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What’s so special about being human?

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The other day I told ChatGPT that I was feeling a little blue and asked for advice. The advice was good: talk to a friend, go for a walk, practice mindfulness and gratitude. But the comforting, personalized bedside manner was unexpected: “I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling down.” And the wrap-up was downright spooky: “You’re not alone in this, and taking steps to care for your well-being is a sign of strength.”

Whew! Just me and my large language model will get through this.

The surge of artificial intelligence is alarming. Maybe AI will manipulate us as if we were 2-year-olds, commandeer everyone’s job and pollute our elections with deepfakes.

But the question that’s bothered me most is: Can we count on anything remaining special about being human? Our special quality was always our intelligence, but that distinction is long gone. It can’t be our creativity — look at the artists up in arms about AI tools training on their work to imitate it. It can’t even be our knack for relationships. Just as in the movies, in 2017 a Chinese AI engineer married a robot he had built for himself and planned to upgrade.

What’s left? To my surprise, the more I have thought about it, the more hopeful I have become. Just maybe, in finding our specialness, we cannot only corral AI, but start to appreciate ourselves more. We sure need that.

In 1543, Copernicus kicked humanity out of its assumed exalted spot at the physical center of the universe. In 1859, Darwin downgraded us into the animal world. But rather than further denigrating humanity by far exceeding our intelligence, AI might show us what only humans can do.

People often say humans are special because we have souls. What does that really mean?

While the soul is often deemed to be beyond the range of science, it turns out that if you replace “soul” with “consciousness,” a lot of scientists are working in this field that, until a couple of decades ago, was a backwater.

Consciousness is the internal awareness of being someone and experiencing what it’s like to be that person. Many scientists are pursuing the theory that a complicated system — like an organic brain or a silicon one — eventually achieves consciousness.

But they are all stuck on what is rightly called “the hard problem” of consciousness. Pick an experience, like a mother looking at a picture of her child, and neuroscientists can tell you what brain region is lighting up. But they haven’t a clue about how a physical system can produce the experience of loving a child.

There is no complete consensus, but most scientists concur that even though the existing versions of AI can plan, reason and solve problems, there is no indication that they can or will experience.

Consciousness may even extend beyond the individual. In his recent book on the origin of human consciousness, “Being Human,” Oxford philosopher and nature writer Charles Foster uses the analogy of the brain as a radio that tunes into a universal mind. Ancient Buddhist and Hindu mystics went further, calling all of the material world God’s dream.

Far from deprecating the unfathomable nature of consciousness, current science is reinforcing it.

Incredibly, scientists have now proven that consciousness actually alters matter. The 2022 Nobel Prize for physics acknowledged the work of three scientists over the last 50 years that finally eliminated all the conceivable objections to the occurrence of quantum entanglement, which Einstein derided as “spooky action at a distance.”

These three premier physicists were able to demonstrate many times that the spin of an entangled particle does not crystallize until you look at it, but once you do, the spin of its partner assumes the complementary state — instantaneously, no matter where it is in the universe!

But what are those particles, anyway? Despite billions of dollars spent by high energy physicists smashing particles, they still can’t tell us what is the essential nature of matter. For example, the electron is a fundamental particle with measurable mass, but no one knows what it consists of.

Perhaps such deep foundational confusion helps explain the resurgence of Bertrand Russell’s theory of panpsychism — that what underlies matter is an element of consciousness.

We can use artificial intelligence without surrendering to it. Our irreplaceable gift of consciousness infuses an entire domain of activities that robots can never enter: the unprogrammable spontaneity of children; the irrational decisions we make based on courage or hope; the urge to climb Annapurna and the other displays of the inexplicable human interest in overcoming pain; the appreciation we have of indescribable beauty.

We can start regaining our confidence that humans still have a special place in the universe.

As AI pushes us to affirm what makes us special, our personal lives might also improve. As a veteran type-A doer, I find it liberating to have a new appreciation of simply experiencing. I can evaluate the events of the past day not just with checks on a to-do list, but on the quality of the day’s experiences — perhaps a poignant conversation with an old friend, watching the top of our tall pine tree sway slowly in the breeze, or an unexpected surge of well-being.

The good news is that, like muscles we can train in a gym, whatever we direct our minds to becomes stronger. We can get better at slowing down and experiencing.

Yes, artificial intelligence has the potential to squeeze humanity in an ever-tighter stranglehold of artificial stimulation and engineered responses. Wouldn’t it be thrilling if, instead, AI freed us to appreciate, develop and teach our fundamental humanness: the unquantifiable sweetness we hear in a love song, the inexpressible splendor we see in a sunrise? And most important, the awareness that we are an expression of a universal consciousness that “passes all understanding.”

Bruce Peterson is a senior district judge and teaches a class on lawyers as peacemakers at the University of Minnesota Law School.

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