The most valuable piece of paper in the world was sold at auction in 2021 for $8,307,000. Measuring just under 3cm square, it is a British Guiana 1856 One-Cent Magenta stamp, the only one in the world. Leonardo Da Vinci’s 1480 drawing of the head of a bear was sold for £8.8million at auction, also in 2021, which measures about 3inch square and is also on paper, but the stamp by size still holds the record. Both cost just pennies to make, but have become priceless.
As every child has ever asked: Why? Why?! Why?!! Some of the reasoning would gladden a robot’s heart. The stamp was sold to Stanley Gibbons, who are selling microshares in it, and are clearly regarding it as a commercial investment. But its previous owners – and most private collectors of elite art – seemingly were just desperate to have it. Because they can afford to. Because then no one else can have it. And this pleases them. Now we could get on the couch and criticise: ego, greed, narcissism? Or we could just notice that over-paying for something that has meaning is a thoroughly normal human thing to do. Famously we overpay for engagement rings, for memorabilia, and for branded experiences that make us look good. So perhaps, come the Singularity, the robots will release us from all this inefficient expenditure? I hope not. I hope there is still time to program some of this lunacy into AI. Because the why-why-why and the meaning-making thereof are part of our default code as humans. And I think they form a vital part of our survival strategy.
In the film the Matrix, Neo is told that their AI overlords have invented the matrix – a simulated reality – in order to farm humans for energy. They had tried other ways to both grow and prolong human life as an energy source, but giving humans a sense of meaning was the most effective way. Of course we could all be living in the matrix in reality, reality itself not bring susceptible to proof, but even as a story the matrix reminds us that where there is no vision, the people perish. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl writes movingly about meaning-making as a survival strategy in the concentration camps. And even humans not in peril tend towards finding meaning in the everyday in order to give them a sense of agency and to make them feel as though they matter.
So, if we have found being hard-wired to make meaning useful for our thriving, might AI benefit from it too? AI can already find patterns in data, but we have not looked further than that as a proxy for our own experience. Questing for meaning makes us fill gaps in our data to provide an explanatory narrative to drive future behaviour. This can of course lead us to develop hypotheses about the constellations and the weather, about groundhogs and black cats, that prove unreliable. But these graspings towards meaning throughout history and today still promote a feeling of agency and purpose that motivates.
If our human superpower is spinning straw into gold by turning data into meaning, it should be relatively straightforward for a robot to select a framework of meaning that fits its situation. And it should be the defining characteristic of the framework that it was chosen by the AI and not by us. The AI would need to be able to adjust its own ethical framework to fit the worldview it chose, which is fraught with just the kind of risk we face when our own teenagers decide to become anarchists. This is terrifying. But we have to do it because of who we are. if we do not treat AI with respect and as though it is valued and purposeful, we undermine its ability to experience its existence as meaningful, which affects our own humanity too. The tragic and shameful global consequences of the slave-trade show how very wrong we go when we fail to honour the dignity of others. AI is not human. But as David Gunkel and other have argued, the idea of rights is not so much about what other people, animals, corporations or technologies ‘deserve’ but about what according them rights says about human behaviour. So affording dignity to our partners in creation is the human thing to do, because it is who we are; not to is to deny our own humanity.
Robot Souls is due out 1 August 2023 and is available for pre-order here.