A new year, a new annual Edge question: “What do you think about machines that think?” James J. O’Donnell, a classical scholar, contends that “nobody would ever ask a machine what it thinks about machines that think”. He breaks down the question:
1. “Thinking” is a word we apply with no discipline whatsoever to a huge variety of reported behaviors. “I think I’ll go to the store” and “I think it’s raining” and “I think therefore I am” and “I think the Yankees will win the World Series” and “I think I am Napoleon” and “I think he said he would be here, but I’m not sure,” all use the same word to mean entirely different things. Which of them might a machine do someday? I think that’s an important question.
2. Could a machine get confused? Experience cognitive dissonance? Dream? Wonder? Forget the name of that guy over there and at the same time know that it really knows the answer and if it just thinks about something else for a while might remember? Lose track of time? Decide to get a puppy? Have low self-esteem? Have suicidal thoughts? Get bored? Worry? Pray? I think not.
Daniel Dennett tries to pinpoint the “real danger” of artificial intelligence:
What’s wrong with turning over the drudgery of thought to such high-tech marvels? Nothing, so long as (1) we don’t delude ourselves, and (2) we somehow manage to keep our own cognitive skills from atrophying.
(1) It is very, very hard to imagine (and keep in mind) the limitations of entities that can be such valued assistants, and the human tendency is always to over-endow them with understanding—as we have known since Joe Weizenbaum’s notorious Eliza program of the early 1970s. This is a huge risk, since we will always be tempted to ask more of them than they were designed to accomplish, and to trust the results when we shouldn’t.
(2) Use it or lose it. As we become ever more dependent on these cognitive prostheses, we risk becoming helpless if they ever shut down. The Internet is not an intelligent agent (well, in some ways it is) but we have nevertheless become so dependent on it that were it to crash, panic would set in and we could destroy society in a few days. That’s an event we should bend our efforts to averting now, because it could happen any day.
The real danger, then, is not machines that are more intelligent than we are usurping our role as captains of our destinies. The real danger is basically clueless machines being ceded authority far beyond their competence.
Eric J. Topol, a doctor, sees the benefits for medicine:
Almost any medical condition with an acute episode—like an asthma attack, seizure, autoimmune attack, stroke, heart attack—will be potentially predictable in the future with artificial intelligence and the Internet of all medical things. There’s already a wristband that can predict when a seizure is imminent, and that can be seen as a rudimentary, first step. In the not so distant future, you’ll be getting a text message or voice notification that tells you precisely what you need to prevent a serious medical problem. When that time comes, those who fear AI may suddenly embrace it. When we can put together big data for an individual with the requisite contextual computing and analytics, we’ve got a recipe for machine-mediated medical wisdom.
Donald D. Hoffman cautions that “not alarm, but prudence is effective,” adding that he suspects “AIs will be a source of awe, insight, inspiration, and yes, profit, for years to come”. Psychology professor Nicholas Humphrey is also optimistic:
Psychopaths are sometimes credited with having not too little but too great an understanding of human psychology. Is this something we should fear with machines?
I don’t think so. This situation is actually not a new one. For thousands of years humans have been selecting and programming a particular species of biological machine to act as servants, companions and helpmeets to ourselves. I’m talking of the domestic dog. The remarkable result has been that modern dogs have in fact acquired an exceptional and considerable ability to mind-read—both the minds of other dogs and humans—superior to that of any animal other than humans themselves. This has evidently evolved as a mutually beneficial relationship, not a competition, even if it’s one in which we have retained the upper hand. If and when it gets to the point where machines are as good at reading human minds as dogs now are, we shall of course have to watch out in case they get too dominant and manipulative, perhaps even too playful—just as we already have to do with man’s best friend. But I see no reason to doubt we’ll remain in control.
Paul Saffo, meanwhile, is uncertain:
The rapid advance of AIs also is changing our understanding of what constitutes intelligence. Our interactions with narrow AIs will cause us to realize that intelligence is a continuum and not a threshold. Earlier this decade Japanese researchers demonstrated that slime mold could thread a maze to reach a tasty bit of food. Last year a scientist in Illinois demonstrated that under just the right conditions, a drop of oil could negotiate a maze in an astonishingly lifelike way to reach a bit of acidic gel. As AIs insinuate themselves ever deeper in our lives, we will recognize that modest digital entities as well as most of the natural world carry the spark of sentience. From there is it just a small step to speculate about what trees or rocks—or AIs—think.
In the end, the biggest question is not whether AI super-intelligences will eventually appear. Rather the question is what will be the place of humans in a world occupied by an exponentially growing population of autonomous machines. Bots on the Web already outnumber human users—the same will soon be true in the physical world as well.
Lord Dunsany once cautioned, “If we change too much, we may no longer fit into the scheme of things.”
Psychologist Susan Blackmore zooms out:
Digital information is evolving all around us, thriving on billions of phones, tablets, computers, servers, and tiny chips in fridges, car and clothes, passing around the globe, interpenetrating our cities, our homes and even our bodies. And we keep on willingly feeding it. More phones are made every day than babies are born, 100 hours of video are uploaded to the Internet every minute, billions of photos are uploaded to the expanding cloud. Clever programmers write ever cleverer software, including programs that write other programs that no human can understand or track. Out there, taking their own evolutionary pathways and growing all the time, are the new thinking machines.
Are we going to control these machines? Can we insist that they are motivated to look after us? No. Even if we can see what is happening, we want what they give us far too much not to swap it for our independence.
So what do I think about machines that think? I think that from being a little independent thinking machine I am becoming a tiny part inside a far vaster thinking machine.