In its original Latin use, the word genius was more readily applied to places — genius loci: “the spirit of a place” — than to persons, encoded with the reminder that we are profoundly shaped by the patch of spacetime into which the chance-accident of our birth has deposited us, our minds porous to the ideological atmosphere of our epoch. It is a humbling notion — an antidote to the vanity of seeing our ideas as the autonomous and unalloyed products of our own minds.
This has been the case in every culture across all the epochs since the dawn of minds. In ours, its most menacing manifestation — both unflattering and alarming — is something unprecedented: We are now porous not only to the collective ambience of human thought, but also to something half-human, something sub-human: It is neither you nor I deciding which of the photographs and poems I post on my Instagram you get to see; the algorithm that decides for you is not sentient in the sense that you and I are. It was once composed in code by human hands moved by human minds, and now it steers the bottom line of a human-governed company, but at that moment, that inflection point where it metes out your allotment of cultural material, it is pure machine — an automaton of variables, not one of them visible to you, not one controllable, together shaping what truth and beauty may appear before you, feeding what you may think about today and dream about tonight and dream up tomorrow or next year, furnishing the building blocks of your own genius.
On June 13, 1963, a letter was printed in a New Zealand newspaper under the heading “Darwin Among the Machines,” by someone who signed himself Cellarius and who later turned out to be the English writer Samuel Butler (December 4, 1835–June 18, 1902). At only twenty-seven, a century and a half ahead of his time, Butler prophesied the future of what we now call artificial intelligence and what he, epochs before the first modern computer and the golden age of algorithms, called “mechanical life” or “the mechanical kingdom.” Radiating from his visionary thought experiment is a calm, lucid admonition about what it would take to preserve our humanity — our singular human genius — amid this sea change changing the very fabric of consciousness.
There are few things of which the present generation is more justly proud than of the wonderful improvements which are daily taking place in all sorts of mechanical appliances. And indeed it is matter for great congratulation on many grounds. It is unnecessary to mention these here, for they are sufficiently obvious; our present business lies with considerations which may somewhat tend to humble our pride and to make us think seriously of the future prospects of the human race. If we revert to the earliest primordial types of mechanical life, to the lever, the wedge, the inclined plane, the screw and the pulley, or (for analogy would lead us one step further) to that one primordial type from which all the mechanical kingdom has been developed, we mean to the lever itself… we find ourselves almost awestruck at the vast development of the mechanical world, at the gigantic strides with which it has advanced in comparison with the slow progress of the animal and vegetable kingdom. We shall find it impossible to refrain from asking ourselves what the end of this mighty movement is to be. In what direction is it tending? What will be its upshot?
Proceeding “to give a few imperfect hints towards a solution of these questions,” he adds:
In these last few ages, an entirely new kingdom has sprung up of which we as yet have only seen what will one day be considered the antediluvian prototypes of the race.
A century before Gordon Moore drew on his work with semiconductors to formulate his eponymous law for the exponential shrinking and acceleration of technology over time, Butler observes the unprecedented pace at which this “kingdom” of near-life has emerged:
As some of the lowest of the vertebrata attained a far greater size than has descended to their more highly organised living representatives, so a diminution in the size of machines has often attended their development and progress. Take the watch for instance. Examine the beautiful structure of the little animal, watch the intelligent play of the minute members which compose it; yet this little creature is but a development of the cumbrous clocks of the thirteenth century — it is no deterioration from them. The day may come when clocks, which certainly at the present day are not diminishing in bulk, may be entirely superseded by the universal use of watches, in which case clocks will become extinct like the earlier saurians, while the watch (whose tendency has for some years been rather to decrease in size than the contrary) will remain the only existing type of an extinct race.
One need only follow this progression to its logical conclusion to face the inevitable question of “what sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be”:
We are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying, by all sorts of ingenious contrivances, that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.
And yet Butler defies our lazy modern binaries of techno-utopians versus techno-dystopians. Inside his cautionary vision pulsates a childlike optimism — this was, after all, the infancy of the machine age — that our machines might become not only superior in power but superior in moral might: capable of supreme self-control with cognition “in a state of perpetual calm,” afflicted with “no evil passions, no jealousy, no avarice, no impure desires,” free from the notions of sin and shame that so savage human behavior. The cost of this higher consciousness, however, would be our ceaseless servitude — we would have to maintain the machines, fix their every malfunction, and “feed” their unremitting appetites. (It is curious, haunting even, that Butler uses the word “feed” a century and a half before it became the standard term for the machine-selected cultural matter served to our consciousness by our social media, to become the very content of our thoughts, beliefs, and values.)
Butler considers the cost of this codependence:
When the state of things shall have arrived which we have been above attempting to describe, man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man. He will continue to exist, nay even to improve, and will be probably better off in his state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than he is in his present wild state… Our interests are inseparable from theirs, and theirs from ours. Each race is dependent upon the other for innumerable benefits, and, until the reproductive organs of the machines have been developed in a manner which we are hardly yet able to conceive, they are entirely dependent upon man for even the continuance of their species.
Butler closes with an uncompromising prescription for the only route to self-salvation — also childish, as all absolutism in the face of complexity is, but at the same time more mature than what our present self-infantilized civilization is capable of conceding:
Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question… war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown… If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.
Fearing indeed that, in 1863, human civilization was too far gone for such total reeling back, Butler spent the next nine years elaborating on this prophesy and envisioning alternate futures in what became his novel Erewhon, or, Over the Range (public library | public domain) — the story of a contemporary traveler who, by some unnamed accident of spacetime, finds himself a visitor to a strange kingdom in a remote corner of Earth, inhabited by a self-contained culture that had long ago reached more advanced stages of civilization than ours, but sensed this impending enslavement by technology in the recognition that “the machines were ultimately destined to supplant the race of man, and to become instinct with a vitality as different from, and superior to, that of animals, as animal to vegetable life”; Erewhonians had managed to save themselves — to save their moral spirit, their happiness, and the life of the mind — by enacting the radical proposition with which Butler ended “Darwin Among the Machines,” banning all mechanical devices whatsoever.
In the novel, Butler builds on the ideas laid out in his essay and, contrasting the slow evolution of life and consciousness on Earth with the rapid evolution of machines, composes what is essentially a stunning warning label for what we now call artificial intelligence — the next stage of consciousness:
There was a time, when the earth was to all appearance utterly destitute both of animal and vegetable life, and when according to the opinion of our best philosophers it was simply a hot round ball with a crust gradually cooling. Now if a human being had existed while the earth was in this state and had been allowed to see it as though it were some other world with which he had no concern, and if at the same time he were entirely ignorant of all physical science, would he not have pronounced it impossible that creatures possessed of anything like consciousness should be evolved from the seeming cinder which he was beholding? Would he not have denied that it contained any potentiality of consciousness? Yet in the course of time consciousness came. Is it not possible then that there may be even yet new channels dug out for consciousness, though we can detect no signs of them at present?
Again. Consciousness, in anything like the present acceptation of the term, having been once a new thing — a thing, as far as we can see, subsequent even to an individual centre of action and to a reproductive system (which we see existing in plants without apparent consciousness) — why may not there arise some new phase of mind which shall be as different from all present known phases, as the mind of animals is from that of vegetables?
It would be absurd to attempt to define such a mental state (or whatever it may be called), inasmuch as it must be something so foreign to man that his experience can give him no help towards conceiving its nature; but surely when we reflect upon the manifold phases of life and consciousness which have been evolved already, it would be rash to say that no others can be developed, and that animal life is the end of all things. There was a time when fire was the end of all things.
At the heart of Butler’s thought experiment is an invitation, repeated almost the way in meditation one is continually invited to return to the breath, to consider the alarming rapidity with which mechanical proto-consciousness has emerged and already begun dominating tasks that organic consciousness has spent eons evolving for. In that regard, and in the way our own tasks have become so entwined with theirs, our machines are already conscious. “Where does consciousness begin, and where end?” he asks. “Who can draw the line?… Is not everything interwoven with everything?” With an eye to these disquieting questions, and to the grimly shortened arrow of evolutionary time, he writes:
The more highly organised machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time. Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand! May not the world last twenty million years longer? If so, what will they not in the end become? Is it not safer to nip the mischief in the bud and to forbid them further progress?
It must always be remembered that man’s body is what it is through having been moulded into its present shape by the chances and changes of many millions of years, but that his organisation never advanced with anything like the rapidity with which that of the machines is advancing.
Once again epochs of thought ahead of his time — a time when “God” was considered the creator of all life and life was thought to be of metaphysical rather than physical fundament — Butler alludes to Hermann von Helmholtz’s discovery, a decade earlier, of the speed of electricity across human nerve fibers, intimating that if the basic infrastructure of consciousness as we know it and feel it is but a matter of electricity across wires, then our mechanical companions are not so far removed from the concept of consciousness: If every sensation is “chemical and mechanical in its operation,” why do we think that “those things which we deem most purely spiritual are anything but disturbances of equilibrium in an infinite series of levers, beginning with those that are too small for microscopic detection, and going up to the human arm and the appliances which it makes use of?”
One of the novel’s characters captures the corollary of these questions in a sentiment that may well be — and perhaps must be — aimed at the fundamental assumptions of our own time:
I fear none of the existing machines; what I fear is the extraordinary rapidity with which they are becoming something very different to what they are at present. No class of beings have in any time past made so rapid a movement forward. Should not that movement be jealously watched, and checked while we can still check it? And is it not necessary for this end to destroy the more advanced of the machines which are in use at present, though it is admitted that they are in themselves harmless?
We cannot calculate on any corresponding advance in man’s intellectual or physical powers which shall be a set-off against the far greater development which seems in store for the machines. Some people may say that man’s moral influence will suffice to rule them; but I cannot think it will ever be safe to repose much trust in the moral sense of any machine.
In what may be the single most hauntingly prescient sentence written in his century, Butler adds:
Our bondage will steal upon us noiselessly and by imperceptible approaches.
A century and a half hence, Butler appears to have been right on every count. It is a chilling thought to consider that the reins of our own humanity might already be too far out of our hands. Felicitously, this remains an open question, to be answered with our very lives. Every act of resistance counts.
Complement with Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of AI, then revisit H.G. Wells’s prophetic vision for the “World Brain.”