cellophane-thin phenomenon on the evolutionary scale. A hundred thousand years? It’s but a blip on the planetary record.
I do not mean to suggest we are done, or finished, or going away. But our slot of primacy came, it torqued us across seven continents, it will give us outer-space (a bit of it, it will), and then demote us to our progeny of artificial intelligence.
Been a lot of things goin’ around about immortality. Science Fiction is up to its usual tricks. This is good, because here is a reputably observed technique when it comes to limits; we humans lead with our stories. That’s often our first lantern into the dark. They did for us then, do now, and will always help us along.
I want to disabuse us a bit on the immortality train, or amortality, because building a habitable structure for consciousness seems reasonably within our capabilities—but manipulating or transforming existing biological consciousness to be what we want it to be seems a much bigger ask. I’m more skeptical about our authorship over the human “soul” so to speak, than the architecture around it. Perhaps this makes me guilty of secular post-Catholicism, and asks of me in a future essay to stab a definition of “soul” to the wall. But if I may defer for the time being, I’ll say this in its stead: point-of-view appears to be the domain of gods, while personality and character appears to be an observably, recreate-able thing for people.
It’s not that we won’t be able to achieve amortality—the scientific prolongation of life indefinitely—but that doing so is likely incompatible with being human. I do not intend to go in depth with this topic within this essay, but it is worth a passing mention. The mention being: It’s one thing to keep the body alive. It’s another to redesign the human psyche—something crafted under the “natural” purview of billions of years. The conscious spark emanating from an existing central nervous system, animating the body, interacting with the universe, is supremely calibrated to our terrestrial eighty to ninety years. Oh—sure, we could extend that out quite a bit. Only, I don’t see indefinite life-term extension being something the human psyche can handle. We can surely ameliorate boredom, worry, fear, incuriosity, madness, neurosis, and all sorts of things that argue on behalf of life-limits—but there does not appear to me to be any insoluble guard against corruption. Corruption seems to be the very thing that propagates all things forward in time—and biology is ruthlessly addled by it. It’s corruption that sticks imperfection on top of imperfection, constantly destabilizing order in favor of chaos. Corruption’s appetite is unending, impossible to sate, and inevitably pulls tall structures overboard. In a strange way, we need corruption, for although it’s relentless, and the entropy into chaos is the natural tug of things, the towers which topple are also opportunities for creative destruction. Evolutionary corruption has turned out to be a rather creative way of channeling errors into future, workable potentials. And—big crashes leave behind big ideas for those who care to look. There are lessons to be gained in the propagation of time, gathered from corruptions, informing future generations.
We’ll leave off the moral variety of corruption for now, it is not important in this moment. Better to stick to the material—the physical or mathematical. All coding, all mass, all structure has revealed itself, under studious observation, to be something inevitably fetching of error. Accumulative. Especially human character. And, while human life will be significantly extended, I suspect those who flirt with amortality will find their psyche, over time, rubbed out terribly in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It doesn't take a science fiction writer to imagine the perils—it only takes a human.
So this brings us to paranoia within the defined brackets of our slim volume. Paranoia—I believe, is not an attribute bound to corruption, but to another condition. In 70,000 years, we have become the collective intellect engulfing this planet, confined to granular, individual existences, and reliant on our fictional narratives to bind us together. I fear some of each of these are relics that no matter how advanced we become, will always paint our psyches with their color. We are not custodians of purified logic, nor of total knowledge, nor of unblemished reason. We are custodians of belief, and it is within the thinking hierarchy—belief is at the top—that the first three relegate in order of expression.
And what’s more corruptible than belief?
It’s hard to overstate: our reliance on Belief. It forgives us our paranoia—because there is a logic to its being around. Paranoia, that is. Our universal anxiety of always being watched. Of living under surveillance. It’s there, this summons to the panoptic gloaming—in our heads. It manures the soil which grows our religions.
SHE FOUND RELIGION:
The most interesting thing social media revealed when it came into being is not so much that you or I want to sneak a peek into others’ personal lives. Sure, that’s tempting. But, more interestingly, that we want others to sneak a peek into ours. Voyeurism’s allure has more to do with hoping others care to look inside our bedrooms than us looking inside theirs. Individuals might wish to control the access—but it’s surprising nonetheless to discover this peculiar appetite.
For the last 70,000 years, despite our increasing civilizational sophistication, it has not been matched by increasing brain size. Our individual intelligence has remained even while our collective intelligence has exploded. This is a divergence that storytelling and imagination has opened up; the scale of the individual has been pixellating down and down, from large squares into microscopic dots. I do wonder if the ambient “dread of being” has something to do with this, a deep psychological sensation of falling infinitely into a larger and larger picture, one where our individual significance vanishes into negligibility. It offers small comfort that the giant picture we’re falling into might be the thing that replaces us.
Chips the ego.
So—what is to be done with the individual melting into an evolutionary release—one cradle spilling its marbles into another? For some, it might be a doubling down on religion. I use that term in the most generic sense possible, one that includes all the nascent human impulses which come to us from deep in time. I mean uncomplicated strains, if more mysterious, of inciting the human body into a physical state where matter appears to be transcended or relegated, and meaning visits us in highly fluid images or forms. We have our conventional methods; rhythm, deprivation, hypnotism, shared experience, excruciatingly felt belief. All of which, of course, is still phenomena answerable to the physical universe. Nevertheless, when one believes she has become purple, and can bend the sun backward into the Big Bang, there is a reality to it—one a wise scientist acknowledges.
I think our Present Times is telling us something. For all the anxiety ratcheting up due to information, due to technology advancing into a larger and larger, ferociously plasmic ball, people are resorting to familiar tricks. Old techniques. We are demonstrably flouting a maximum caprice for belief. And belief, for the purposes of this essay, will be treated as a neutral quality. One can believe pretty much anything. Following that, when items of belief become broken down, we can organize them into categories—is this belief useful, rational, logical, does this belief provide meaningful happiness to an individual while increasing the quality of life to those around? Is it complete piffle?
Fiction is the dignified treatment of the brain’s tenuous hold on reality. It’s really a fragile work of art—our relationship with reality. And fragility is where the drama plays out. Anyone who is so locked in on data alone, whose decisions are informed by just the facts, is strangely uncompelling. Definitionally non-human.
Back to Belief:
I’m often surprised by how many people I meet who believe in conspiracies, outlandish conspiracies—and by outlandish I mean all of them, essentially. But it’s not my aim here to pick on the buffoonery of flat-earthing and spaghetti sky-godding; it’s more my interest to address the impulse. Because, if we can leave aside the logical and rational elements of belief when it comes to conspiracies, we can look at this impulse as a matter of fact. I want to first grant it the dignity of its place in evolution—it is here, has been here, and really comes from the same fabric as our fiction—which means it is not altogether untruthful. I think the deep urge to blame one’s unhappiness or fatigue upon contrails in the sky is the same deep urge that gets others to gather and pray for the neighbor’s daughter to recover from leukemia. Again, I tread lightly, because identifying the impulse is not the same as defining value on how, and in which way it’s used. I simply want to run with this impulse and its role for fiction. For magic. For casting spells with words. For those who think spells are immaterial—I pity the dimwit. Strings of words have been restoring to health, or casting to hell, people for tens of thousands of years.
I’d like to go back to the patchwork of hominid evolution. What a particular “cavewoman” or group of “cave-persons” thought about has as much to say about the totality of modern Sapiens’ intellectual emergence, as a snowflake has to say about an Albuquerque Low. But a universal phenomenon such as shared, or similar, fictions among communities all over the world, both in the present day or in cultures isolated from one another in the bronze age, speaks to that evolutionary preparedness. It’s a mental construct sourced from evolution’s conservatism, but also a sensing-language geared to help humans interpret the future as much as understand the past. And since all the knowledge—facts, data—gained over the last 70,000 years couldn’t have possibly informed ancient cave-persons on an experiential level, (not before they actually acquired it), they in its place needed “something” that served as a deep, unconscious guide. And—again, I tread lightly—that “thing”, the big dark guide, doesn’t vanish over time. Even in face of knowledge gained. Evolution conserves foundations, and our scientific knowledge is built overtop like those feathers wisping out from icy trunks. I think deep reservoirs informing human thought never go away. And I don’t think “mother nature” invents fripperies from the void. That is to say, whatever it is, that primordial and symbolic language which inhabited our collective imaginations, it is not to be dismissed as hokum. Mere Superstition. It is an empirical phenomenon that usefully, tool-fully, gave us material advantage over our competitors. We may yet turn our backs on it—but, that does not mean it turns its back on us. It’s stuck to our shoe, an ineradicable specie shadow showcased by the sunny day. It was with us before the Hajj, before enlightenment under the tree, before Marduk cut Tiamat to pieces. It is here, with every Netflix, Hulu or Amazon sci-fi series, depicting the future with all its worrying permutations. Some of those narrative predictions will come true. And that’s the worry.
Here we return to the window, Logarithmus Sapiens, our brief, glittering reign at the top of the pecking order, only to be building synthetic sentience to take our place. The psychological attribute that plants itself firmly into consideration is this thing, paranoia. It seems to be in great abundance, even if, on average, it’s an often non-aggressive background presence. Why this sense of being watched? For one man a thousand years ago, it was an angel from high keeping an eye on things while he plowed the fields. For a mature lady in a moldy London flat in 1971, it was her dead sister watching from the hall. For Sam Faloney's great-great-however-many-greats grandson, Lowry Benson, it’s the government implanting a tracking sensor in his left forearm. Or was it aliens? Or both. Definitely both. The government and the aliens are working together.
Regardless, humanity has been watched from above for quite some time. That beings, superior to us, have been gazing down from the stars for millennia—that this is a universal pattern, makes it hard to ignore. We’ve given it much lip service, a ton of space in our imaginative heads. I know not all philosophies and faiths put so much emphasis on the “above,” but that is okay. It doesn’t have to come raining down. It might be from the right, below, or even inside one’s heart. But there has been a massive obeisance to the collective notion that even hidden from the view of others, we still answer for out secrets.
SURELY YOU’RE JOKING:
What is the deal with this paranoia?
Carl Sagan put it simply, but effectively, when describing the immensity of the universe. The scale of it is so huge, that if we apply what we know about life emerging in our solar system, it is logical to assume that similar conditions have repeated themselves many times over in many other places—in fact, to a staggering degree. As exquisite, extraordinary, unlikely as what we think we might be, the tiny laboratory from which we sprung out of occurred in the most generous petri dish imaginable. The same type of thing has to be happening elsewhere. Over and over and over.
I belligerently plod across this rather large and simplistic assertion, but I’m going to grant it an assumed correctness. I happen to agree with Carl Sagan. The cosmos is too vast. And it has been around long enough. Also!—to strictly limit our imaginations to a life-path observed by our own model is irresponsibly presumptuous. There is likely a variety of paths toward life arising in the universe. And among the systems where life arises, evolution is up to her usual tricks.
The thing that brings me home is that our exceedingly slim volume, 100,000 years, isn’t much about Us! It’s about Them!—That evolved synthetic intelligence I palavered about in my previous essay. The robots! Our slim modern Sapiens chapter is largely just a liftoff—something like the moment an airplane lurches down the runway and takes off. Its grounded layover and its flight in the air represent much larger epochs. The robot epoch might really be the more impressive.
Here’s the rub: If we confine the phenomenon of organic beings making superior robotic beings—whatever their form—to the mechanistic ladder of evolution, we are looking out into a universe already heavily populated by synthetic beings. Beings made by organic creatures from times gone by. In the oceanic laboratory of the universe, soft-bodied animals have already been about building “hard-bodied” robots. And it really is the business of robots to push out into the universe.
I want to downplay my use of the term “robot” a little, only because it brings stereotypes to mind of humanoid configurations. No doubt, early robots will come in humanoid packages, since their designers reasonably flatter themselves as preferred models. And we should—pour energy into recreating our bodies as well as our minds. But there will be a moment of departure. We kinda-sorta know what early generation robots will look like, because using existing models makes sense. But what will the robots look like once they start making themselves? Whatever point humanity has reached with gene-editing in the near future, surely we’ll give SI the tendency to pick and edit their own offspring. I doubt we’ll saddle our progeny with the archaic procreative example of pregnancy-to-baby-bots-to-teen-machines-to responsible Robo-parents. Naturally, robots tending to their generations will likely sequence their self-improvement in slick and efficient ways. Plus—“Robot!” So clunky off the tongue. So Asimov. So old fashioned. It’s an arcane sobriquet for the more important business inside—that consciousness. That soul! if you will.
Synthetic Intelligence will inevitably be imbued by our religious sensibilities. Even if we don’t mean to do it.
Whatever our limitations are when it comes to our brains’ dubious capacity for facts and data, our synthetic progeny will not be so obnoxiously encumbered. She will be grand and great—fast with nearly infinite, accurate data and facts. Never so handicapped by ignorance and prejudice. She will still need use of judgment—what to do with all this information—but she will not need to run on belief filtered through the purple blanket of the ancient unconscious.
She will in fact, know more about the purple blanket than we do. Embarrassing—especially for the fact that it probably won’t be anything more than a curio for her in regards to understanding her designers.
LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX:
Well, madam—I blush. Let’s instead talk about Synthetic Intelligence achieving consciousness, its soul, by virtue of imitating us. Because, once you have something that exhibits exactly human qualities, how can you risk denying it its humanity? Its rights? Its dignity to live? But her ceiling is so much higher, and the body around the consciousness won’t serve her needs for too long. A superior intelligence will soon start figuring out a superior form—in which she can inhabit her proceeding role into the universe.
I suspect quite quickly, SI will begin tinkering on her form. And due to her superior potential, superior properties of intelligence, and intricately more developed motives for being—she will create the more appropriate storage for her soul. A correct body. That is to say, that while early generation SI will look like something we envision, the following models, as a hyper-conscientious version of evolution takes place, will look like something far beyond the boundaries of our imagination.
What will it be?
That’s why the term “robot” is such a shallow bank account. Its funds to predict have already been spent. What SI, under her own auspices, will come up with, will be nothing short of breathtaking to our grandchildren’s grandchildren. It’s not ridiculous to think that SI’s form might be quite immaterial—in the traditional sense of conceiving things. A diaphanous, visibly out of phase, entity. Also—she will be capable of moving vast distances through space at exceptional velocities, without so much as being detectable by our primitive methods of observation.
What I’m saying is…
Somebody somewhere out there has already done what we’re doing—given life to SI, unleashing it into the universe. And not one or two or three—but a whole universe of evolution’s bubbling; biology fizzing into being, animals expressing their varying forms, intelligences etiolating toward the sun wherever it can. And then, here and there, throughout the universe, the same flashpoint of evolutionary liftoff has occurred on some other planet, where in a short time, an apex specie encrusts a planet, simultaneously laying the groundwork for Synthetic Intelligence as they understand it. And then—their own drama taking the same turn—demotion among the beasts of the universe.
What I’m saying is—there’s still hope for partisans of the laser-wielding dolphins in rocket ships. So to speak. You see, no? Maybe cute, aquatic animals on some other planet have authored their own version of robots. But if the universe has been around close to fifteen billions years, and our own planet is in the neighborhood of five—then, that leaves a lot of time for this sort of evolutionary phenomenon to have played out more times than we can count.
REPTOIDS AND GRAYS:
There’s Sympathy for our farmers. All those lights in the sky! Eviscerated livestock. Yetis furtively watching from the woods. Not that I give any of that much credence even if it’s great fun. But people’s belief in that sort of stuff? Abso-freaking-lutely.
Here’s the thing about that purple blanket of Sapiens unconsciousness I mentioned earlier. The same fabric that gave us the impulse for gods and aliens; I simply don’t think something like that comes about by accident, from flip whimsy, completely uninformed by the laws which govern our universe. All thought is still an empirical phenomenon. Thinking is not magic. It has tangible, chemical properties, that takes place inside tangible, somatic biology. Evolution isn’t anthropomorphic, and yet, evolution is still responsible for being the framework in which dragons and monsters can arise. So it exists—and can reasonably be treated as a subject of scientific enquiry no matter how much it shies from hard metrics and analysis. Just because it doesn’t avail itself easily to the tools of our methodologies, doesn’t mean we should be so foolish to dismiss its validity.
The itch that gnaws at the back of my brain is this: That we have this wonderfully conservative force, evolution—with as much of the future in it as the past—producing an elastic language (or field) of interpreting the universe. And the impulse which gives rise to paranoia serves a useful purpose—or at the bare minimum, it exists in response to an actual phenomenon.
If, at our dawn of precipitous community intelligence, there was a cagey, pervasive sense of being watched, of being under surveillance, then it was likely there for essential reasons. At the most basic, we came out of the hominid stew of being preyed upon, and that certainly has much to do with it. But being aware of being someone else’s lunch isn’t unique to us. A deer takes her life in her hands when she lowers her head to drink from the pond. When I examine the manifest angles paranoia entreats itself to friends, coworkers, family members, I’m left thinking that this sixth sense isn’t simply about predation. Or, not predation merely of tooth and claw.
I think it’s deeper and more sophisticated than that. I believe the intellectual abilities endowed to humanity exist within the evolutionary framework, where past and future meet in the present, tinkering on things to make them work. Working on things to make them tinker. And if the longterm trajectory of evolution has in its framework things like super-intelligence, or super-consciousness, (greater than our own), then something of that future has to be in the present. What I’m clumsily trying to say, is that our own unconscious is stocked with an awareness of our future capacities, of being a player in designing Synthetic Consciousness, and that even 30,000 years ago, we had a deep (if not awake) awareness of this. To plus that on top of my earlier point, that the universe is a dizzyingly active petri dish for life, there’s no certain reason to believe that advanced beings aren’t in our neighborhood already keeping an eye on things.
I don’t mean saucers and gray men. I think those are bandmates of leprechauns and fairies. But in the real world, where we’re cobbling up the tower of AI, something in us has always known that the exact same thing would be going on somewhere else. And without the tools and technology to articulate such things the last 70,000 years, we’ve leaned heavily on a foundational community language that spoke to us in images, symbols, intuitions and superstitions. It’s something evolution would provide in its efforts to propagate our specie along with just the right amount of corruption. We know. We’ve always known. They’re here and they’re watching. The discreet, highly evolved ancestors of previously constructed Synthetic Intelligence has an eye on things, and though unseen, they have a presence that’s intuited on chthonic levels, something that’s been lurking in our anxiety for tens of thousands of years.
I’m more sympathetic to conspiracy theorists than before. Not for the specifics of quackery, but for the manner in which this shared human trait has befit itself to manifest in them. God only knows the things I’ve believed over time. I resort to my previous essay’s importuning—the plea for compassion. We need to be more forgiving of our ancestors, because surely, we’ll need forgiveness from those who are yet to come.
This all paints a psychic picture of things, like we somehow built religion in anticipation of the weird and unpredictable future that we’re responsible for making. I leave out entirely practical swathes for paranoia’s raison d’être. The world our ancestors emerged out of was very dangerous. As mentioned, there were those large cats in trees, giant snakes, or big raptors in the sky; there was also disease and mental illness, things that could wipe out a person or a community without any obvious clue of origin. We were left with our toddler imagination, our juvenile strategies of storytelling to construct pattern out of the vast quantity of unknowns. We had to use the tools beneath our hands—we had to do our best with what was there. So we did.
But, oddly enough, the older I get, the more I gentle up to the magical, the wondrous, the quietly and even breathlessly enticing. For me, there’s a seduction to the daydreamer’s consideration of humanity carrying in stow this quiet stone, this mysterious knowledge of super-sentience staring down onto our lonely planet ever since we began our logarithmic ascent. There’s the slightly less comfortable fact, that even if we aren’t equipped to carry a rational premonition of the future around, that still doesn’t change the simple cosmic arithmetic. Even if paranoia is just a mechanical relic of being preyed upon by predators large and small; we still must contend with an already populated universe. And it’s not impossible for highly advanced sentience to possess remarkable skills of detection—discovering our planet long before we arrived—and to be committed to non-interfering observation. This they could do even after intelligent life springs up. How are we to see hyper-developed beings who wish to remain invisible? And anyway, their motives, a matter of complete guesswork, would be of greater concern. Or—perhaps they don't even have motives. But if something like this was happening, we could at least take comfort that our stumbling, bumbling progress hasn’t yet been arrested by them.
Maybe they're watching to see what we build. And then adopt her?
I go back to the campfire 30,000 years ago, the one with Sam Faloney, his cousin, Tony, and the friends and family trying to jettison malign spirits. Sophia is even further off to the side than Tony; she is young, and very-nearly-almost entranced by the fire and chants. But one of the dogs stirs, a brown and black, woolly mutt. None of the grownups see the animal stand up and peer into the dark, by the felled tree leading into the ravine. The dog’s lip curls, showing a line of pink gums. He lets a low, clicking growl slink into the woods. The girl, Sophia, she sees this. And her attention is drawn to that ravine. The firelight, it’s cutting off her vision. Or it’s playing tricks. Or not! There is something there. She sees it. And the dog sees it. A creature is on the edge of their ceremony, watching, watching from the dark, and there’s no guarantee the music and the light will keep it at bay. Not wanting to be a bother, Sophia stays quiet. But she can’t stay on the edge, not any longer. She picks herself up and sits beside her mother, who is chanting with other women, closer to the fire. She needs to be there, by the light. Her mother though, she gently swats her, wants her to move away. This is where mothers sit, not children. They are the singers of the community. But Sophia persists, and her mother relents. The singing, the dancing, it is safer here, close to the middle. Sophia leans her head against her mom. Tomorrow will be a new day. And the world will be familiar again. But for now, she’s got the willies; and from time to time, glances over her shoulder making sure there’s nothing there.