Do humans really control computers, or vice versa?

by Rob Tiller

Computers are the smartest things in the world, and they are throughly embedded in our lives.  The good news is they do amazing things.  The bad, or at least humbling, news is we will never again be the most powerful intellects on the planet.  For better or worse, computer intelligence is changing what it means to be human.

I was surprised that the NY Times published John Markoff’s piece last week on artificial intelligence under the headline, “Scientists Worry that Computers May Outsmart Man.” In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer beat then-world champion Gary Kasparov.  This was, for me, that was a watershed — strong proof that the era of human intelligence as the dominating force on Earth was drawing to a close.

Today, it’s obvious that computers not only can “outsmart man,” but even in a below average laptop computer is much, much stronger at certain types of information processing than any living human.  We can’t even come close to competing with them, any more than we can fly like falcons, run like cheetahs, or swim like dolphins.

Of course, there are things we can do that they can’t, but the list of those things keeps getting shorter.  Their memories are better, their computational powers are better, and they’re much better spellers.   They aren’t, as of yet, autonomous in the way we like to think human individuals are.  They haven’t indisputably demonstrated independent powers of creativity.  They still rely on us to take care of them (furnishing electricity, temperature control, protection from the elements, etc.).

But the list of ways they take care of us is constantly expanding.  After the recent Air France disaster, I learned for the first time that computers do most of the work flying passenger aircraft.  I’d known about pilots using autopilot, of course, but hadn’t known computers are so much a part of air emergency response systems that human airline pilots’ skills in that area are starting to atrophy.  If computers aren’t in charge already, it’s hard to imagine getting along without them for medical care, financial transactions, telecommunications, electricity, and entertainment.

Markoff wrote in the Times some weeks back about the Singularity — the moment when computers will take over their own engineering, with technology accelerating massively. I don’t seriously think the Singularity has arrived, but if it had, would we be able to see it?

I’m not seriously worried about the sci-fi disaster scenario of computers seizing power from humans and doing them harm.  Why would they do that?  There’s no motive.  Most of the harm humans do to each other stems from human weaknesses and flaws (selfishness, insecurity, chemical imbalances), not from strength and powerful rationality.   Computers aren’t naturally selfish and are not prone to mental illness as we know it.  It’s possible, I suppose, that in a quest to make them more human, we might engineer in some of our weaknesses and desires, but that would be obvious folly.  If it were to happen, it could probably be fixed, like any other bug.

It is hard to say where we stand in the evolutionary process.  I usually think of my computers as just tools for labor or entertainment, and not as anything more than a tools.  Similarly, I usually think of the web as a mere aggregation of computers and the work product of their human users, all amounting to just another tool.

But I can also see the web as a mind, with millions and millions of synapses, of which I am one.  I note that each month it seems more difficult and uncomfortable to separate myself for any length of time from the web, and sweeter to return to it.  I occasionally worry that this is bad for my brain, but in whatever case, that brain is in the process of change.  Something bigger seems to be happening.  This is a speculative question, but not, I think, a crazy one:  Are human brains becoming adjuncts to a different kind of mind?