Earlier today at Barnes & Nobles
Earlier today at Barnes & Nobles, I skimmed Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines. It is truly a fascinating book. After reading a few pages about the mechanisms of evolution, my brain began to wander...
Before there was life, Earth was just a big ball of chemicals stirring around (in a sense, it still is). There were certain laws that governed the interactions of these chemicals. Namely, as these elements and compounds interacted with each other, they formed more complex molecules. Things tended towards complexity. This law is simply a pattern based on empirical evidence, and seems to be a fundamental law of the universe.
After a few billion years, these molecules are much more complex. Accidentally, some molecules began to form RNA and replicate themselves. Life was born. Evolution came into play. Interestingly, evolution remained true to the law that things tend towards complexity — bacteria evolved into more complex multi-cellular organisms, which developed tissues and organs. Once life began and organisms recreated themselves, evolution arose as the mechanism for this cosmic principle of complexity.
As organisms became more complex, they also became more intelligent. Humans are so intelligent as to be sentient, or conscious of themselves to a high degree. Over the course of human existence — the last 2 million years — civilization has grown much more complex, in terms of culture, government, art, and science. With sentience, evolution begins to act on itself. Even our tools have evolved from a rock we initially used to beat things with, to the computers we use today. These computers, by virtually any definition, have a degree of intelligence. Furthermore, within the next few decades computers will grow in complexity until they are as powerful as the human brain, and they will continue to grow past that.
Therefore, humans created the same level of intelligence in two million years that life created in five billion years. Why? Because nature is random. It took billions years of trials and errors until life accidentally emerged. Then, it took billions of years of trial and error for sentience to emerge. Once humans had this degree of sentience, they were able to combine evolution with their intelligence to create artificial evolution. Our tools — our artificial creations — developed intelligence and consciousness at a rate thousands of times faster than natural evolution.
So what's my point? My point lies in considering what is to come. Humans are very intelligent relative to other life on Earth, but our knowledge is certainly finite. There are many fundamental things about the universe that we do not understand. In our lifetime, machines will surpass our intelligence. They will have a greater consciousness than we have. The difference between natural things and artificial things will become meaningless. Humans may become extinct because we are less adaptable than our über-intelligent successors. But this is not to be feared because consciousness will continue to grow. That's what humans truly want — our curiosity about the universe we live in, our desire to relate to other people — everything we do is to expand and deepen our consciousness (either that or hedonistic narcissistic pleasure, e.g. sex). Our sentience will continue to grow and will shed its current human vessels and take on the more complex and adaptable form of our machines — thanks to our nanotechnology, optical and molecular computing, biotechnology, robotics, etc.
Though many neo-luddites fear this exponential acceleration of technology, that's life. And I think life is good.