By now, you may have heard — possibly from the same people creating the technology — that artificial intelligence might one day kill us all. The specifics are hazy, but then, they don’t really matter. Humans are very good at fantasizing about being exterminated by an alien species, because we’ve always been good at devising creative ways of doing it to our fellow creatures. AI could destroy humanity for something as stupid as, in philosopher Nick Bostrom’s famous thought experiment, turning the world’s matter into paper clips — much like humans are now wiping out our great ape cousins, orangutans, to cultivate palm oil to make junk foods like Oreos.
You might even say that the human nightmare of subjugation by machines expresses a sublimated fear of our treatment of non-human animals being turned back on us. “We know what we’ve done,” as journalist Ezra Klein put it on a May episode of his podcast. “And we wouldn’t want to be on the other side of it.”
AI threatens the quality that many of us believe has made humans unique on this planet: intelligence. So, as author Meghan O’Gieblyn wrote in her book God, Human, Animal, Machine, “We quell our anxiety by insisting that what distinguishes true consciousness is emotions, perception, the ability to experience and feel: the qualities, in other words, that we share with animals.” We tell ourselves, in other words, that even if AI may one day be smarter than us, unlike the machines, we have subjective experience, which makes us morally special.