A tool-building species.

A clinical psychologist, I have been studying people academically, professionally and personally for over 40 years. What I have learned over all that time is how little I know.

You, a human being, are simply the most complex thing in the known universe. Your brain alone can hold that distinction, but treating your brain as separate from the rest of you is misleading. Your brain is an integral and inseparable part of the larger open system that is you, and when all connected components and subsystems are included in the analysis, you are far more complex still than just your brain. Get a whole bunch of people together, all open, interacting systems, and the complexity raises exponentially.

All of that complexity makes us a truly exceptional species. No other species studies itself the way we do. No other species could even aspire to building a working replica of itself. Indeed, given our complexity, the goal of building a human-like android is audacious in the extreme.

We set out on this quest to build replicas of ourselves long before we had any idea how difficult it would actually be. The relentless march of science, providing us with an ever expanding knowledge base, has enlightened us in this regard. The more we know, the more we see of how much we don’t know.

Yet that doesn’t stop us from pushing to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. On the contrary. Science has moved into numerous areas once thought to be beyond its purview, and whole new areas of study are continuously opening up. It is a daunting task just to list all the disciplines that will need to be drawn from in order to create a truly human-like machine.

But why? Why would we want to do that? Surely there are enough humans already, without trying to build more. Surely we have all heard the dire warnings, the disastrous consequences foreseen by generations of science fiction writers. Why even try to build intelligent machines?

Why build machines at all? It turns out we don’t have much choice. We are a tool-making species, and machines are our most powerful tools. We use tools to extend our capabilities. It was our tools that enabled us to carve out a dominant place in the natural world. We build machines to enable us to do things and go places that would otherwise be beyond us.

Early machines gave us physical power, enhancing our strength and speed. More recent machines give us intellectual power, augmenting our memories and calculating abilities. Essentially, we build machines to help us, and being as vulnerable and limited as we are, in a vast, indifferent universe we need all the help we can get.

When we need help, as social animals we instinctively want to turn to each other. Unfortunately, as individuals, we tend to be rather unreliable. Sometimes we are able to get what we need from each other, sometimes not. Machines reduce our reliance on each other.

We build machines to help us, but there are so many things we need help with that we need to surround ourselves with machines. It would require a machine of extraordinary versatility to improve on this, and there are no such machines. In fact, the most versatile and adaptive thing on earth is the human being, so if we want to build something truly helpful, it makes sense to use us as a model.

Are there risks in building such machines? Definitely. Which is why now is a good time to start figuring out how to get it right.