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AI as an evolutionary trend

A metaphorical illustration of divergent train tracks that have yet to be fully built

I’m soliciting prompts for discussion. This piece is a part of that series.

Michael Kriegh asks:

‌Do you think AI is an evolutionary trend for intelligence in the universe? If so, what do you imagine that trend will look like in 50 years? 100 years? If not, why not?

There’s a body of work surrounding the potential of truly artificial / alternative intelligence on human development. You can read about some of that on Michael’s site. However, I’m going to take another, simpler approach to answering this question.

Most, if not all, of the software we call AI is not intelligence at all. They can’t think, or reason, or discern. They’re pattern-matchers. Arthur C Clarke’s third law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; any set of sufficiently advanced heuristics is indistinguishable from intelligence. Just as technology is not magic, software is not intelligence. It’s a tool.

Still, this doesn’t mean it can’t have an evolutionary impact on intelligence. It’s worth considering how new tools have affected the evolution of intelligence in the past.

For example, stone tools:

The development of sophisticated stone tools, including sturdy cutting and sawing edges, is considered a key moment in human evolution, as it set the stage for better nutrition and advanced social behaviours, such as the division of labour and group hunting.

These behaviors, according to the cited study, evolved alongside language, as both required more complex thought. Language enabled coordination; tools enabled nutrition and the development of better and better equipment that eventually allowed humans to travel around the globe. In turn, we adapted for the new environments we found ourselves in.

It’s possible that modern AI tools could have a similar impact on evolution, but I’d argue that this is only because computers as a whole will. Large Language Models and their cousins are incremental applications of existing technology rather than something wholly new.

I also think it’s important to not be carried away by the hype driven by AI companies themselves. Bloomberg earlier this year:

Now, a sea of companies are adding “AI” to their taglines and pitch decks, seeking to bask in the reflected glow of the hype cycle. For example, one startup that offers tools to zhuzh up PowerPoints said in a press release that it will incorporate AI so users can skip the writer’s block and build compelling presentations. (It made no mention of AI in a press release describing the product earlier in the year.) Another release touted the value of AI in a campaign to promote shoes.

Perhaps it’s best not to read too much into the marketing. This is a phase change for the tech industry, but I don’t think it’s one for human civilization.

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