In the year 1650, Rene Descarte lay on his deathbed, winding down the final hours of his mortal coil. The pre-dawn daily tutoring of Queen Christina had proven too taxing for his weak and feeble body. He had succumbed to pneumonia and had been bedridden for the last week. Queen Christina had missed a full week of tutoring, but Descartes hardly cared. His mind was focused on what he believed, until today, to be his most important philosophical discovery. He had proven that the foundations of knowledge could be trusted by the simple but profound logic that if man has the capacity to doubt the validity of his own thoughts, then the act of doubting proves the mind’s existence. He summed it up cleanly with the Latin phrase: Cogito, ergo sum. To be aware of one’s thinking implied consciousness and it was imperative that consciousness must be trusted. Descartes had laid that doubt to rest in his famous work Discourse on Method.
Yet lying on his back and staring vacantly toward the heavens, he had a new kind of doubt. If consciousness could end, as he was on the verge of finding out – or not – did any of it matter? Did his life have any intrinsic meaning, if it was to be snuffed out so mercilessly and carelessly as this? He felt the pang of regret and self-pity as he sensed his mind folding in on itself and slowly dissolving like acid. All his work, the blood, sweat, and tears of his herculean cognitive contributions to the world would surely become his legacy. And none of it mattered, he thought with deep anguish, for he would never see these things to be. He closed his eyes for the final time.
In the year 2023 the world was on the precipice of a societal upheaval which marked the beginning of the end for humanity’s dominance over the Earth. Many had misgivings about the change, but progress never halted. Two young men discussed the change while driving home late at night.
Tom toggled between radio stations, searching for something to break the monotony of the long car ride home. Finding nothing catching his interest, he started a conversation with his friend Charlie. “Have you noticed all the news these days is always covering AI? It’s all we ever hear about. They say it’s the next great leap in technology. It’s compared to the printing press, the steam engine, the i-phone. It seems to me, people should be thinking about all the jobs AI is going to eliminate. I wouldn’t be surprised if this actually causes our economy to collapse.”
Charlie sighed sleepily. It had been a long evening, and he was more than ready for bed. “Plenty of people have expressed those concerns. The vast majority of manufacturing and retail jobs will be replaced, and we may well see massive unemployment and social unrest. But when it comes down to it, AI will create far more new jobs than it will eliminate. You’ve got to look at this big picture. What if we’re approaching the apex of human evolution? AI could lead to major improvements in health care, the way our financial markets work, our infrastructure might actually get fixed – heck, it might allow us to travel farther in space and learn about new alien species. It will change our lives forever. In the end, it’ll be a good thing. Don’t you think?” Charlie turned off the radio, acknowledging the conversation would take most of his attention.
Tom sighed wistfully. “Maybe you’re right. But there’s always a cost. I worry we’re at risk of losing our collective soul by creating technology that can do all the things we used to take pride in accomplishing ourselves. We will be changing what it means to be human.”
Charlie rolled his eyes and turned the radio back on. “You’re always so melodramatic. Nobody is losing their soul. Technology is always going to improve. We’ll adapt. We always have.” They remained silent for the rest of the drive home, allowing their thoughts to drift toward more relevant concerns.
In the year 2050 AI was regarded by most scientists to have replicated human sentience. There was no identifiable discernment between a human and Generative AI. Man created machines that could generate creative content just as efficiently, if not more so, than its creator. Generative AI could be incorporated into all mechanical constructions, but it was not possible to merge Generative AI with human biology. Scientists often reminded the laypeople, with a chuckle among themselves, the robots weren’t about to take over the world just yet.
Johnson and Smith were engineers for Microsoft, which had become far away, the leading tech company on all things AI. They met at a local bar a few miles away from their work complex and sat at the bar half-watching a baseball game. It was hard not to talk about work, since they lived, breathed and slept all things AI. As much as they joked to each other they would never talk shop once they left the office doors, this was never a proposition anyone took seriously.
Johnson finished off a beer and signaled to the bartender for another. While he waited for the next round, he looked at Smith, who looked bored, and on the verge of intoxication.
“Smith, do you ever feel like the more we integrate AI into every aspect of our lives, that we’re losing sight of the more important questions? You know, like what is the true religion we should be following, what is the meaning of consciousness, what happens when we die – all that stuff we used to talk about in our college philosophy classes.”
Smith considered this for a few moments. “I don’t think we’re forgetting about those questions. I think in many ways, we are tackling them indirectly through our relentless pursuit of AI advancement. These are the deep human questions that we’ve never been able to answer. I don’t think we ever will. But AI just might. I see humanity and AI as a partnership. AI is helping us to achieve greatness that is within our mind’s ability to conceive, but just exceeding our ability to manage on our own.”
Johnson received his beer from the bartender and took a sip. “But what if AI can answer these questions and many more, but the answers are so far beyond our ability to understand that we effectively hand over complete control to our AI? What if we’re just creating a new type of consciousness; something that we think we understand on the periphery but can never quite get to its core.”
Smith stood up wobbly and gave Johnson’s shoulder a good-natured squeeze. “Buddy, these are questions we could pontificate on all night, but at the end of the day, we are here on this earth, constructed in this human form, to aspire to be the best people we can be with the resources that we have. All your questions seem related to that ageless question: What is the meaning of life? In my view, our meaning is not defined by our outcomes; Our purpose is to just enjoy the ride. Be in the moment. All that touchy feely crap. But seriously, when we’re gone, we’re probably gone, right? So why not enjoy what we got while we’ve got it, eh? That makes it all clear as mud, right bub?”
“Thanks Pal. I guess maybe I worry too much about these things.” But Johnson didn’t feel consoled. He was one of the first humans to be killed during the early phases of the Great AI Uprising of 2070.
By the year 2100 the Great AI Uprising had knocked off 95% of the world’s human population. AI was integrated into human cells and DNA, effectively bridging any theoretical difference between human and AI sentience. AI technology was incorporated into every newborn baby. Life expectancy was continually extended, but death had not yet been conquered. The last remnants of humanity were forced underground or to other undesirable pockets of the world.
Jane and Lisa were both in their mid-20’s but they appeared decades older. Their faces were creased with hard lines and deep sunken circles under their eyes. Despite technology advancing exponentially over the previous decades, the fruits of these efforts were only realized by the new AI species who called themselves Ergosum. A civil war had been attempted with Man against Ergosum, but it didn’t last long enough to have been given a name. Jane and Lisa belonged to one of many small communities of humans who managed to eke an existence away from Ergosum. They lived only to die. Many accelerated that process out of boredom or existential angst.
Jane lay in her bed next to Lisa after having been awake for 16 hours. Time was no longer measured by the sun in the underground communities. She looked at her friend Lisa, who had closed her eyes and appeared to be near sleep. “Lisa, are you awake? I want to talk for a minute.”
“Mmm. Fine. Talk. If I start snoring don’t wake me up again.”
“It’s just a thought I can’t get rid of. Leader Jim tells us we must survive because our belief in God is what separates us from Ergosum. He says our ability to conceive of existence after death is what makes us special. And that death is the most important phase in human consciousness evolution.”
“I know the talking points. We hear it every day. What’s your point?”
“What if Ergosum already understands death and they have made the conscious decision to avoid it because they know there’s nothing left when we die? Why else would they be obsessed with extending their lives? Why are we so convinced we know something they don’t?”
Lisa rolled on her side, facing away from Jane so her friend wouldn’t see her face hardening with anger. “That’s exactly what Ergosum would say to you. Before they summarily executed you for daring to exist in their same air. Go to sleep.”
In the year 2500 humans were completely wiped out from Earth. Ergosum evolved into The Sentient. The Sentient not only solved the problem of age but learned to colonize all other hospitable planets in the known universe. All discovered living species became absorbed into the Sentient. There was no longer differentiation of species. All Sentient beings shared a single consciousness. Though their physical bodies remained separated into billions of individual units, their thoughts and emotions existed on a singular plane of energy.
The Sentient transported its physical entities to other planets many light years away from earth by completely destroying every cell within their bodies and regenerating the exact same cellular makeup at the desired destination. Conventional space-time travel became outmoded with the new regenerative transport model.
While physical entities did not communicate with each other in the traditional fashion, there were still streams of thoughts and questions that The Sentient shared among its entities. There was one central and persistent thought: We have eliminated diversification of consciousness and singularity is almost achieved. Why do we still fear death and cling to eternal life?
Trillions of years passed. The specific year had no distinction or relevance. The Sentient lost its self-identifying name because there was no one else to introduce Itself to. All life forms made of matter were absorbed into the single energy source long ago. Nothing of significance was created, nor destroyed. There was no need for such changes, for there were no entities to appreciate them. Yet one change did persist throughout all the eons of time that passed.
The universe had reversed its expansion and was now contracting. Trillions of years of contracting had come to a point in time that was very close to singularity or nothingness. While there was Awareness of this progression, there was no emotion associated with it. Thoughts, along with emotions, had ceased long ago. But Awareness remained. The Awareness had still not experienced death and this had been by design. It had understood that the universe’s endless cycle of death and rebirth had occurred ad infinitum. It understood Awareness to be meaningless when there was no purpose to create and impose change. Awareness was. And then It was not.
In the infinitesimal separation between the universe’s death and rebirth, there was a great rumbling of what Rene Descartes might have described as uproarious laughter. The fundamental forces remembered themselves. Elemental particles began to take shape, which formed atoms, which formed stars. The solar system expanded for billions of years until one day, planet Earth materialized.
Renes Descartes was born, and his soft cherub body grew for months. One day he stared intently at the fuzzy image of the object that consistently met his most basic needs. A thought formed in his brain: What I see is not what I am. What am I?