You and It

Exactly a century ago, in his 1923 book: “I and Thou”, the philosopher Martin Buber made a distinction between “It” and “Thou”, the latter being the equivalent of “You”. Buber’s existentialism distinguished the I-it relation between subjects and objects of thought and action and the I-Thou, or equivalently I-You, relation that characterizes encounters, dialogues, mutual meetings or exchanges between entities that exceed the range of the subject-object relation.

I read Buber’s book as a teenager — being fascinated by existential philosophy, and four decades later it appears to me as making the distinction between physical objects and sentient beings. Obviously, sentient beings like humans are also physical objects, subject to the laws of physics like any other form of material. Within the context of physics, the unique qualities of humans as intelligent, conscious beings with apparent “free will”, may simply represent emergent phenomena stemming from the complexity of the human brain. From the perspective of a materialistic physicist, Buber’s distinction may simply reflect a level of unpredictability and richness of interactions that accompanies any data-processing systems beyond some threshold of complexity. In essence, a computer system with a sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence (AI), could transition from “it” to “You” and display interaction qualities that we routinely associate with humans.

The inability to distinguish AI from natural intelligence constitutes the foundation for the Turing Test, proposed by Alan Turing in 1950 as a way of dealing with the question whether machines can think, reflecting on René Descartesmind-body dualism. Recently, the Google engineer, Blake Lemoine, described the LaMDA AI-system he has been working on as sentient, with the ability to express thoughts and feelings that was equivalent to a human child. His perception echoes the notion of a “ghost in the machine”, proposed by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his 1949 book “The Concept of Mind”.

Computer scientists were quick to denounce the existing Google AI-system as anything but a survey of data on the internet and a mindless compilation of public information rather than the equivalent of a sentient being. In a statement, Google spokesperson Brian Gabriel said: “Our team — including ethicists and technologists — has reviewed Blake’s concerns per our AI Principles and have informed him that the evidence does not support his claims. He was told that there was no evidence that LaMDA was sentient (and lots of evidence against it) … Of course, some in the broader AI community are considering the long-term possibility of sentient or general AI, but it doesn’t make sense to do so by anthropomorphizing today’s conversational models, which are not sentient. These systems imitate the types of exchanges found in millions of sentences, and can riff on any fantastical topic.”

Do we really know the nature of “sentient” to conclude that human intelligence is different from that exhibited by LaMDA? The ancient Greek physician and philosopher, Galen, suggested that the heart is most similar to the spiritual soul, an idea that did not stand up to the scrutiny of modern medicine.

On a practical level, it may not matter how we define “sentient” if people cannot tell the difference between interacting with an advanced AI-system and a human. Rather than define the distinction between “It” and “You” philosophically, we can define it based on the statistics of numerous interactions with consumers, the way a business gauges the success of a product. If nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand people are unable to distinguish the machine from a human during extended interactions, then “It” is practically a “You”.

Buber’s distinction has profound consequences not only for the philosophical and religious aspects of our life on Earth, but also for our interactions with technological gadgets from advanced civilizations in our cosmic neighborhood. In a previous essay I asked: “Would the encounter with an advanced technological gadget, such as the 100th version of the iPhone, inspire the same sense of awe for a present-day Silicon Valley entrepreneur as the burning bush did for Moses?”

This question is directly relevant to the Galileo Project which aims to search for possible technological relics from extraterrestrial civilizations in the vicinity of Earth. Will the Project’s research team find only objects that fall into the category of “It” or will some of them appear as “You” in Buber’s terminology?

When I met Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence with a bachelor’s degree in Theoretical Physics from the University of Chicago, in the Green Room on the “Ignatius Forum” that took place on November 10, 2021 at the Washington National Cathedral, I asked her: “What is your gut feeling about the nature of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) that you reported about to Congress?” She said: “I don’t know.” Most recently, Congress expanded the definition of UAP to include “trans-medium objects or devices” that “are observed to transition between space and the atmosphere, or between the atmosphere and bodies of water.” An object means “It”, whereas a sufficiently advanced AI device could potentially become “You” in Buber’s terminology.

A month ago, we held a conference of the Galileo Project to celebrate its first-year accomplishments, culminating in a suite of new instruments on the roof of the Harvard College Observatory. One of the Project’s team members, Tony Lux, told me today that the conference had a profound impact on his thinking, leading him to read Buber’s book in recent weeks. Following my previous essay, Tony wrote to me: “… if you, Avi, find yourself one day holding a piece of technology so advanced that without a doubt you “know” it comes from another civilization, I won’t discount the possibility that you will experience the same sort of awe as Moses did in the burning bush. But just as with the burning bush, the awe-inspiring encounter won’t be based on the close observation of the object at hand, as historic and crucial as that observation will be. Rather, should you experience that awe, I believe it will be because you will have managed to encounter the “eternal” You, directly, in the civilization that sent the object your way.”

I can’t wait.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021.

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Frank B. Baird Jr Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial”.