DANGEROUS PROSTHESIS by Nicolás Vergara

The image of Stephen Hawking has always given me a strange feeling. I know he is a very accomplished physicist, but sometimes I wonder if his popularity is (at least a little) rooted in the fact of his paralysis, and how the media has contributed in emphasizing the idea of him as a Triumph of Reason, and in doing so, celebrating some odious ideas about modernity. Not many physicists have biographical movies while they are alive: in the image of Stephen Hawking, I think, there are a lot of our ideas about what it means to be successful as a self-made man.

One of the things that in my opinion contribute to the idea that societies have about people such as Stephen Hawking are nurtured by the field of physics itself. There are not too many sciences that could be easily associated with human and abstract feelings: medicine, for instance, is dramatic, and environmental science is aesthetic (or performative, as Gary Snyder calls it). Physics is romantic —the core of its thoughts are dedicated to the sky and its mysteries— and therefore, Platonic. Moreover, if you have a Ph.D. in physics you are smarter than a Ph.D. in literature, economy or philosophy (try to do your own quick hierarchy, and you will discover—as I did—that common sense loves pure mathematics). From another point of view: you can be a jerk, but if you have a Ph.D in physics you are still smart (a smart ass); if you are a jerk and you have your Ph.D. in literature, you are just a jerk. 

I haven’t fought against gravity without breaking a bone, and it is not a surprise for me to keep reading Stephen Hawking, despite the ideas that I have about his image. Not so long ago, I read an article in which he explains his fears about Artificial Intelligence. In the article, he said that we will be replaced by machines in a wide spectrum of jobs (again). He also said that we are currently developing a kind of machine that will be at least ten times smarter than us (being pessimistic, some people predict 10,000 times smarter than us), and we don't know what the consequences of that will be. We cannot imagine what kind of intelligence that is, and we cannot even imagine how persuasive and independent that kind of machine could be if it wants to survive, making us change our minds about unplugging it (I baptize this scenario the “Scarlett Johansson Theory of AI”). In the book “Our Final Invention” (James Barrat), I found another theory which said that AI had been discovered a long time ago, that the machines went out to conquer space looking for resources, and that we already have a peaceful relation with them (I baptize this scenario “The IV International Posadas Theory of AI”).

What kind of prosthesis is AI? I don't know and I am very perplexed. If we are not capable of imagining what is something that is 10,000 times smarter than us, it could be anything (for instance, it could be a TTC Driver, an angel, the √-1, the First Minster, a double double; anything). Leaving apart my fear and perplexity, there is one thing that I really like about this prosthesis: its potential to start a debate about what is being smart, and people that defend animal rights have a long tradition of philosophers thinking about those matters and also about an Ethics towards the non-human species. In 1975, Peter Singer published his famous book about animal rights: Animal Liberation, A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals and initiated a big movement about animal rights. If Stephen Hawking is right, who is going to write Human Liberation? A goodwill machine? Was Marx a goodwill machine? Are the religions good will machines? Should some prostheses be prohibited or at least regulated?