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Is humanity a passing phase in evolution of intelligence and civilisation?

“The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication…”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy (1979)

“I think it’s quite conceivable that humanity is just a passing phase in the evolution of intelligence.”

Geoffrey Hinton (2023)

In light of the recent spectacular developments in artificial intelligence (AI), questions are now being asked about whether AI could present a danger to humanity. Can AI take over from us? Is humanity a passing phase in the evolution of intelligence and civilisation? Let’s look at these questions from the long-term evolutionary perspective.

Life has existed on Earth for more than three billion years, humanity for less than 0.01% of this time, and civilisation for even less. A billion years from now, our Sun will start expanding and the Earth will soon become too hot for life. Thus, evolutionarily, life on our planet is already reaching old age, while human civilisation has just been born. Can AI help our civilisation to outlast the habitable Solar system and, possibly, life itself, as we know it presently?

Defining life is not easy, but few will disagree that an essential feature of life is its ability to process information. Every animal brain does this, every living cell does this, and even more fundamentally, evolution is continuously processing information residing in the entire collection of genomes on Earth, via the genetic algorithm of Darwin’s survival of the fittest. There is no life without information.

It can be argued that until very recently on the evolutionary timescale, i.e. until human language evolved, most information that existed on Earth and was durable enough to last for more than a generation, was recorded in DNA or in some other polymer molecules. The emergence of human language changed this; with language, information started accumulating in other media, such as clay tablets, paper, or computer memory chips. Most likely, information is now growing faster in the world’s libraries and computer clouds than in the DNA of all genomes of all species.

We can refer to this “new” information as cultural information as opposed to the genetic information of DNA. Cultural information is the basis of a civilisation; genetic information is the basis of life underpinning it. Thus, if genetic information got too damaged, life, cultural information, and civilisation itself would disappear soon. But could this change in the future? There is no civilisation without cultural information, but can there be a civilisation without genetic information? Can our civilisation outlast the Solar system in the form of AI? Or will genetic information always be needed to underpin any civilisation?

For now, AI exists only as information in computer hardware, built and maintained by humans. For AI to exist autonomously, it would need to “break out” of the “information world” of bits and bytes into the physical world of atoms and molecules. AI would need robots maintaining and repairing the hardware on which it is run, recycling the materials from which this hardware is built, and mining for replacement ones. Moreover, this artificial robot/computer “ecosystem” would not only have to maintain itself, but as the environment changes, would also have to change and adapt.

Life, as we know it, has been evolving for billions of years. It has evolved to process information and materials by zillions of nano-scale molecular “machines” all working in parallel, competing as well as backing each other up, maintaining themselves and the ecosystem supporting them. The total complexity of this machinery, also called the biosphere, is mindboggling. In DNA, one bit of information takes less than 50 atoms. Given the atomic nature of physical matter, every part in life’s machinery is as miniature as possible in principle. Can AI achieve such a complexity, robustness, and adaptability by alternative means and without DNA?

Although this is hard to imagine, cultural evolution has produced tools not known to biological evolution. We can now record information as electron density distribution in a silicon crystal at 3 nm scale. Information can be processed much faster in a computer chip than in a living cell. Human brains contain about 1011 neurons each, which probably is close to the limit how many neurons a single biological brain can contain. Though this is more than computer hardware currently offers to AI, for future AI systems, this is not a limit. Moreover, humans have to communicate information among each other via the bottleneck of language; computers do not have such a limitation.

Where does this all leave us? Will the first two phases in the evolution of life—information mostly confined to DNA, and then information “breaking out” of the DNA harness but still underpinned by information in DNA, be followed by the third phase? Will information and its processing outside living organisms become robust enough to survive and thrive without the underpinning DNA? Will our civilisation be able to outlast the Solar system, and if so, will this happen with or without DNA?

To get to that point, our civilisation first needs to survive its infancy. For now, AI cannot exist without humans. For now, AI can only take over from us if we help it to do so. And indeed, among all the envisioned threats of AI, the most realistic one seems to be deception and spread of misinformation. In other words, corrupting information. Stopping this trend is our biggest near-term challenge.

Feature image by Daniel Falcão via Unsplash.

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