Why do we find stories of Eden or Utopia so intriguing? Some tend to think that humanity “fell” from an untroubled state of grace. Some believe that Utopia is still to come brought about by behavioral science (B.F. Skinner’s “Walden Two”) or technology (e.g., Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near”). Even American politics often echoes these themes. On the one hand, many conservatives tend to imagine America was a kind of Eden before big government and political correctness and fairness came into play (e.g., “Make American Great Again” used by Reagan as well as Trump; “Restore America Now” 2012 Ron Paul). On the other hand, many liberal slogans point toward a future Utopia (e.g., Gore – “Leadership for the New Millennium”; Obama – “Yes We Can”; Sanders – “A Future To Believe In”). Indeed, much of the underlying conservative vs. liberal “debate” centers around whether you mainly believe that America was close to paradise and we need to get back to it or whether you believe, however good America was, it can move much closer to a Utopian vision in the future.
In Chapter 9 of “Turing’s Nightmares”, the idea of Eden is brought in as a method of testing. In this case, we mainly see the story, not from God’s perspective or the human perspective, but from the perspective of a super-intelligent AI system. Why would such a system try to “create a world”? We could imagine that a super intelligent, super powerful being might be rather out of challenges of the type we humans generally have to face (at least in this interim period between the Eden of the past and the Utopia of the future). What to do? Well, why not explore deep philosophical questions such as good vs. evil and free will vs. determinism by creating worlds to explore these ideas? Debating such questions, at least by human beings, has not led to any universally accepted answers and we’ve been at it for thousands of years. It may be that a full scale experiment is the way to delve more deeply.
However “intelligent” and “knowledgeable” a super-smart computer system of the future might be, it will still most likely be the case that not everything about the future could be predictable. In order to simulate the universe in detail, the computer would have to be as extensive as the universe. Of course, it could be that many possible states “collapse” due to reasons of symmetry or that a much smaller number of “rules” could predict things. There is no way to tell at this point. As we now see the world, even determining how to play a “perfect” game of chess by checking all possible moves would require a “more than universe-sized” computer. It could be the case that a fairly small set of (as yet undetermined) rules could produce the same results. And, maybe that would be true about biological and social evolution. In the wonderful science fiction series, The Foundation Series, by Isaac Asimov, Hari Seldon develops a way to predict the social and political evolution of humanity from a series of equations. Although he cannot predict individual behavior, the collective behavior is predictable. In Chapter 9, our AI system believes that it can predict human outcomes but still has enough doubt that it needs to test out its hypotheses.
There is a very serious and as yet unknown question about our own future implicit in Chapter 9. It could be the case that we humans are fundamentally flawed by our genetic heritage. Some branches of primates behave in a very competitive and nasty fashion. It might well be that our genome will prevent us from stopping global climate change or indeed that we are doomed to over-populate and over-pollute the world or that we will eventually find “world leaders” who will pull nuclear triggers on an atomic armageddon. It might well be that our “intelligence” and even the intelligence of AI systems that start from the seeds of our thoughts are on a local maximum. Maybe dolphins, or sea turtles would be a better starting point. But maybe, just maybe, we can see our way through to overcome whatever mindlessly selfish predispositions we might have to create a greener world that is peaceful, prosperous and fair. Maybe.