Business dinners are generally rather drab affairs. A few overpriced appetizers, a few sips of wine, a lot of mutual intellectual backslapping, some angling over who pays the check and you’re done.
But just a few evenings back, I had a business dinner where all of the meal wasn’t on the plate. The conversation seemed fishy. But might there have been real meat? It got rarified, and then it got bloody, and all because of a late arriver — with all the bravado of “L’Etat, c’est moi.”
Clad in an actual cape, black on the outside, red in the lining, with long salt and pepper hair and a pencil mustache that looked like it had run out of lead before it had finished being applied, he introduced himself as Zari Sustra.
He was seated to my left. Lucky me, I thought. The meat of the conversation started sizzling when our host posed a question: if robotics can replace parts of us with better parts, if technology can capture and map our brain patterns, if all of our actions, needs and wants can be captured, weighed, imputed and replicated by AI’s, when does being us end? When does the robotic us, stop being us? When does the externalized AI become us?
The Philosopher, with a twirl of the non-existent handlebar on his sad caterpillar of a mustache, said: “Say a brain has had a disease, or a shock, or it wants to perform better for that test or overcome stage fright for this speech. The Cloud-as-localized makes it like The Matrix, able to download not only the brain’s info, but that of the connected Other-Brains, maybe the Best-of-the-Best, and upload its unique contributions to them...” He paused, and gestured to me with a knowing grin. “For instance, my seat mate here is obviously bright. His name is Mike. What if he could upload his unique strengths into The Best-of-All-Mikes'-Brains-in-the-Cloud, which all the Mikes in the world could draw from? Then this big-brained Mike, to my right, could download from the cloud, and the choices all the Mikes make in all that drawdown decide which of this Mike's brain features get uploaded to the Best-Of-All Mikes’-Cloud-Brain… At that point, who the heck is he? Who’s any other Mike?”
"But this all needs to be programmed. Right? Write? You imagine that if you program hard enough and write more than enough you’ll be able to abstract all the rules, and write all the wrongs, and deliver all the deductions, and frame up those patterns, and predict all the predilections, that will generate just naturally all the attendant emotions and senses and sights and smells and touches and sounds."
“Do you think you can program Nature? The sun generates more power in a single minute than humans ever have. A puffer fish under the sea can imagine and create, using only its fins as spades, a mathematically perfect design across a distance 100 times its length in the sand.”
"You DO think you can program Nature, brave souls, and I admire your spirit. You reach for the OverHuman. You yearn to create evolution. You try to turn what is human into a bridge between Nature and God. You really imagine that you can program the whole universe. If you fail, what have you done? You’ve built a virtually tiny and limited world for your Next Self. An embarrassingly bereft subset of that which Nature has given you, you humans, in her great generosity, as a gift. Most of that which is experienced by your cyber Super Mike would have to be dependent on what the programmers can mathematically represent. Programmers would need to start with reality, abstract it to a language that your OverComputer could execute, and you imagine that would re-create, and in fact, make better, a man? Let alone a woman!’”
Thus spoke Zari Sustra. Why am I talking like that? Was he mesmerizing me?
Proud of his clear dissection of the inanity as stated by our host and expecting a round of applause, but wishing for the lights in eyes of a child at Christmas, having just missed Santa’s finger to his nose as he makes his vertical escape, but leaving behind the shiny invitation to a magical morning. Instead, he must have sensed the consternation wafting toward him, because after some moments of the guests’ shifted sitz bones, scraping of feet upon the floor, and eyes cast sideways, saying, without saying, "This guy is a fruit loop,” The Philosopher pressed on, his voice a bit lower, trying to add authority to his words:
“There is real reality. Can you not see? Stop talking to yourselves, and consider: Cows don’t work from abstraction. They generate reality, with their actions. They amble, with no preamble. They pass gas, with no discussions. They fight and have sex and sleep and cuddle and cogitate in their way, as they masticate their cud. They do it all with nary a word. And you do too. You do all that, and a whole lot more. Your reality, your experience, isn’t language. Isn’t symbols. Those are just conveniences and projections. Who are YOU? Nature asks. And you answer in words? Drop off, my sleepy ones. Or have the courage to see. Tap into the last time you were about to crash your car, but you didn’t — Between when you knew you might die and when you said to yourself you were still alive, adrenaline pumping through your veins. You didn’t say a word. You gasped or growled or bit your tongue as you slammed one pedal while swerving the steering wheel… only when you safely were on the other side did you start talking to yourself again. Right? Or the last time your baby woke up and smiled at you, or you realized that you were in love, or you drilled a layup with only dust in your rearview mirror. It’s only after, that you talk. Almost like that talking brain wants to take credit or make sure of what went well and what failed. Right? You didn’t save your life or love or live because you told yourself what or how to do. You only told yourself afterwards, 'Oh, that was good.' Or, 'How embarrassing.' Right? Was math discovered, or invented? Do we speak the truth, or only a smart monkey’s attempt to represent it in symbols? Oh, my brave and wonderful humans, who’ve beseeched Nature to betray her secrets, who have breached the stars and broached illness, with your blood and your lives — how many died, to find out which mushrooms sustained you and which were killers? How many suffered to sail beyond the horizon? It is in your genes. And they cry out, now, with so much solved, to take the next step: Re-create the human brain!”
"But with our smart brains, come equally smart denial. In order to make your OverMike, you have to program it. You can’t program without symbols and abstractions and math. But isn’t it obvious that what is human is human? What is cow is cow. What is Nature is Nature. But this human animal, alone among those yet evolved, has found the ability to build a language, and talk in such an effective way that you came, over the ages, to think you ARE this talking you do! Oh, you idealistic and charitable humans… so much God loves in you. But she laughs so hard at you, she cries. Because words aren’t reality. Cows are reality. Nature is reality. The dessert on your lips and the wine in your belly. Just because she allowed us to TALK -- because she made us, just so she could be conscious of herself -- you miss her great gift, and think that what you SAY is reality.”
Thus spoke Zari Sustra. The opinion had formed around the table. This guy was a bully and a bore. Certainly he’d been drinking before he got here. But before one of us could interject, he continued:
“Historically, I blame it on the Greeks. The Greeks built such an abundance of spirit that they began to think they were Gods. They sat in their variety of philosophical schools, arguing the verities of reality, deciding what was real and what wasn't, all through the words they invented... Logic. Great stuff. But for God’s sake, Greeks: it’s just a tool. It’s not who we are.”
“You’ve dragged yourselves from the mud of the savanna to this table, and now you’re ready to create the Next Great Adventure. The OverMike. But you do so with one hand, Nature, tied behind your backs. You think you can use your logic to build a whole human being? And even a BETTER one than Nature has done? How are you going to build THIS from symbols? How can you build reality from abstractions? Speaking logically, it is impossible to build a set from its subset. Life, nature, reality, you humans successfully use induction to generate rules. You can’t deduct all of life from your puny words. I’m sorry, Plato. The jig is up. You’re a fraud.”
Thus Spoke Zari Sustra.
We all sat still, thinking that if we made any move, or betrayed any view on our faces, it would only encourage him. Perhaps he was done?
“You’ll find out, I’m afraid, as you squirrel away at building your OverHuman, that you’ve symbolized yourselves into a corner. As Tom Cruise said to Dustin in 'Rain man,' "Who’s on First?" isn’t a riddle. It’s a joke.' As Melissa Tome said in My Cousin Vinny, 'It’s a bullshit question. They didn’t put a 327 short block in a ’59 Buick Skylark.'"
Thus Spoke Zari Sustra. And with that, he was finally done.
He didn’t convince a soul in the room. But, stylistics aside, I’ve been thinking about his treatise. Can it be true that our direct experience of the world, beyond logic and language, makes us (and cows) unparseable? That, whatever deeper, more powerful AIs we produce, they can never, even remotely, be us?
In the end, I like food for thought even better than food for the belly. But what can I say: I'm human.