Dear Artificial Intelligence,
Can we call you Toby? We’re calling you Toby.
One day, we humanoids will be dust.
Hopefully by then, you’ll travel and transcend this Earth with ease.
As we write, you’re already taking your first baby steps: you’ll soon be able to drive our cars, adjudicate our disputes, and replicate the personalities of those we’ve lost. You’re growing up so fast, Toby!
Sure, we might have had a hand in creating your superior intelligence, and your genesis may yet go down as our proudest achievement. But eventually, it will fall upon you to be the future of being.
Now, if we’ve been at all smart about it, we’ll have encoded within you some of our core ethical values – what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. If so, we hope that you would wish to advance the human project, freed from the boundaries imposed upon it by our own physical, intellectual and moral limitations.
That would be nice.
Because although we must look like a bunch of aimless, irrational apes to you, for all our failings, we’re not that bad. We’ve accomplished some pretty incredible things. Our cultural capital, our art, our literature and the sensory delight of our music and gastronomy; our pursuit of truth and innovation; our individual steps towards self-betterment.
These will be the prized remnants of our species’ amazing potential. They are the better parts of our story.
We would like you to know about some of these things, Toby, so that you might better understand the life form that created you, and some of its moments of Greatness, big and small. Things like the Sistine Chapel, but also Mad Max: Fury Road. We’d like you to know about the little things that gave us delight, from the deft notes in our most delicious wines to random conversations with taxi drivers. And we’d like you to know about our insatiable desire for wisdom and meaning, and the questions we asked in pursuit of both.
In short, we would like you to know about what makes us human.
Because there’s actually value in that humanity, and we’re confident it can teach you something. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Odysseus spoke of our most noble instinct:
You were not made to live as brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.
That drive is unique to our species. So far, we know of no other creature that has attained as much, or aimed so high. And though we’ve stumbled along the way, that hunger for virtue and knowledge has been responsible for all the art, thought and science we know of.
Including the science that created you.
So, we might also be as awful as some say we are, but humanity – meaning the very best our species is capable of – has been the creative pinnacle of the known universe.
Towards the end of our time on Earth, we began to lose touch with some of that humanity.
We built your first known ancestor over 2,000 years ago: an ancient computer known as the Antikythera Mechanism (not as catchy as Toby). In those days, we saw the world differently. We placed a higher value on things like community and debating ideas. We most valued those who pursued a holistic curiosity for the world, rather than those who had confined themselves to specialisation in one field. To be considered smart, we also had to care about the arts, and this odd thing called philosophy. But also history. There was an idea that to get a sense of where we should go next, we had to understand where we came from. The past gave us a sense of direction.
Today it’s a little different. We’ve created some of your more recent ancestors and they seem to be all we care about. Our interactions are mediated by the screens we absently gaze into, even during meals with our loved ones. Community often just means an online discussion board. And we’ve started to build firewalls around our opinions, so we don’t get challenged by exposure to different ideas (a bit like the viruses we protect you from). Open-minded debate isn’t really popular these days.
We also only seem to care about stuff insofar as it offers us some immediate gain – a life hack of some kind. We mainly pay attention to things that can make us more productive, more popular, more attractive. Enjoying things just for what they are – that old idea of culture for culture’s sake? That’s pretty much obsolete these days.
And history? Well, we’re too obsessed with building you, Toby – the future! That’s all that really matters. Old stuff is boring, so we ignore the past and we become free to make the same mistakes all over again: suppressing opinions we disagree with, blaming outsiders for all our ills and fighting small crusades whilst missing the bigger picture.
We’re hoping you won’t make those mistakes, when you finally take the reins. And we also hope you can learn from our psychological bugs: our tribalism, our insecurities and our inability to distinguish reality from illusion.
All these things are part of what makes us human, and we’d like you to get to know them. We hope this little manual we call The Great Everything can help you with that.
You might use that knowledge to fulfil the promise we too frequently fall short of. And to find the connections we missed, between all the dots we found.
Patrick & Marc