Has the Meaning of Life(tm) become irrelevant?


When Alan Turing first proposed the Imitation Game, he was essentially side-stepping the fundamental existential question of what it means to be sentient.  The point of the Imitation Game, was whether a machine could be programmed to be sufficiently non-deterministic that it could convince a human operator that it was sentient.  This is a critical difference, so it is ironic that over time, Turing’s famous “test” has been misinterpreted as a test for “artificial consciousness”.  It has now been more than a half century since Turing’s masterwork was published in “Mind” and times, they have a changed!

Today the press is crowded with click bait headlines about “Artificial Intelligence” and “Machine Intelligence” at the slightest utterance from one of the Silicon Valley elite.  And of course the immediate reaction from the masses is to recall generations of nightmarish dystopian sci-fi, and make doom laden comments about “Skynet”, “Wargames”, “The Matrix”, et al.  Lately, though, I’ve been thinking that this entire line of reasoning, both the press over exuberance, and the borderline hysteria reaction to it, is a distraction from what may very well be a vital moment in time.

It is time we return to the roots of Alan Turing’s work, and ask some significant questions.  There is no doubt today that a machine can fool a human.  The Turing Test has been passed.  There is also, however, no doubt that even the most advanced machine intelligence learning algorithms aren’t remotely “sentient”.  At least not as sentience occurs in higher level mammals.  But I think focusing on this extreme edge case, the most sophisticated organic life forms, is causing us to completely miss a critical existential dilemma.  Where do these developments leave the least sophisticated organic life forms?

Take your common, garden variety, honey bee, for example.  There is no doubt that a bee is an absolute wonder of nature.  It is a brilliant piece of organic programming.  And yes, the choice of wording here is very deliberate.  For all of their sophistication, bees do very much follow the pattern of a pre-programmed determinism.  It could be argued that possibly humans do as well, but in higher order life forms like humans, the branching logic is so complex, and the “program” is sufficiently stochastic, that a pattern is almost impossible to identify at anything less than extreme breadth (ie: “drive to reproduce”).  In a bee, things are very different.  Bees are born into a role.  They perform this role unerringly their entire lives.  They do not question it, nor can they.  They build the most wondrous structures, achieving mathematical perfection in the hives, but this is all they build.  They utilize ultraviolet vision to find and extract pollen over miles of ground, but they do no other exploration with it.  They seek pollen.  They extract pollen.  They return pollen.  They eat pollen.  They produce honey as a by-product.  They protect and nurture the queen.  The queen populates the hive.  If threatened, they defend.  The tragic, and possible catastrophic, Colony Collapse Disorder proves that if any anomaly is introduced into their environment, it can cause cataclysmic disruption of the entire life cycle.

So a bee, in many ways, is a little organic robot evolved to keep plants healthy.  It is perfect at its task.  It is unquestionably alive.  We know this because it is organic.  But our definitions don’t extend much beyond that, do they?  As of today, in the 21st century, our formula for “life” looks like this:

                                           IF organic THEN alive

This is by no means facetious.  Our only definition of “life” is the above.  Now “sentience”? Or “intelligence”?  There we resort to “you know it when you see it”.  There are some tests for “self awareness”, but they are dubious and highly questionable.  What does all of this mean?  It means that for all of our progress in science and mathematics, we haven’t made too much progress on some important existential questions.  Philosophers of course have spent lifetimes focused on these areas, but philosophers produce additional thought as their primary output, rather than anything truly tangible.

So where does this leave the bee?  It’s hard to say.  The bee is certainly alive, but is it truly intelligent?  Is it sentient?  Without being able to define these terms, the answers to those questions are left purely up to the observer, which brings us full circle, back to Mr. Turing.

I think we have reached the point today where it is worth asking… Is the most sophisticated machine intelligence (take Watson, as an example) any more or less “intelligent” or “sentient” than a bee? And is it alive?  The obvious answers are “no”.  But this answer begs the question “why not?”  It is almost certainly based on the above simple rules of “I know it when I see it” and “IF organic THEN alive”.  It is time to have a serious discussion about how sufficiently sophisticated human generated code measures up against the least sophisticated nature generated code.  Watson, meet honey bee!

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