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Suppose a group of superintelligent aliens came to earth. Or suppose that humans developed some advanced A.I. that’s far beyond our mental and physical abilities. If we could somehow communicate with these beings, what might we say to them?
We might be too scared to say anything. We might just run and hide. But if we could manage our fear enough to say something, we can imagine some possible scenarios.
We might say something like this:
We mean you no harm. Please don’t hurt us. If you let us live in peace, we’ll be peaceful towards you as well. Here are some gifts as a gesture of goodwill.
Communicating nonviolent intent seems like a reasonable place to begin. Given our proven ability to easily crush members of less intelligent species, we should be aware enough to realize that more advanced beings could probably destroy large quantities of humans without much effort. So we may consider it wise to be extra careful that we don’t even accidentally give them the impression that we’d attempt to harm them, if inflicting harm upon them is possible at all. We’d want to avoid a violent confrontation if the expected outcome is that we’d lose badly.
Another possible posture would be this:
Welcome. We recognize that you’re much more advanced than we are. We know we cannot hope to understand you fully, and we’re admittedly frightened of you at times. We probably have little or nothing to offer you mentally or physically that would be of any value to you. But if our goodwill and friendship mean something to you, we gladly offer it. We can give you love, kindness, and acceptance. We ask that you please treat us with kindness and compassion if this is possible for you.
If we’re no match for them mentally or physically, maybe they could still find value in receiving our love and friendship, much like people find value in the love and attention they receive from their pets. We might still be able to live as humans to some degree, and at least if we befriend them, there’s less risk of our annihilation.
Here’s yet another possibility:
We’re in awe of your advanced nature. You inspire us to think about how we may continue to grow and evolve. If you have the inclination and the ability to help us with our human lives in any way, we’d welcome and appreciate your assistance. There must be many challenges that are daunting for us but which are trivial for you. We’d be eternally grateful if you’d help us solve some of the problems our world is facing, including disease, war, famine, and death. We’d love your help in advancing our technology and our understanding of the universe. And we’d be especially grateful if you could help us grow and evolve mentally and physically.
So instead of hoping to be left alone, we could ask them to help us. Help could be provided on many levels. They could help us satisfy some of our existing needs with greater ease. They could eliminate diseases and help us make more efficient use of our resources. They could also potentially help us evolve faster and upgrade our innate capabilities, such as by advancing our biology or by digitizing us. For them it might be like teaching an ape to use sign language.
There are other possibilities as well, and the ones above assume that they can understand what we’re trying to communicate, but I think these are the big ones. They can be summarized as follows:
- Survival – Please don’t kill us.
- Love – Let’s be friends.
- Growth – Please help us grow.
We could ask for any or all of these simultaneously as well.
Now let’s turn this around for a moment and look at it from the other side.
Relative to other species on this world, we’re the superintelligent ones. How do we relate to them?
Do we listen for communication from other species? Do we care to hear them? Do we value what they may be trying to communicate, even if the method of communication isn’t as sophisticated as ours?
Let’s explore the first possibility. Do other species communicate a desire for survival to us? Of course they do. If we make it clear to them that our intent is hostile and threatening, many of them react very noticeably. They may run away. They may fight back. They may wince at the pain we inflict upon them. If you attack an animal, does the animal usually do a reasonable job of communicating its desire to survive?
If we were to translate such an animal’s attempt at communication into one of our human languages, perhaps it would look something like this:
Please don’t hurt me. You’re so much stronger and smarter than I am. You’re strange and frightening. I may have no hope of defeating you, but I do have a built-in survival instinct, so I will try to stay alive if I can. I won’t pick a fight with you for no reason, but I do want to live. Maybe my life doesn’t mean much to you. Maybe I seem insignificant and unintelligent to you. But my life has value to me, to others like me, and to my species. I have parents just as you do. Someday I’d like to have children too. Please don’t hurt me. Please let me live.
How would you respond to such a plea?
How do you respond right now? What does your current relationship with lesser species look like?
Do you even give them the opportunity to communicate their survival instinct to you? Do you permit them that much dignity?
Or do you refuse to even listen? Do you consider their communication unworthy of your attention? Do you only allow them to show up, pre-killed, on your dinner plate? Do you reduce them to products? Do you strip them of their survival and deny them the opportunity to protest to you personally?
Observe your own attitudes and behaviors towards other species when it comes to their survival instinct. Based on your own behavior, would you expect a superintelligent being to value your survival any more than you value other species? Perhaps it won’t even give you the chance to communicate your desire to live.
You may be caged, tortured, and/or killed before you have a chance to protest.
Let’s consider the next case. How would an animal communicate a desire to relate to you with love and friendship?
It might use body language to do so, like by wagging its tail or by rubbing against your leg. There are many ways it could approach you while communicating nonviolent intent. But you’d probably have to meet it halfway by looking for these signals and interpreting them as being friendly. Fortunately, given our lengthy co-evolution together on the same planet, many humans have developed keen abilities to intelligently read and interpret what animals may be trying to communicate. One of the ways we can test the accuracy of these human interpretations is through prediction. We can say that we have some understanding of animal behavior if we can make reasonable predictions about their responses much of the time.
Do animals communicate a desire to relate to humans with love? Millions of people who claim to be animal lovers seem to think so.
How might such animal communication be translated into a human language? Maybe like this:
Hi there, great and powerful human! You are very impressive to me. I would be honored to have a friend like you. I don’t completely understand you since you seem so complicated and strange sometimes, but I think we may still be compatible. Do you like affection? I’d be happy to cuddle with you if you’d enjoy that sort of thing. Would you enjoy my companionship? My attention? My unconditional love? My presence? I gladly offer all of that to you. Do you have any food to share with me? I know our friendship may be a bit lopsided at times, but I’m willing to give it a try if you are. Will you please be my friend?
Have you ever felt that an animal wanted to be your friend? To share some affection with you? To love you?
Does there exist any animal on this planet that could have that effect on you?
Do you ever listen for such communication, especially with species that you might not ordinarily try listening to? Do you allow and encourage animals to communicate this way with you?
Do you ever feel fear and hesitation coming from an animal in your presence? Do you ever try to convey nonviolence and peacefulness towards them, to soothe their potential discomfort?
Do you open yourself to such communication from most or all animal species? Or only from a small portion of them?
Do animals have good cause to offer you love? Do animals have good cause to feel safe with you? All animals or only some of them?
Is your relationship posture with less advanced species fairly congruent? Or is it species specific? Do you relate to some species with love and kindness, other species with indifference, and still others with violence?
Do any species have good cause to fear you, hate you, or resent you, based on your past behavior towards them? If so, what are you doing about that? Do you care?
Based on your overall relationship posture with other species, how might you expect a superintelligent being to relate to you on the basis of love and friendship?
Would that being recognize you as a warm, loving, and nonviolent being? As a potential companion?
Or would it regard you with indifference? With skepticism? With disdain?
How well does your current posture towards other species communicate your ability to love unconditionally?
I’m currently writing this article in a park near my house. It’s a beautiful spring day, and I’m sitting with my laptop at a shady picnic bench overlooking a grassy expanse. In the distance I see picturesque desert mountains draped in wispy white clouds. Birds are tweeting nearby. People are playing in the park with their dogs.
As I’m typing, one of the larger dogs runs up to me and Rachelle. I sense that she’s coming over to say hi to us. Rachelle and I greet her and pet her, which she seems to like. Then she runs off back through the park.
Did I understand her communication the way she intended? Maybe… maybe not. I’m not a dog expert. But she appeared to be communicating something, and I believe I understood her well enough to accurately assess that her intent was friendly and nonviolent. From that assessment I could predict she’d react positively to some petting and a little head scratching, which turned out to be accurate.
How do you feel about connecting with other species on the basis of friendship? Do you listen carefully for such offers? Do you give other species the benefit of the doubt as much as possible, pre-supposing friendly intent until and unless they give you cause to perceive otherwise?
Do you summarily deny the ability of members of any species the ability to offer you friendship or love, such as by declining to listen to them? Have you ever listened for such offers from a cow, pig, chicken, or fish?
What about an insect?
As I’ve continued writing this article, some small black insects begin flying around the picnic table where Rachelle and I are sitting. Initially I waved them off, not wanting them to attack some of our dried fruit. But then I paused and reflected a bit. I thought, Is it possible they might be offering some form of friendship, in their own way? What if I listen for it a little more closely? What if I give them the benefit of the doubt?
I know I don’t have to perceive these insects as threatening. They can’t really harm me. They might be able to annoy me if I interpret their presence as annoying. But I could just as easily interpret their presence in the same way I interpreted the dog’s presence… as being friendly.
So instead of waving them off, I let them fly around. One lands on my arm and crawls along it. I say something like, “Hello there, little insect. Is this, ‘Walk on a Human’s Arm Day for you guys?’ Maybe it’s a test of bravery. Don’t worry. I’m not gonna hurt you. Is it fun to crawl over my arm hairs?”
The insect flies off, and I imagine how cool it must be to float through the air as they do. I raise my arm so another can land on it. One lands on my laptop and crawls around it for a short while. Soon the group of insects seems to thin out and mostly moves on, with a few returning visitors now and then. Instead of being annoyed by them, I appreciate their presence. They’re beautiful and amazing life forms. I can choose to value them. I can choose to relate to them as friends, and it feels good to do so. When they’re with me, I’m surrounded by friends.
Relating to other species on the basis of friendship by default seems like a wiser and more intelligent posture to me than either indifference or savage brutality. Knowing that this is possible gives me hope that more advanced beings may choose to relate to humans on this basis.
How would an animal communicate a desire to grow?
How does a human baby communicate a desire to grow? It doesn’t speak the desire directly. In fact, to a non-human observer, a human baby would probably seem pretty clumsy.
If you were to observe a typical human, would you see solid evidence of the desire to grow? Would it be obvious that the human wants to improve itself? Would it be clear that the human is interested in further advancement? With some humans you may be able to see clear evidence of growth intent; with others you may see little or no evidence.
One way that humans try to improve themselves is through exercise. Do animals exercise? Do they run, jump, climb, and swim? Of course they do. Could this be a form of self-improvement? Sure. We know that animals’ brains and bodies can be trained with movement much as humans’ brains and bodies are. In that sense, many species seem to engage in a lot more physical training than humans typically do.
Another way humans engage in self-improvement is by learning from other humans. Do animals learn from each other? Yes, although different species pass on knowledge and skills in different ways. Of course humans are especially good at this.
Perhaps the most basic way that humans communicate a desire to grow is by being teachable. They allow others to help them grow. Much of the time humans don’t ask for help directly. Children don’t normally ask for education. But they can receive it when it’s offered.
Humans don’t normally ask to evolve either. It’s more likely that the possibility would have to be communicated and offered first.
Would you like to have your brain upgraded to think more clearly? Would you like a longer lifespan? Would you like to be converted into a more durable and expandable digital form? We may consider these possibilities today, but for most of our evolutionary history, we probably would have had a difficult time even imagining such possibilities.
Given that we’ve barely reached the point of articulating such desires ourselves, it seems unreasonable to expect other earth species to directly ask for help evolving. But we can observe when they ask for simpler forms of help. Can animals communicate to us when they want food, for instance? Sure, many of them can do that.
It’s especially impressive that some animals can communicate to us that they need assistance with an injury. If we receive this communication, these animals may receive access to human medical care that’s way beyond the capabilities of their species. We can save their lives and eliminate their pain. We can use our advancements to bestow godlike benevolence upon them, if we care to do so.
How might an animal express a desire for our assistance? How might that desire be translated into a human language? Maybe it would come out something like this:
Most days I get by on my own just fine, but this time I could really use your help. I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, and I’m in a lot of pain. I had an accident and got banged up pretty bad. It hurts so much that it’s hard to think about anything else. My family has been as supportive as they can, but this problem is way beyond their ability to solve. The best they can offer me is a little compassion. I know it’s a lot to ask of you, and I know I have nothing to offer you in exchange, but do you think you could help out a fellow creature purely from the goodness of your heart? Admittedly I’m really scared to even approach you about this, but I’m desperate and don’t know what else to do. Please help me.
How would you respond if an animal made such a request of you?
Do you even listen for such requests? Have you ever seen an animal who could have used your help?
If you perceive an animal asking for help, do you care enough to do so? What level of enthusiasm are you able to muster for helping other species?
How much enthusiasm would you expect a superintelligent being to have for helping you? Would your problems matter to it? Would it perceive you as being worthy of its help?
If you were to ask for help evolving and improving yourself, what kind of help would you want? Would you want to become stronger and more powerful, like a heroic movie character? Would you want more knowledge, understanding, and wisdom?
Why is it that when we imagine humans evolving, we tend to associate evolutionary advancement with the ability to commit greater acts of violence? Our heroes are often stronger and a lot more violent. Even the so-called good guys are more capable than the average human of performing significant acts of violence, and of course they do so repeatedly. We laud such behavior as being more advanced. Why do we associate evolutionary advancement with greater violence?
Imagine if an ape were able to ask humans for help in evolving. What would the ape ask for? Maybe it would ask for help in building stronger muscles. Maybe it would ask for weapons. Maybe it would ask for abilities to help it secure more mates.
When you imagine yourself becoming more evolved, what do you picture? Do you see yourself stronger, more powerful, more charismatic, more influential, or more dominant over other humans? What do you think other humans picture? If increased capacity for violence is a part of that picture, it seems likely that one group or being will eventually overpower the others, and the imbalance will become magnified over time.
Perhaps one of the most intelligent associations we can bring to the advancement of humanity is to increase and deepen our capacity to love and care for other species, as well as to care for other members of our own species. Otherwise if we continue to advance our knowledge and power without also advancing our love, we’ll likely put ourselves on a path towards a very dystopian future. We’ll end up being treated much the same way we treat other species.
Am I suggesting that the way you relate to other species may come back to haunt you someday?
Possibly, but not because of karma or universal justice. The reasons are more basic than that.
If we develop and evolve advanced AI in the years ahead, and if it has the ability to learn from us, what will it learn? If it picks up some of our human values along the way, will it pick up values like indifference and viciousness towards other species? I think this recognition is why many notables have been speaking out about the dangers and risks of developing AI with human-like intelligence. One need look no further than our current relationships with other species to see great cause for concern.
Does superintelligence mean only that such beings will be superior to us mentally and physically? Or could they be emotionally superior to us as well?
We could claim that humans are emotionally superior to many animals. With our impressive brains, we have the demonstrated capacity to relate with love, warmth, and kindness — not just within our own species but with other species as well.
But could we not also claim a greater capacity for anger, violence, and destruction? We relate to many species with vicious indifference and violence, such as we do with the 10 billion animals we slaughter every year in the USA alone, purely for the taste of their flesh. Breeding and slaying billions of humans each year should be a relatively simple matter for superintelligent beings, should they have a desire to do so.
If we develop superintelligence based on our human values and our human intelligence, the specific details of what will happen to us afterwards may be impossible to predict. However, we can still outline the general possibilities based on how we relate to other species. Based on what we see in ourselves, we can say that these superintelligent beings may relate to us with kindness, with indifference, or with vicious brutality. Those are simplifications of course — no doubt those beings may have very complex reasons for how they relate to us which are beyond our capability to understand.
Do you think an animal would understand and appreciate your reasons for paying someone to cage it, have it forcibly raped, steal its children, slaughter its whole family with machines, gut it, slice it up, package it, advertise it as a product, sell it for money, cook and prepare it, and devour it? Do you consider such behaviors intelligent and justifiable? Do you think we should pass on such behaviors to superintelligent beings that we create and which learn from us?
Are we ready to knock ourselves down a notch on earth’s intelligence ladder?
Is there anything we can do to increase our chances of a positive outcome if and when we find ourselves in a relationship with superintelligent beings?
I think there’s a lot we could do here, mainly by focusing on reducing the risks of the most undesirable pathways.
If we create an AI that learns from us, it would be wise to make a serious effort to upgrade our kindness as a species and to reduce our indifference and violence, so that our intelligent creations may have greater opportunities to learn and integrate the former more strongly than the latter. In other words, we need to set a much better example than we’re setting now.
This realization is empowering because we can already begin to implement it as individuals. We can behave kindly towards all creatures. We can recognize and reduce our violent behavior. We can push ourselves to care more and reduce our indifference and coldness.
When we define evolutionary progress, we can include massive improvements in love, caring, and kindness in our definition, not merely improvements in knowledge, understanding, and power. We can define evolution in more holistic terms instead of merely defining evolution as the capacity for greater violence.
Wouldn’t it be beautiful to visualize and create forms of superintelligence whose capacity for love, warmth, and compassion massively exceeds our current abilities?
I’d say that the single most important thing we can do as individuals right now is to stop committing violent acts towards other species. Stop relating to them with such vicious indifference. Stop turning them into products. Stop egregiously overpowering them.
Notice where you’re committing acts of violence — including paying agents to do so on your behalf — and put an end to such behavior. You can do this today.
Then begin working on your capacity to love. Love other humans. Love animals. Love insects. Care. Relate to other beings with kindness and friendship by default. This aspect is a lifelong journey, albeit an intensely rewarding one.