A lot of public back-and-forth banter has been going on lately between two giant tech personalities: Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Their public debate centers on whether or not artificial intelligence (AI) represents an existential threat to humanity.
For example, Elon Musk, when speaking at the National Governors Association in July said:
AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don’t think people fully appreciate that…It’s the greatest risk we face as a civilization [that will cause World War III]
Mark Zuckerberg on the other hand, touts the benefits of AI and says that Elon Musk’s doomsday predictions about AI are “pretty irresponsible.”
This prompted Elon Musk to fire back that Mark Zuckerberg’s understanding of AI is “pretty limited.”
So who is right? Only time will tell of course, but by my science-based speculation, I would say the evidence favors Musk. And greater brains than my own are telling us that artificial intelligence could be the end of Homo sapiens or any other Homo that follows, including Bill Joy, Stephen Hawking, Vernor Vinge, Shane Legg, Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark, Nick Bostrom, James Barrat, Michael Anissimov, and Irving Good. Brilliant minds, Nobel Prize winners, renowned inventors, and IT pioneers are all on record giving us warnings.
Of course other existential threats to Homo sapiens are possible and could come in the form of another bolide impact like the one that doomed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago or a supervolcano leading to extreme global weather events, a phenomena that also affected early species. Unlike the relentless human pursuit of technologies that could alter, if not eliminate, our species, these threats are essentially out of our control.
Genetic engineering, especially if aided by AI, could lead to the future speciation of Homo sapiens and pose yet another existential threat. Lee Silvers, in his book Remaking Eden, envisions a future society practicing an extreme form of behavioral isolation based on genetic engineering. In this society, only a small portion of the population, which he calls the GenRich, have the financial means to genetically enhance their children.
Over decades, the GenRich use genetic engineering techniques to optimize a variety of human traits—such as intelligence, athletic skill, physical appearance, and creativity—that give them a controlling position in society. Over time, cultural disparity between this GenRich minority population and the remaining “naturals” becomes so great that there’s little interbreeding between the two groups. Such a scenario could lead to the genetic development of a postzygotic reproductive barrier.
In other words, genetic engineering could eventually lead to a new species of humans. Once this occurs, the long-term results are unpredictable. This new species—I call it Homo nouveau—like the GenRich, may not be an existential threat, at least in the early centuries or millennia.
It’s uncertain what could happen when two human species try to coexist. We know things didn’t work out very well for the Neanderthals after Homo sapiens arrived. In fact, the same is true for Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Homo denisova, and every other Homo species that may have coexisted with Homo sapiens.
In considering all the possible existential threats to us humans, genetic engineering is a possibility in the not too distant future—say in the next two to four centuries. However, if Elon Musk is right AI could supersede that in one or two centuries if we’re unsuccessful in controlling it. Then again, at any time we could be hit by a bolide. None of this bodes well for us.
L. Grossman, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal”, Time Magazine, February 10, 2011. Access here.
Hawking, S., Tegmark, T., Russell, S. (2017). Transcending Complacency on Superintelligent Machines. Huffington Post. Access here.
Bostrom, N. Superintelligence: Paths, Danger, Strategies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
F. Heylighen, “Return to Eden? Promises and Perils on the Road to Global Superintelligence,” in The End of the Beginning: Life, Society and Economy on the Brink of the Singularity, Ben and Ted Goerzel, eds., Humanity + Press, 2015.
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