So just how clever are we? Watching Skyfall last night, I was enthralled by the escapades of the villain, the extent to which he was prepared to go to exercise his will, his purpose. It occurred to me that I was watching a fictional character display the pathological traits of a person who lacked any humanity. It was like watching a film of a videogame where it didn’t matter about the carnage or the destruction. Skyfall is just another Bond film where we can sit back and be entertained but it provoked some thought in me. Are we changing our experience of being human to such an extent that it will become less surprising when socio-paths wreak havoc and unleash their dogs of war?
Of course history can attest the existence of human terrorists , human dictators and brutality is as old as the hills. What is more concerning to me, is the manner in which our ordinary experience of being human is changing. Over the progression of time we have seen civilizations appear, and disappear and the overall direction of human knowledge has tended to be progressive, building on what has gone before, adapting our behaviours and our environments to generally benefit humankind. That is a very simplistic statement, but since homo sapiens has been around, its ability to adapt has secured its future. Is the next adaptation to include the introduction of Artificial Intelligence? Brian Christian reminds us that’
‘We forget how impressive we are. Computers are reminding us.’
What Brian Christian explains to me in his article , is that it is the minutiae of life, the absurdities of being human that separate us from Artificial Intelligence, and it is the marvel of human experience that we need to maintain our connection with to withstand the onslaught of an automated environment separating us from it. We have to reconnect with the ability to make special, as Ellen Dissonayake expresses the creative impulse. We need to produce in order to fully live, wherever and however that impulse takes us. We need to sculpt, compose, paint, build a garden, build a boat, sketch , photograph, we need to engage our senses with our environment in order to feel our lives are full and valuable. One of the downsides I see of the last couple of generations is the way that we have celebrated excellence in lots of fields, and removed ourselves from the possibility of doing things for the sake of it. So now we listen to artists play music , knowing they are far more easy on the ear than ourselves. It is the same in all walks of life. In celebrating excellence we often refuse to partake ourselves, believing the pursuit to be worthless because it will never resemble the professionals work. I don’t want to turn back time and not enjoy the brilliance of Radiohead or Mozart playing over my headphones, but I do want to allow my impulse some expression too.
I have included some of Brian Christians article here, because it is so interesting. And scary. And hopeful. Can we embrace some of the neglected thinking that is generated by the part of the brain engaged with emotion, rather than logic? Will this more sophisticated understanding of intelligence lead our species to a future that celebrates connection, ritual, and expression as much as acquisitiveness? We can but hope.
‘Indeed, it’s entirely possible that we’ve seen the high-water mark of our left-hemisphere bias. I think the return of a more balanced view of the brain and mind—and of human identity—is a good thing, one that brings with it a changing perspective on the sophistication of various tasks.’
The computation theorist Hava Siegelmann once described intelligence as “a kind of sensitivity to things.” These Turing Test programs that hold forth may produce interesting output, but they’re rigid and inflexible. They are, in other words, insensitive—occasionally fascinating talkers that cannot listen.
Who would have imagined that the computer’s earliest achievements would be in the domain of logical analysis, a capacity once held to be what made us most different from everything else on the planet? That it could fly a plane and guide a missile before it could ride a bike? That it could create plausible preludes in the style of Bach before it could make plausible small talk? That it could translate before it could paraphrase? That it could spin half-discernible essays on postmodern theory before it could be shown a chair and say, as most toddlers can, “chair”?
As computers have mastered rarefied domains once thought to be uniquely human, they simultaneously have failed to master the ground-floor basics of the human experience—spatial orientation, object recognition, natural language, adaptive goal-setting—and in so doing, have shown us how impressive, computationally and otherwise, such minute-to-minute fundamentals truly are.
Here’s a poem from one of my favourites, expressing the ineffable mysteries of ordinary , extraordinary life.
Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on the sand,
rise on wings;
to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;
to tell pain
from everything it’s not;
to squeeze inside events,
dawdle in views,
to seek the least of all possible mistakes.
An extraordinary chance
to remember for a moment
a conversation held
with the lamp switched off;
and if only once
to stumble upon a stone,
end up soaked in one downpour or another,
mislay your keys in the grass;
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;
and to keep on not knowing
— Wislawa Szymborska