Our fantastic minds make artificial intelligence a dead end, just like us

A review of our deep history and perilous future indicates the need for a redesign from top to bottom

Lester Donald Earnest (les at cs.stanford.edu)

Senior Research Computer Scientist Emeritus, Stanford University

Former Executive Officer, Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

Former Chair, ACM Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence



Summary. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved s set of attitudes and fantasies that enabled tribal coordination and eventually made them the dominant species on Earth despite living in a difficult and ever-changing environment. Modern humans live in a very different and rapidly changing world and our retained fantasies are causing world-wide destruction but it may be possible to get around that problem by using genetic engineering and robotics to create super-humans who think rationally.


Getting Started. Most people like to pretend that they make decisions based on rational analysis of alternatives but we actually make nearly all of our thousands of decisions each day regarding where to go, what to do, and how to do it based on our instincts which are derived from a bunch of fantasies that define the culture of each person. Each of us is born with a bunch of genetic fantasies and viewpoints wired into our brains and those basic viewpoints are then modified by our educational upbringing and subsequent life experiences but our core beliefs remain largely intact.

Unfortunately, the fantastic way we think is now causing the sixth mass extinction of life on our planet and this process may be short circuited at any time by a nuclear war that can kill nearly all living things within a few hours and would be another result of the way we think. A lot of artificial intelligence (AI) stuff does work and I spent most of my career developing such things. However our ongoing hunter-gatherer viewpoint is too narrow to manage the world properly, as we are demonstrating, and so AI systems that emulate our thinking are also inherently defective. Those who think that reaching “the singularity” when AI will take control will straighten things out are living another fantasy because AI is derived from the defective human view of the world.

There is a possibility that our defective dominance can be bypassed by developing a new dominant species quickly but that is not a sure thing. I will now try to summarize how we got into this peculiar position.


http://www.parrots-of-the-world.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/07/parrot09-634.jpgAs you likely know, humans came into existence as a result of the fifth mass extinction of life on Earth, caused by a large asteroid that hit the Yucatan Peninsula about 62 million years ago. The resulting environmental catastrophe killed everything above ground but was survived by a few creatures and plants living below ground or in the sea, including a few small dinosaurs that have since evolved into a wide variety of fairly intelligent creatures that we call “birds”.



http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/nwitimes.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/4/d9/4d9848a9-0df4-5345-93f7-9f685663c62b/4d9848a9-0df4-5345-93f7-9f685663c62b.image.jpg?resize=540%2C426Some small mouse-like mammals also survived and evolved more rapidly, becoming the dominant family on Earth, including species living on land, sea and in the air, though birds generally did better in the air. Our branch soon produced both gigantic creatures and primates, including the fairly intelligent precursors of monkeys that now populate much of Eurasia and Africa as well as South and Central America. Other primates include lemurs, orangutans, baboons, gorillas and chimpanzees, the latter being our former siblings. Our hominid ancestors split off from chimpanzees about seven million years ago (Mya) and evidently lived in trees for a couple of million years before switching to two-legged walking, perhaps in response to climate change, which facilitated crossing open spaces and allowed hands to be used for carrying tools and weapons and using them. By 3.3 Mya they were using stone tools in East Africa, probably for cutting food and possibly for hunting. By 2.6 Mya meat had become a significant part of their diet.


The Challenges of Climate Change. The Earth’s climate was rather stable until about 2 Mya. Up until then North and South America were not connected and a large ocean current that originated in the South Pacific flowed through the gap between them, where Panama now lies, then through the Caribbean and up the east coast of North America (where the Gulf Current now flows) and into the North Atlantic. This stabilized climates worldwide until major volcanic activities created the Panama connection between the two continents. Thereafter the stabilizing current was blocked and certain orbital parameters of the Earth destabilized things.

For many millions of years the Earth’s axis of rotation has wobbled a bit in accordance with Newton’s Laws which causes variations in the width of the polar zones in which sunlight disappears entirely during the winter. When polar zones become wide the Earth enters an Ice Age in which snow and ice accumulated on land areas near the poles, causing sea levels to drop with the result that many islands and continents connect to each other. In the other half of these cycles the Earth becomes relatively warm and the oceans expand. This cycle repeats at intervals of about 100,000 years, so our ancestors have been through a lot of climate changes over the last two million years, on average about once every 50,000 years, requiring a lot of lifestyle adjustments.

While dealing with those challenges our ancestors’ brain size doubled between 2 and 1 Mya and became larger than dolphins for the first time. Somewhere along the way our ancestors developed the ability to speak and developed vocal chords to make themselves more articulate. Other species also have been able to communicate a lot with each other, such as elaborate bird calls, whale songs that enable communication over long distances except when modern naval sonars drive them crazy, dolphin chatter that we don’t yet understand, and elephant communications over long distances using very low frequencies that we can’t even hear.


How Did Hunter Gatherer Tribes Operate? Human speech was evidently used to develop more complex social relationships among members of each tribe and to facilitate planning and coordinating their activities.  We have no direct evidence of how early tribes operated but it seems likely that the successful ones used social organizations similar to those of modern hunter-gatherers. Nomadic tribes are usually of limited size and live as communists (lower case “c” – “One for all and all for one”), sharing responsibilities for food collection and preparation, child raising, hunting, and fighting other tribes when necessary. In other words, they each operate like a large family, which they really are.


These tribes typically have:

Š       A council of elders that meets periodically to review and choose between alternative future actions,

Š       A chief who is responsible overall for the execution of plans,

Š       A group of male hunter/warriors who operate under a leader, with some creating weapons such as bows and arrows and spears, which started out with sharpened rock points, and atlatls that enable spears to be thrown forcefully,   

Š       Men and women who fish where possible,

Š       Women who mostly handle food gathering and preparation, child rearing and education, as well as storage and retrieval of food and other resources,

Š       Shamans who pretend to have contact with some spirit world and train individuals to believe in a unified viewpoint that enables cooperative actions by tribe members.

Parents are necessarily responsible for transporting small children when the tribe moves, which makes it impractical to have more than one such child at a time. Thus the size of families is limited and tribes cannot grow in size very rapidly even when opportunities arise. It is not clear whether contraception of some kind was figured out or whether unwanted babies were simply abandoned.


Average lifetimes were typically in the 30s to early 40s then and small children whose mothers died before they were able to survive on their own often did not make it. However evolution optimized their survivability by imposing menopause, which prevented older women from having babies just before they died but also enabled them to function as grandmothers if they lasted awhile, which enhanced the likelihood of some of their genes surviving.


Vulnerabilities Shape Viewpoints and Actions.  While most people like to think that our ancestors developed their viewpoints and choices of action based on careful analyses of alternatives, our main viewpoints are actually the result of random mutations in the brains of our ancestors that turned out to be advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint. As you know, sexual reproduction provides a much more efficient path toward evolution than the simpler scheme of subdividing, used by some life forms, in that it enables advantageous mutations from more than one family line to be combined. However there are some hazards associated with sexual reproduction.

Consider how the widespread incest taboo came about. Could it have been the result of an ancient person developing a theory of genetic inheritance and figuring out that inbreeding in a small group of related people is likely to cause identical bad genes to come from both parents so as to produce a defective child? Certainly not. There was no science to speak of until a few hundred years ago and we didn’t figure out how DNA works until 1953. Early attitudes were shaped by evolution, not analysis. What actually happened was that one or more persons got a mutation in their brain making them opposed to incest and, because that increased the likelihood that they would reproduce successfully, it became genetically embedded in the brains of their descendants.


Why Do Many Men Like to Rape Women? This is another natural result of evolutionary selection. Ancient hunter-gatherer tribes were necessarily fairly small to facilitate limited resource sharing and mobility and, because these tribes were mainly composed of related people, the resulting inbreeding had a tendency to produce genetic defects in offspring. However some warriors whose genes made them aggressive chose to raid neighboring tribes and bring back young women who they then raped and put to work in their own tribe and, since such actions benefitted the genetic diversity of their tribe and also increased the likelihood of their own genes being passed on, this tendency became genetically embedded in the minds of their male descendants.

It is interesting to note that members of modern “Pro-life” religious movements who argue that victims of rape should not be allowed to get abortions are doing their best to perpetuate the rape genes. Note also that the “religious” prohibition on both abortion and the use of contraceptives is not based on anything in the Bible but is simply a marketing strategy aimed at maximizing the number of constituents.


More Genetic Diversity Where Needed. Hunter-gatherers living in arctic areas, where population densities are extremely low, have an extra difficult but unrecognized problem in maintaining adequate genetic diversity. However, without their thinking about it, evolution found a solution by planting ideas in their heads. When traveling hunters visit a remote group they are generally invited to sleep with the wives there, which promotes genetic diversity.


Why Are We All Naturally Racist? Recent experiments with three month old babies reveal that when they are alternately shown photos of people who look like their parents and others who look different they tend to stare at length at the former and avert their gaze from the latter as an indication of fear or rejection, which indicates that we are wired for racism from birth. That appears to be a byproduct of ancient intertribal warfare in which it was important for warriors to quickly identify opponents based on facial features, skin color and other distinctions and then try to kill them.

It is possible to overcome such mindsets through education and life experiences, as many of us have done, but the genetic predisposition toward racism still lurks in the backs of our minds.


Where Did the Idea of Gods Come From? This too appears to be an adaptation to ancient tribal life. The Universe has many complexities and we are only now beginning to figure things out through the development of science but still have a long way to go.

In order to function efficiently as a tribe, a unified viewpoint on how the world works was needed and ancient shamans apparently filled that need by introducing the idea of gods that controlled various parts of the Universe. They evidently started out by introducing one god to explain each mystery, which led to religious complexity, but some later developed the idea of a single omnipotent god that ran everything. Some also invented the idea of devils without noticing that a devil could not actually survive in a Universe managed by an omnipotent god.

Over time various viewpoints were consolidated into organized religions by authors who all happened to be very able writers of fiction. For example, sometime around the year 100 an anonymous writer created a story about a mythical Jesus Christ who supposedly was born about a hundred years earlier. Others picked up that story and wrote variations about him that were slightly incompatible but enlarged the myth. Eventually one or more editors got involved and put together the New Testament, which grew in popularity until a Roman Emperor embraced it and set off a widespread religious conversion.

It is interesting to note that even though that Bible describes in detail how and where Christ was born, it does not give a birthdate, most likely because that would make it easier to prove that he never existed. The Romans later invented a birthday for him by usurping their traditional winter solstice celebration, called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, their god of farming, then moved it a few days and renamed it Christmas.

If a person called Christ had existed and had done some of the things described in the Bible then contemporary writers in the place where he supposedly lived would surely have written stories about him, but that never happened which confirms that the entire story is a fabrication. {D. Fitzgerald, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All, 2010, Lulu.com, ISBN: 978-0-557-70991-5}

It is interesting to note that Christianity managed to merge two older religious concepts, namely an omnipotent god and multiple specialized gods. The omnipotent one somehow presents three faces (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) and is augmented by hundreds of demi-gods, called saints.

In spite of the evidence, religious fantasies are built into our vocabulary because most people have the acceptance of gods buried in their brains. People frequently say “Thank God!” or “Go to Hell!” even though many of us know there are no gods nor a place called Hell. Overall, religious fantasies play a significant part in our daily lives.


More Fantasies. The tribal life of our ancestors also left us with a number of other fantasies implanted in our minds. In the interest of functioning well as a tribe, our ancestors learned to normally defer to higher authority and follow orders, including going to war with competing tribes. In the modern world, that makes us susceptible to manipulation in some ways and results in military personnel often being honored for their service even when a war is started by politicians as a way of gaining personal power.

If you think that modern people have shed their tribal instincts I suggest that you carefully watch what happens at athletic competitions, where fans run wild in support of their particular tribe.

Given that many people and public media spend time talking about celebrities, it is interesting to consider who is eligible for that status and who is not.

Š       Ineligible: plumbers and other service personnel, engineers, accountants, secretaries, truck drivers, salespeople, housekeepers, cooks, mothers, etc.

Š       Eligible: actors, high level politicians and other marketers, artists, writers of fiction, military generals and admirals, musical composers and performers, poets, high level athletes, etc.

Can you see a pattern there? Those who are eligible are all providers or stimulators of human fantasies, which says a lot about how our minds work -- nearly all enjoyable activities of modern humans revolve around stimulating fantasies.


Genetic Mysteries. There are many gay people in the modern world but evolutionary theory says there should be very few. Such people naturally produce substantially fewer offspring than heterosexuals, which we might expect to remove their inclinations from the gene pool, but that hasn’t happened. It appears, then, that something else is going on. Perhaps heterosexuals who are close relatives of homosexuals somehow have more children than other heterosexuals but it is not clear what would make that happen and, as far as I know, no one is looking into this puzzle, probably because any research having to do with homosexuals gets wrapped up in religious nonsense.

Another mystery is why the sound of running water makes us want to pee. There must have been a survival advantage for our ancient ancestors in doing that but it is not clear what that was.


Continuing Evolution


http://www.kenniskennis.com/images/site/135.jpgNeanderthals Evolved Robust Bodies, Light Skin and Bigger Brains. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors managed to survive the increased environmental challenges from 2 Mya on and diversified into a number of different tribal groups, some of which headed out of Africa to various parts of Eurasia from time to time. One such group was the Neanderthals, who migrated from Africa into Central Eurasia (often misidentified as the Near East) about 800 Kya (thousand years ago) and began evolving in a slightly different direction than their African cousins.

Their hunting tactic was evidently to hide behind a bush until an animal appeared, then grab it and attempt to wrestle it to the ground. In support of that tactic, over time they evolved very robust torsos and arms and also happened to grow big noses. However it was not an easy life: a large portion of male Neanderthal skeletons that have been dug up in modern times show evidence of broken bones that were somehow repaired.

Neanderthals went on to migrate across West Eurasia all the way to Spain, but they had to evolve another adaptation along the way: light colored skin. Humans all need vitamin D and our skin makes it with exposure to sunlight. In places near the Equator, such as Central Africa, black skin allows enough sunlight to get through but at higher latitudes, such as northern Eurasia, that doesn’t work. Consequently the Neanderthals evolved progressively lighter skin.

They also developed brains that were about 10% larger than their African relatives and showed signs of sophistication. For example, they started making cave art at least 176 Kya whereas their successors, the Sapiens, didn’t start doing that until about 42 Kya.

Neanderthals lived in West Eurasia for hundreds of thousands of years, going through multiple ice ages and warm periods. During ice ages, polar ice sheets advanced over northern parts of Eurasia and sea levels dropped, causing the Baltic Sea to disappear as well as the sea channel between Britain and France. Consequently in those times Neanderthals could walk to southern Britain and all over southern Scandinavia.


Sapiens Arise, Decline, Then Take Over. Meanwhile Africans continued to evolve and by 300 Kya were using fire for both security and cooking. Sapiens tribes emerged in East Africa around 200 Kya and their brain size had doubled again since 1 mya. However the ice age intensified and drought conditions caused the human population to plummet. By 100 Kya proto-humans had almost died out.

Still later, around 70 Kya, the Sapiens managed to tighten their tribal social structure in a way that enabled them to develop new hunting tactics and make coordinated attacks on animals of all sizes. That suddenly let them to jump from being a minor species the top of the food chain, which eventually enabled them to dominate the World! {Y.N. Hararri, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2015, HarperCollins, ISBN 978-0-06-231609-7}

While it is true that human intelligence played a role in that takeover, their world dominance was basically a result of becoming the top killers on the planet. There were many very large animals roaming the earth then, including Mammoths, Mastodons, Giant Tree Sloths, Dire Wolves, Saber-tooth Cats, and Giant Bison but by a short time later they all disappeared as a result of some combination of climate change and Sapiens hunting.


http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2015/01/28/0703198F000005DC-0-image-m-6_1422446578540.jpgAnother Migration. Around 50 Kya members of the San tribe began migrating eastward from Africa along the south coast of Eurasia, probably using small boats, and left colonies of people along the way. They eventually crossed a 150 mile wide sea channel to reach Australia, which was also connected to New Guinea and Tasmania at that time because of low sea levels. They then populated all those areas while retaining their black skin because they were still in tropical areas. Today they are called aborigines.



Sapiens Used Neanderthal Genes to Destroy Them. Also about 50 Kya, a group of Sapiens migrated out of Africa into Central Eurasia and promptly encountered the Neanderthals living there. They interbred, probably using intertribal rapes as discussed earlier, then continued into northern Eurasia. Because they too needed lighter skin to live at high latitudes and the Neanderthals had already developed those genes, they were adopted by the Sapiens through normal evolutionary processes and then spread across Eurasia. As a result, most modern Eurasians carry between 2% and 4% Neanderthal genes, including those providing light colored skin. My DNA puts me at 2.6% Neanderthal but I happen to tan so easily that I effectively change races twice each year.

Given that Neanderthals and Sapiens were living in the same areas, they were competing for food resources and, inasmuch as Sapiens’ hunting techniques were superior to those of Neanderthals, the latter were eliminated around 45 Kya.


To America! Sometime around 15 Kya Eurasians migrated first to North America and then to South America using combinations of land and sea travel, the latter using small boats along the east coast of Eurasia and the west coast of the Americas. It was also possible to walk from Siberia to Alaska over a wide land bridge at that time because of low sea levels but there would have been problems in migrating from Alaska to central North America because of vast ice sheets that had not yet melted. We don’t have much archaeological evidence of coastal travel from those days because what were then coastal areas are now deep under the sea.


How Farming Loosened Things Up and Created a Tragedy. A big change began around 10 Kya when people in Central Eurasia invented farming and animal husbandry and settled down. The same thing then happened independently in other parts of the world and soon most people were living on farms and ranches while hunter-gatherers continued to operate in areas that were unsuitable for farming.

Because there was generally more food available on farms and it was practical to raise a number of small children at the same time, farming populations began to soar. However living in one place and being able to select which crops to raise made it easier to make alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine and, since early humans had a natural tendency to enjoy booze, this resulted in a holocaust in which many died from alcoholism. However that weeded out a lot of the bad genes and made the descendants of farmers who did not die less susceptible. Consequently modern descendants of farmers are generally less susceptible to alcoholism than the direct descendants of hunter-gatherers. Alaska, for example, has serious problems with native people living there.

Other advantages of farming were that it led to larger communities with naturally more genetic diversity, so raping was no longer genetically advantageous and it was no longer necessary to go to war with neighbors, but the genes in human brains that pushed those outmoded ideas did not automatically disappear. We might be able to get rid of them by living in a stable environment for a long time but that hasn’t happened. In fact our environment has begun changing at an increasing rate with the rapid rise of science and technology over the last few hundred years. Meanwhile we continue to think like hunter-gatherers and are headed for disaster.


Carryover Aspirations. New farmers found themselves in a rather different world but most of their mindset did not change much. Villages turned into towns, then cities, then groups of cities interspersed with farm lands. Some people began providing services to farmers in exchange for food, then money was invented to facilitate commercial transactions. As people became aware of special resources available in other parts of the world, trade routes were established between East and West Eurasia using camels, horses, ox carts and sailing ships.

The people living in this new world retained the aspirations embedded in their mental fantasies. Men often aspired to getting into a position of power similar to a tribal chief, warrior chief or shaman and were willing to go to war to acquire additional assets, as in the past. Everyone understood the need to follow orders when engaged in aggressive actions. Their strong beliefs in mythical gods of various sorts meant that anyone attempting to interfere with religious projects was eligible for death.

It was likely that the earlier selections of tribal chiefs often favored descendants of earlier chiefs, just as with chimpanzees, and that tendency evidently carried over to the creation of royalty in various parts of the world. In other words, people inherited the right to control others and, later, would marry only others in their class. Other ways of acquiring power were to put together a strong military force and form a dictatorship or conquer another group and turn them into slaves. Slaves could be used not only for doing dirty work but female slaves were always handy for male overseers looking for some dalliance, which resulted in a lot of genetic mergers, especially in the Americas after European invasions.


Our Defective Thinking. As has been pointed out repeatedly by others, modern humans have been causing global warming for a long time and, unless this process is promptly reversed, the ongoing sixth mass extinction of life on Earth will run to completion. Modern humans have also carried out a plan to shorten the extinction time by building enough nuclear weapons to kill everything and everyone in a few hours. Does that sound like rational thinking?

No, it is a result of the hunter-gatherer fantasies that we still carry in our minds and there is currently no plan for circumventing this problem. Artificial intelligence will be of no help because it attempts to emulate defective human thinking.

One conceivable solution would be to put Earth under the control of a benign dictator if a suitable one can be found. However that is a path to nowhere because that person would eventually have to be replaced and the next one might not be so benign, which might turn our descendants into slaves.


Super-Humans Needed. Another possibility would be to somehow create a new life form that thinks rationally, unlike us, and put it in control. There are many possible species to choose from such as smart birds or dolphins, but because we have been doing more experimental work with humans and would egotistically like to keep some version of ourselves in charge, it seems more likely that we can solve this problem by using the advancing fields of genetic engineering and robotics to create a new life form that can do the job. That would mean, of course, that our direct descendants will likely end up in zoos but that would be better than snuffing out all life.

Aside from our defective thinking, the human body has some other design defects that we might as well fix at the same time. For example, we should get rid of the useless appendix and should probably redesign the spine to reduce the frequency of back pain.

Another beneficial redesign would be to move the vagina from between women’s legs to their lower belly, which would end the trade-off between the maximum brain size of babies and the ability of women to run fast, which was an important survival issue in earlier times. More importantly, this would eliminate the need for complex Caesarian Section births.

The placement of the vagina in the lower belly is something that elephants managed to do through evolution long ago and was necessary in their case to avoid killing baby elephants by dropping them from leg height to the ground. Elephant penises also had to be adjusted a bit to accommodate the new arrangement but that too was apparently carried out incrementally. For humans it appears that no penis adjustment would be needed.

The task of blanking out human fantasies in the brain and arranging to get decisions made based on rational analysis looks a lot more challenging than fixing our physical defects but I hope a way can be found to do it soon, before the next big catastrophe.