What scientific advance, big or small, would you like to see above all else in your lifetime, and why does it matter to you? (Nature essay competition, 2019)
Word count: 1,000 (excluding header, footer, title, sub-titles, word count, and references)
In 1651, after a long and brutal civil war, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called for unity. People, Hobbes reasoned, are stuck in their own heads. The space between our skulls stops us seeing eye to eye, creating competition and a ‘posture of war’. While small groups may survive without centralisation, as Herbert Gintis and colleagues show, large groups fracture into Hobbesian warfare without a disciplining state.
A powerful state, which Hobbes called a ‘Leviathan’ or ‘artificial person’, is needed to keep humans, or ‘natural persons’, in check. But without a world state, territorial states compete for ‘power after power’, as seen in their free-riding on climate change agreements today. Only a world state can unite us against our common threats.
But although a universal state, or cosmopolis, is necessary for our survival, it is not enough. So, I propose an even more radical political and scientific advance: a universal mind. Inside this common, shared, universal mind, there is every reason for us to see eye to eye, since our perceptions and therefore our interests would align. Hobbes’s trap would cripple before it even springs. In coming to this conclusion, I ask two questions.
Firstly, why should we fuse to form a universal mind? In addition to the reasons given above, I can think of three: truth, value, and survival.
Truth, by definition, refers to what really exists. But how can we know what really exists? While we can doubt the existence of the external world, as Descartes argued, we cannot doubt the existence of our conscious experiences of the world. So, it does not make much sense to posit the existence of a ‘material’ world fundamentally different from our ‘conscious’ world. If all we can be certain of is the reality of consciousness, it seems reasonable to assume that the material world is also, fundamentally, conscious.
This is the conclusion of panpsychists like Benedict de Spinoza, for whom ‘God’ is identical to ‘Nature’. Panpsychism, as John Gray notes, is probably a form of monism—which says that fundamental reality is, everywhere, identical. This means that truth is one, since there are not many sources of reality, but one: God—or Nature (‘Deus—sive Natura’). All knowledge is illuminated by the Form of the Good, as Plato argued, which acts on truth as the Sun acts on the Earth, lending clarity to all it falls upon.
If truth is one, we can only perceive it clearly and distinctly when we are one person, rather than many persons with contradictory perceptions of the truth. Since truth is one, let us be one person—that is to say, a universal mind—so that we can better discern what the truth is.
Value, moreover, must be universal. Value judgements depend on some fundamental criteria for ascribing value. Since different people have different criteria given their separate minds, a universal mind could ascertain what really is of fundamental—and therefore universal—value. Otherwise, we can only guess.
Our survival also depends on our forming a universal mind. Artificial intelligence (AI) may, as ecologist James Lovelock contends, better solve dilemmas like climate change than comparatively dim-witted humans. But forfeiting control to AI risks creating a dictatorship of intelligence over consciousness, as intelligent robots may regard humans as dispensable. For consciousness as we know it to survive, humans and AI should fuse to form a universal mind.
Secondly, how should humans and AI fuse to form a universal mind? I can think of three mechanisms: democratic structure, technological change, and democratic decision.
Our socio-political structures should be democratic before we form a universal mind. Elon Musk’s proposal for a ‘symbiosis’ between particular humans and AIs risks splintering ‘AI-rich’ rulers from ‘AI-poor’ subjects. In the US, which is more of an oligarchy than an Aristotelian democracy, the rich already run politics (as statistician Martin Gilens and politician scientist Jeffrey Winters show). Capitalism skews democracy in favour of special interests, as Wolfgang Streeck contends, though it once empowered workers to demand representation. Moving from (non-)democratic capitalism to democratic socialism would allow our collective fusion with AI to be fair and equal.
Technological change is also essential. Elon Musk’s Neuralink is developing a Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) for medical purposes. Its feasibility has already been established: Mijail Serruya and colleagues, for example, have prototyped the operation of remote devices by paralysed people via a BMI; Jose Carmena and colleagues report monkeys inducing robotic reach-and-grasp movements via a BMI; Miguel Nicolelis and Mikhail Lebedev describe BMIs’ experimental and clinical uses; and Ander Ramos-Murguialday discusses BMI’s use in aiding chronic stroke patients. Joseph Doherty and colleagues have even tested a Brain-Machine-Brain Interface (BMBI) on two monkeys operating a remote hand. But Musk’s longer-term, non-medical plans for these technologies may soon be adopted, too.
So, to avoid a runaway private industry of BMIs and BMBIs, I propose a brain-machine-brain interface en masse (BMBI*), fusing multiple humans and multiple AI algorithms into in a single neural network. Bio-conservatives like Francis Fukuyama rightly criticise trans-humanists for privatising consciousness. But if consciousness is collectivised, the interests of poor and rich may synthesise, given their once divergent perceptions are pooled into one consciousness. If we establish democratic socialism politically, we can achieve communism psychologically, creating what Steven Lukes doubted could ever occur: a universal alignment of interests.
But the decision to form such a universal mind through a BMBI* must itself be democratic. In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, individuals of the planet ‘Gaia’ voluntarily join a proto-universal mind. We should give a similar ‘in/out’ option to citizens of a future world state on our own ‘Gaia’ (as James Lovelock calls the Earth’s ecosystem) to satisfy human free will.
Humanity faces multiple existential crises. Perhaps, at two minutes to midnight, we can forfeit what Nancy Fraser calls the false promises of capitalist separation in pursuit of the social and, perhaps, the psychological bonds of socialist solidarity. Because if humans and AI do fuse to form a universal mind, the revolution—both social and psychological—will need to be unified.
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