Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
Technologists across the world have frantically embarked on the quest to create a new species in our own image — general artificial intelligence with superior computational brain power. But we are only just beginning to understand the foundations of human intelligence and consciousness that cannot be captured in an algorithmic formula divorced from the functions of the body and the long evolution of our species and its microbiome.
As the celebrated neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues in a WorldPost interview based on his new book, “The Strange Order of Things,” it is the feelings and emotions, which originated and dwell in that biological terrain, that are constitutive of human intelligence, consciousness and the capacity for cultural creation. In short, a map of the computational mind is not the territory of what it means to be human.
“Our minds operate in two registers,” Damasio explains. “In one register, we deal with perception, movement, memories, reasoning, verbal languages and mathematical languages. This register needs to be precise and can be easily described in computational terms. This is the world of synaptic signals that is well captured by AI and robotics.”
“But there is a second register,” he continues, “that pertains to emotions and feelings that describes the state of life in our living body and that does not lend itself easily to a computational account. Current AI and robotics do not address this second register.”
For Damasio, the biological mechanisms behind feeling — “what we now call pain and pleasure” — were survival strategies selected and combined in the simple cell organisms of early evolution “when there was no individual suffering or reason.” He calls this process “homeostasis, which aims at the management of a living organism such that it can meet current energy needs and have enough energy in reserve to respond to stress and continue into the future. Homeostasis counters thermodynamic decay.” It is this capacity to not only survive but to thrive going forward that Damasio identifies as “the monitors and arbiters of cultural invention.”
“Minds,” concludes Damasio, “are not made by nervous systems alone but rather by nervous systems in cooperation with many other and far older living systems of our body, including metabolic, endocrine, immune and circulatory systems. Nervous systems are late-comers in evolution. They are useful servants of the older life systems. Nervous systems have declared a considerable degree of independence relative to the older systems they serve but they are by no means free of those older systems. They do not stand alone. Unfortunately, conventional conceptions of mind are based on the idea that nervous systems make minds by themselves.”
To the extent the intelligent mind is biologically embodied, it is swimming in the vast sea of the human microbiome. As Tobias Rees and Nils Gilman point out, “few are aware of how directly these microbes and their genes affect the functioning of our bodies. The human genome found in the nuclei of our cells contains roughly 20,000 genes, but the microbiome — the sum total of genetic material in the microorganisms that live in and on us — contains as many as 20 million genes, all of which are directly or indirectly interacting with and at times even controlling our genes.”
Indeed, researchers at CalTech recently discovered that bacteria found in the guts of mice produce serotonin, a biochemical neurotransmitter that regulates emotions and adult neurogenesis — the formation of new neurons which are the basis for openness and adaptability to outside stimulus and experience.
The authors worry that modern-day diets, C-section births and overuse of broad-spectrum antibiotics are degrading the integrity of the microbiome, established over millennia of evolution with unintended consequences for the emotional and physical wellbeing of humans. “The lesson of the human microbiome,” they conclude, “is that it compels us to revise our understanding of ourselves as humans: Microbes are us. In fact, it is impossible to clearly determine where a human being ends and its microbiome begins: there is a quintessential indistinguishability. We humans are not more than mere nature. In fact, we are just that — a piece of nature, deeply interrelated with the microbial environment on which we are utterly contingent.”
If human intelligence is grounded in biology, by definition it can’t be transferred to machines. Absent the corrective emotions and feelings implied in that grounding, some technologists on the cutting edge, like Elon Musk, openly warn that the superior computational mind of an autonomous AI may one day go rogue and turn against its creator. As he once told The WorldPost, “I hope AI is nice to us.”
In that context, Nicolas Berggruen ponders the ethics of human programming of AI, which he believes will ultimately emerge neither as a servant nor master technology, but as a human-AI hybrid, “extending and transforming our cognition and consciousness.”
To be safe, he proposes we raise AI “as we do our children,” inculcating in these machines the old Confucian virtue of filial piety. “As Confucius explained,” Berggruen writes, “it is not enough simply to ensure that your parents are well fed, for that is done even for dogs and horses. Rather, what distinguishes filial piety is the respect that offspring feel for their parents. This goes beyond the biblical commandment to ‘honor thy mother and thy father’ and suggests a system of values based on principles of hierarchy, continuity and esteem. What will be needed here, however, is a form of fidelity that is not just between the individual child and her parents but which operates at the level of society and the species as a whole.”
As scientific discovery further reveals the inextricable computational and emotional complementarities that constitute the marvel of the biologically grounded human mind, it will also mark the limits of artificial intelligence.