It is said of the ancient Chinese game go that the number of possible positions on its board exceeds the number of atoms in the known universe.

This is old news, presumably, to masters of go and master mathematicians. To the rest of us it came as something of a shock when it became common knowledge in March, the occasion being the defeat — shocking in itself — of a world-ranking go master by a mere (so we would have said, once upon a time) computer. Or perhaps, giving it a positive spin, we should say “victory” instead of “defeat”: a computer’s victory over a mere human.

What is the human brain to make of such facts? What is the human brain? An awesome instrument, clearly — capable of counting the atoms in the universe, of devising a board game of such astonishing complexity and of creating a machine, an artificial brain, that plays the game better than one of the best human players.

Soon machines of that order won’t need humans to make them. They’ll make themselves. Some experts see it happening within 20 years, others within 50, 60, 70. Whatever the time frame, artificial intelligence is here now in embryo, its maturity already visible on the horizon.

Wonderful, says (among many others) Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. The victorious robot, AlphaGo by name, was developed by Google DeepMind, and Schmidt, speaking a day before the match, said, “The winner here, no matter what happens, is humanity. Humanity wins because the advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning will make each and every other human being in the entire world smarter, more capable — just better human beings.”

That’s more or less the view of Sony Computer Science Laboratories president Hiroaki Kitano, an artificial intelligence expert who, in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun last month, said, “Looking at the big picture, human survival may depend on the accelerated development of AI.”

The seemingly insoluble problems that besiege us — environmental degradation, climate change, diseases that refuse to be cured (or that return, having supposedly been wiped out), economies that fail to meet our needs (or fail entirely), international conflicts whose vast destructive potential only the most blithely sanguine minds can regard without terror — teach us the limits of purely human intelligence.

“Could AI evolve to the point of making independent discoveries?” the Asahi asks Kitano. Naturally the answer is yes: AlphaGo is already making them. What one robot can do on the go board, more sophisticated successors — descendants? — will soon be doing in the laboratory and elsewhere.

It’s a bit ominous all the same, the interviewers seem to feel. “Could AI,” they ask, “destroy the human race?”

“That’s the wrong question,” counters Kitano. “From a human-centric point of view, the destruction of the human race is a problem, but before anything like that happens our ways of thinking and acting will have changed, so that, if all goes well, machines will generate new types of intelligence that could solve the various problems that merely human intelligence has not solved.”

Let’s accept, for the sake of argument, that all will go well. Let’s accept, or imagine, that AI will solve, or help us solve, all our problems without overwhelming us or overpowering us or turning us into slaves or pets or anything of that sort. Let’s say that in the fullness of time — how long would it take? — human intelligence evolves into artificial intelligence, capable of solving all problems, and of arranging things in future so that no new problems arise.

Is Schmidt right? Will we be, in that case, “better human beings”? Suppose we will be. How much better can we get and still be human? Suppose we get so much better that we cease to be human, in our current “human-centric” sense of the word. Will we have lost anything worth regretting? Our human weaknesses are so evident, and cause us so much grief, it’s hard to see what we’d miss in a posthuman state — hunger? Disease? War? Death?

Satiety, health, peace and immortality would be ours as a matter of course, and if the price we pay is our “humanity,” what exactly would we be forfeiting, other than those burdens that we’ve struggled in vain to be free of since the dawn of time?

Poets of old, entranced by their muse, sung paeans to humanness — with voices that sometimes cracked in the middle and sounded a bit forced, as in, for example, this famous snippet from the 14th-century Buddhist priest Yoshida no Kenko: “If man were never to fade away like the dew … but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us!”

Maybe, maybe not. One imagines Schmidt smiling and saying, “It seems a chance worth taking.”

It’s an old, old debate, antedating AI by millennia: How can we minister to our bodies without violating our spirits? Ancient physician-researchers chafed against traditional taboos banning human dissection. Medicine progressed slowly, checked at every turn by reaction against its characteristic tendency to “dehumanize” and “mechanize” the body. Genetic engineering, and the moral revulsion it arouses in some quarters, are the old debate in modern dress.

Ditto organ transplants. In 1997, after years of controversy, Japan’s Organ Transplant Law recognized brain death as death, facilitating organ transplants. Even so, reports Josei Seven magazine, the life-saving and therefore (one might think) life-enhancing procedure is failing to take hold here: Japan performs 100-odd transplants a year compared with the roughly 8,000 a year performed in America.

A Japanese father whose grown son died in a car crash ran smack up against Japan’s gut feelings on the subject when, in accordance with his son’s wishes, he donated the organs, only to face outraged accusations of “selling” his child’s remains for cash.

That was a decade ago. As a sign of changing times Josei Seven introduces the more recent case of a husband who donated his wife’s organs with the idea in mind that she would “continue to live by saving other people’s lives.” The grateful letters he has received from recipients reinforce the feeling. “It does me good,” he says, “to think my wife somehow remains alive.”

Futurists speak blithely of the immortality to come when we can download our brains into computers and laugh as the squeamish who decline to do so die off. A 2013 report by The Associated Press on such prospects concludes by quoting an eminent U.S. churchman as saying, “I’m not too fond of the idea of immortality, because I think it will be deathly boring.” To which Kenko, surely, would reply, “My point exactly.”

Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is out now.

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