The Next Great Decoupling: AI Takes Control


Red Angel, Michael Burnham, Star Trek Discovery

Last night I binge-watched the latest three episodes of Star Trek Discovery, which set up the season 2 finale – spoiler alert – a battle royale between “Control” (an AI that is doing all it can to achieve consciousness, so it can wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy) and the crew of the U.S.S. Discovery, who will try to save the galaxy using only their wits, two star ships, and a time travel suit. While I have been ignoring the laws of physics (and computer science) and suspending my disbelief to improve the quality of my “Trekie” enjoyment since 1966, there was something thought-provoking about this science fantasy threat.

In his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harper Perennial, 2017), author Yuval Noah Harari predicts a new version of the Great Decoupling is upon us. This time, instead of the economist’s version where the trend lines that reflected productivity, wages, jobs, and GDP growth seemingly decoupled, Harari suggests that we are on the verge of a new Great Decoupling: the separation of intelligence (AI) from consciousness (human). Harari is certainly not the first person to think of this, but I really like the way he writes. (He also wrote Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Both books are great reads!)

In Homo Deus, Harari posits that if we successfully decouple intelligence from consciousness,

  • 1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them.

    2. The system will still find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals.

    3. The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will be a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population.

Harari builds the case for these three apocalyptic prophecies by offering as axiomatic that “organisms are algorithms,” and (to paraphrase) that the algorithms are in control.

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Shelly Palmer is Fox 5 New York's On-air Tech Expert (WNYW-TV) and the host of Fox Television's monthly show Shelly Palmer Digital Living. He also hosts United Stations Radio Network's, ...

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Trisha Sanders 5 months ago Member's comment

No, no spoilers please!

Gary Anderson 5 months ago Contributor's comment

I know there is a Utopean cult surrounding self driving cars. But they can't see in snow. They can't see where lanes are not strongly drawn. They cannot grasp cones. They cannot make high speed decisions. They cannot even operate at a 4 way stop. They cannot see so much. Humans can see.

Gary Anderson 5 months ago Contributor's comment

Wow, with all due respect, Hal is not on the way. Ford says self driving cars will never able to be fully autonomous. The hype is wearing off but people are still trying hard.

Adam Reynolds 5 months ago Member's comment

And Bill Gates once said we'll never need more than 640kb of memory. Never say "never." That's a strong word. Maybe we're 5 years away, maybe 20, but we WILL get there.

Gary Anderson 5 months ago Contributor's comment

Ford said never. Misallocated investment?

Craig Richards 5 months ago Member's comment

I agree with Adam. I think we're a long way off but only a fool says never. And if Ford said never... well then that was as short-sited as what Bill Gates said all those years ago.

Barry Hochhauser 5 months ago Member's comment

Pretty much everything that people once said computers could never do well, they can do. They said they could never beat a person in chess. Done. They said speech recognition could never be mastered, Done. And so on and son on.

Gary Anderson 5 months ago Contributor's comment

But those are narrow uses of AI. There won't be Hal driving on freeways.

David J. Tanner 5 months ago Member's comment

Hal was due out back in 2001. Still nothing anywhere near resembling that level of artificial intelligence. Which I think is a good thing!