We might all end up as paper-clips!
Max Tegmark is a Swedish-American professor of physics at MIT, founder of the Elon Musk-funded Future of Life Institute and an optimist. His 2017 book, Life 3.0 – Being Human in the age of artificial intelligence, demonstrates his belief that a positive future is possible and that a conscious universe is more valuable than one made up of paper-clips.
“He finds it abhorrent and wasteful that humanity could die a “death by banality” if the objective of a goal-driven artificial intelligence turned out to be nothing more profound than “rearranging all the molecules in the universe to maximise the number of paper-clips”.
Tegmark’s institute is more focused on the future of intelligent, conscious life than the Future of Humanity Institute, based at the University of Oxford, set up by his colleague and fellow Swede, Nick Bostrom. It is a noteworthy distinction between life and humanity. Tegmark’s accessible, readable book explains cutting-edge science in a comprehensible way and belongs to a burgeoning genre of singularity titles, such as Yuval Noah Harari’s 2011 Sapiens: A brief history of mankind and his 2015 Homo Deus, a Brief History of Tomorrow. They follow on from Stephen Hawking’s 1988 A Brief History of Time, Bostrom’s 2014 Superintelligence and Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 The Singularity is Near. The singularity is sometimes taken to mean the point at which artificial intelligence becomes more powerful than human intelligence. This has been interpreted in various utopian and dystopian scenarios; either the robots decide that the greatest threat to the universe is represented by humans and act accordingly or, slightly less scarily, a few mega-wealthy humans morph into super-transhumans by updating themselves periodically with the latest biomedical technology and blast off in their private spaceships to residences on Mars or some other exclusively expensive corner of the universe, while the impoverished mass of mankind scrabbles around on over-heated earth for the leftover scraps.
Tegmark is the optimist to Harari the pessimist, who is more worried about the dangers posed to humanity by artificial intelligence and the need for a serious discussion about how to prevent catastrophe. Tegmark is no slouch, however, and one of the fascinating aspects of his scientific method, compared to Harari’s literary-historical approach, is his discussion of the Really Hard Problem, that is, how to explain consciousness scientifically. In Homo Deus, Harari worries that advances in computing mean that advanced intelligence has been decoupled from consciousness and that it is therefore very dangerous if non-conscious intelligent machines take decisions that may adversely affect humans.
Tegmark’s Life 3.0 pursues a less doom-and-gloom-laden exploration of what perhaps is to come. He approaches consciousness from a different angle, arguing that information is substrate-independent. For example, we understand that a “wave can travel across a lake, even though none of its molecules do”. Tegmark’s optimism is underpinned by his use of scientific theory to test out new ideas. He explains modern theories of consciousness, which focus on activities in the brain, what are called the neural correlates of consciousness or NCCs. The current challenge is to explain how these NCCs are – or can be – PCCs or physical correlates of consciousness, “defined as the patterns of moving particles that are conscious”. Tegmark is very taken with his Italian colleague Gulio Tononi’s integrated information theory (IIT) which supports the idea that “consciousness is a physical phenomenon that feels non-physical because it’s like waves and computations: it has properties independent of its own physical substrate. […] If consciousness is the way that information feels when it’s processed in certain ways, then it must be substrate-independent; it’s only the structure of the information processing that matters, not the structure of the matter doing the information processing. In other words, consciousness is substrate-independent twice over!”
So, what about the paper-clips? Well, it’s hard to compress 300 brilliant pages into a short review, but suffice to say that Tegmark feels it would be terrible if humanity’s molecules were all rearranged into said stationery. He does not explain why.
11 February 2018
 Tegmark, Life 3.0 pg. 66.
 Ibid., pg. 303-304.