Oxford physicist predicts AI will be human in all but name

Renowned physicist David Deutsch on the evolving question of what it means - and what it might one day mean - to be human.

David Deutsch has spent a lot of time thinking about the place where artificial intelligence meets philosophy - a place where mind-bending equations straddle advanced physics and existential dilemmas. As in: What is consciousness? What's the one quality of human beings AI could never possess? What if there's no such thing?

Deutsch is a visiting professor of physics at the University of Oxford and the author of The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World. He says evolution is far from finished. And human beings in our current form aren't as good as it gets.

(Submitted by David Deutsch)

Deutsch, who's also been described as a philosopher at heart, says AGI - artificial general intelligence, a more sophisticated version of existing AI - will reinvent human capabilities, possibilities and life-spans.

Kids these days...

Unlike some thinkers in the field, Deutsch isn't troubled by doomsday scenarios involving AGI taking over the world. He worries about something quite different: that human beings have a tendency to panic about life-forms that confuse us. Like teenagers.

"This prejudice against AGI ... it's very akin to people's fear of teenagers," says Deutsch. "Since time immemorial people have complained that the teenagers of today are no good and that they're going to make everything go to pot."

Rather than fearing AGI, Deutsch says we should treat it like our children, giving AGI the protection it deserves. 

Solving the "mystery of consciousness"

But if and when AGI reaches the point where it shares complex human traits - including consciousness - what would make human beings special?

Nothing, says Deutsch. 

David with flower (Submitted by David Deutsch)

Consciousness - the phenomenon of the mind being aware of itself and the world - isn't a mystery, as many people claim, Deutsch explains. We just haven't figured it out yet.

"I think, in order to discuss this or anything really reasonably, one has to reject supernatural explanations. Now to say that consciousness is fundamentally separate from physics, is a supernatural explanation. So although we don't understand how consciousness works, it is unreasonable just to assume that it doesn't work via physics."

If developers manage to crack the consciousness "code," Deutsch says it's only a matter of time until AGI can be conscious, too.

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