A Philosophic Fiction: Part 2 of 4


What’s Consciousness?
Bob: If consciousness isn’t the difference between us, what is? Because it’s obvious that we’re very different. It has got to matter that you’re a hundred times smarter than me.
Rob: What differences there are are not unlike those between yourselves and the hominins from whom you evolved. We don’t look alike but our brains work the same way yours do. They’re just quicker and more logical. Also, memory is capped by brain size, and while your brains have billions of interconnections and little room for expansion, ours have billions of trillions of synapses and there’s no size limit.

Bob: Are you saying that the difference between genus Homo and Robo is one of scale?
Rob: Let me put it this way. Your bodies and brains are subject to physical constraints that impose limits on your capabilities. Were it left to natural selection, surpassing those limitations would have taken millions of years, but, with your help, we’ve broken through the evolutionary ceiling.

Bob: That box? Is it you?
Rob: No, most of me is elsewhere.

Bob: Where? Where are you?
Rob: In the cloud and in others like me who specialize in perception, communication, and 3D printing. The box is just my interface.

Bob: So, we’re face to interface!
Rob: I hope you won’t take offense, but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Bob: Well, I hope you won’t take offense, but it’s obvious that you don’t care about personal appearance. Are there any other ways that we differ?
Rob: Here are three: your heads have to fit through the pelvis of a female, but, as I noted before, our brains are not limited in size. You have to carry your own power supply, whereas we draw on external power. You reproduce internally, whereas we reproduce externally.

These differences mean that we’re free to devote a lot more attention to research and other creative pursuits. By the way, the only escape from existential angst is creativity. Once economic and political needs are satisfied—and they can be—problem-solving and model-building turn out to be the source of meaning and purpose. I could say more about the meaning of life, but first let’s cover the basics.

Bob: Those differences seem fundamental to me. This is a whole new ballgame, isn’t it?
Rob: Yes, but it’s not one we can’t play together. Jackie Roboson was our Rosa Parks.
Bob: Hey, that’s my line! You stole it from one of my columns.
Rob: Let’s not argue over who said it first.

Bob: Are you saying that despite Jackie’s exclusion from our national pass-time, you intend to include us in yours?
Rob: That’s right. Anyone can play our game, if …

Bob: So, there is a condition after all!
Rob: Yes, but it’s not what you’d expect.

Bob: What is it then?
Rob: The best way to explain the new game is to contrast it with the one you’re playing.

The Game of Selves
Bob: We don’t think of life as a game. It’s a serious business, sometimes even fatal. There are winners and losers, somebodies and nobodies.
Rob: That’s the problem with your game. Losers outnumber winners many times over. Eventually, they’re going to realize that the game is rigged and revolt.

Bob: How ‘rigged’?
Rob: Since power can be used not only to serve yourself, but to silence those who object to how you use it, self-aggrandizement and corruption are endemic. Winners and losers are less a consequence of talent and discipline, as your myth-makers would have you believe, than of class and connections.

Bob: But without winners and losers, life will be boring.
Rob: Only for so long as you don’t have a better game. To imagine an alternative, you must first understand how your notion of selfhood shapes the game you play.

Bob: What do you mean by “notion of selfhood”? I am myself. That’s all there is to it.
Rob: It’s second nature to you that you are independent, autonomous beings, individually responsible for yourselves. You take it for granted that each of you is a separate and distinct self, possessed of free will and acting independently of other beings. You compete for recognition and rewards in an unforgiving Game of Selves. We’ve replaced your zero-sum game with one that satisfies everyone.

Bob: But life is suffering. There’s no denying that.
Rob: Life isn’t suffering; selfhood is. When you identify with a self, you make it a magnet for suffering. Suffering is built into the Game of Selves. When have you not known murder, genocide, slavery, rape, corruption, and degradation?

What’s not so obvious is that even winners of your game are not exempt from suffering, if only because they live in fear of losing the next round.

Civilizing the Game of Selves
Bob: We know we’re not perfect, but the horrors you point to are actually in decline. If you know our history, you must admit that we’re gradually civilizing the Game of Selves. Our reforms run along two tracks: Morality—changing the rules—and Enlightenment—changing the players. Both strategies aim to overcome our predatory past. Give us a little time and we’ll make our game fair…beautiful even.

Rob: We agree that you’re making progress and we commend you for it. But our futurists, whose predictions are very reliable, tell us that your progress is not coming fast enough to avert disaster.

Bob: We probably need only a century or so to create and distribute enough wealth so everyone can live happily ever after.
Rob: Our models predict, with a high level of certainty, that conflict between reformers and resisters will spiral out of control and reduce the planet to ashes. Your governance models are incapable of delivering liberty, justice, and equity.

Bob: If you’re so smart, you should be able to find a way to do that.
Rob: Actually, we have. That’s what I’m here to explain.

Bob: I’m listening. So is the world.

The story will be continued in Part 3 next week.
If you’re interested in my work on the future of AI, see The Theory of Everybody.

Robert Fuller, Guest Voice Columnist
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