Can you do more, or do you want more?
Words Chris Nelson Illustration Nick Pyle
How do people realize their potential? Believers in the Human Potential Movement would say they realized hidden “potentialities.” Started in 1961, the movement says both desirable and undesirable potentialities exist latent in man, and can be “actualized” through various mind-body exercises. Studies of human potentiality draw heavily from theories by American psychologist Abraham Maslow — who conjectured about a fundamental need for transcendence, “the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness” — and English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, author of The Doors of Perception (1954), which summarizes the writer’s mescaline-induced experiments in personal exploration. Huxley said that if we could realize our desirable potentialities, “we may be able to produce extraordinary things out of this strange piece of work that a man is.” Unfortunately, the hunt for untapped human potential is stifled by a dismal understanding of ourselves and our ancient brains.
But what if man used his brain to build a better brain that could simplify all the complex things his dumb brain couldn’t understand? The conversation around human potential is hot again, because artificial intelligence (AI) is maturing and gradually integrating into our society. Perhaps one day the inhuman will offer a unique, never-before-seen perspective on mankind and show us how to be better humans.
Aldous Huxley believed advancing technologies would yield new methods for unlocking human potential. We've been introduced to “weak AI," like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, but it’s the birth of “strong AI" — non-sentient, thinking machines with more cognitive bandwidth than humans — that could dramatically alter our existence. Some believe strong AI could evolve into an unstoppable, conscious “Singularity,” the harbinger of an apocalypse; it will get its start, however, by handling our unwanted and routine tasks. Ideally, in this “human-technology co-evolution,” AI augments our lives and gives us more time to understand the inherently human abilities that can’t be automated. AI is cursed, though, because man is its creator, and man is imperfect in ways a machine can’t understand and man can’t accept. If neither metaphysical evolution nor machine-assisted enlightenment is humanity’s panacea, what is?
Could it be we’re simply not brave enough to believe in the potential we have, because to realize that potential, we must risk trying and failing alone? Could the belief that we even have potential be a grotesque invention of the brains we barely understand? Or should we stop overthinking it, appreciate the potential within us, and realize that potential in whatever way feels natural?