Are You a Meatbot?


free willThroughout our FLL season, we’ve talked about how technology (eg: robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, etc) is rapidly advancing, estimated to surpass human intelligence by 2045 based upon Moores Law (Kurtweil) and potentially represents the greatest threat to the human species (Hawkins, Musk).  As future scientists, engineers or merely technologically well informed citizens of the future, you will certainly live through interesting times.

Time The Year We Become Immortal

However, we haven’t explored this phenomena from another interesting perspective.  While technology may be rapidly evolving to surpass human intelligence, perhaps humans merely represent an arbitrary level of complexity along a continuous spectrum of intelligent life forms. We happen to be slowly evolving life forms based in the biology of carbon.  Computers are a rapidly evolving life form based upon the physics of silicon (or other materials).

In fact, a number of credible intellectuals theorize that if we do find (super) intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, it is likely to be artificial life unlike the carbon-based organisms like humans and other life on Earth.  Based upon humans’ experience with technological evolution, they argue:

“The reason for all this has to do, primarily, with timescales. For starters, when it comes to alien intelligence, there’s what Schneider calls the “short window observation”—the notion that, by the time any society learns to transmit radio signals, they’re probably a hop-skip away from upgrading their own biology. It’s a twist on the belief popularized by Ray Kurzweil that humanity’s own post-biological future is near at hand.”

That “hop-skip” goes like this:   (1) radio signals + 50 yrs -> Computers, (2) Computers + 50 yrs -> Artificial Intelligence, (3) AI + 100 yrs -> self modifying AI that rapidly evolves beyond human cognitive ability.

Many philosophers, theologians and scientists have long argued over the centuries the question of human free will.  More recently, some notable intellectuals have argued humans are merely robots built with meat (carbon-based instead of silicon), operating in meatspace (physical vs virtual worlds) and programmed with meatware (neurons vs gates/circuits).  Such individuals include luminaries from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawkins who have viewed life and humans subject to laws of physics/nature that determine, given the starting condition, the future state of human cognition and behavior much like we can predict the behavior FlopBotZilla on the FLL competition mat (but with 100% precision).

The argument goes as humans we only mistakenly believe we have free will and an eternal spirit transcending the material because of the illusions created by our limited cognitive ability.  Just because we cannot cognitively understand the rules governing humanity will does not mean such rules do not exist.  Such ignorance of these rules do not make  human thought, feeling and actions non deterministic.

What appear as free-will in the unpredictable nature of every human are in fact just the inevitable consequence of deterministic gene, environment and complex laws governing human cognition in every situation.  Human cognition and behavior is based in physical reality of our biology so, despite our inability to understand our own “programming”, we are just very complex machines executing the code (genes, environment, etc) we are given.

A number of well-reasoned counter arguments exist as well that address part or all of this line of reasoning or offer a largely different explanation altogether.  One example is Compatibilism which view Free Will and Determinism as compatible ideas.  Another more subtle critique of Determinism is given below by MIT philosophy professor Richard Holton




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