Artificial intelligence, The Most Human Human, and a walk at Crabtree Creek

by Rob Tiller

I’m still feeling odd and shaken by Watson’s victory over the human champions of Jeopardy. It is truly awe-inspiring that our greatest software engineers have created a program that behaves in some ways like human intelligence, but, at least as far as raw knowledge and research is concerned, much better. What’s unsettling to me is not just the economic implications of this new generation of artificial intelligence, but also the moral/ ethical ones. The new AI is getting very good at the sort of intelligence that we’ve always considered the crowning and distinctive feature of the human race. It’s now clear that our destiny is not to be the most intelligent beings in the universe. So then, what is it? What do we do?

Like Ken Jennings, the former Jeopardy champ who acknowledged defeat with becoming humor and grace, I also welcome our new computer overlords. They already are making daily life better in some ways. I recently had an encounter by telephone with a computer dealing with a travel reservation problem that performed substantially more efficiently than some humans. Later, when I found myself in a phone conversation with a human on another routine matter (activating a new credit card), as I tried to understand the person’s accent and waited for a sales pitch to conclude, I thought affectionately and longingly of my dear computer. Our computers are getting to be good clerks, and I expect they will soon be good scientists, doctors, and lawyers. The trend is clear.

So, what’s left to aspire to? I’ve been reading The Most Human Human: What Talking to Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive, by Brian Christian (in the Kindle edition). Christian treats the implications of artificial intelligence for humanity in a lively way. He takes off from his participation in an annual competition for the Loebner Prize, which involves the Turing test. Human judges converse (via networked computers) with both humans and AI programs, and the annual prize goes to the program that does the best job of convincing the human judges that it is human. There’s also a prize for the humans that talk with the judges, and Christian competed for this: the most human human.

The success of some programs points up how much of human discourse is routine and predictable. The weaknesses of the program show that there’s still some human behavior that is creative and (so far) unpredictable. Christian uses the Loebner Prize as a jumping off point for an entertaining, though jumpy and digressive, introduction to AI and its philosophical implications.

As Christian notes, humans are distinguishable from programs with respect to the physical world. We have bodies that are, in their non-rational way, intelligent. Our cells are connected with each other, and our individual bodies are connected to other humans, other species, and the earth, the air, and the Sun. We depend on all these connections. As obvious as this sounds, we still as a race we have trouble keeping in mind our connection to physical reality.

This may be part of the explanation for the right-wing attack on the environment. In the NY Times today, there’s a front page story by with the headline Push in States to Deregulate the Environment. As the story notes, Republicans in North Carolina are proposing enormous cuts to the budget of the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources. I’d been monitoring the NC story, but learned that the same thing is happening in other states. At the same time, the Republicans in Congress are looking to cut the EPA and gear back environmental regulation.

What is the matter with these people! In the midst of ongoing extinction of entire species and global warming that threatens entire human populations, there should be no debate about the need for new and more effective conservation of natural resources. I have assumed that the opponents of science and environmental regulation are either unbelievably ignorant or unbelievably greedy and cynical, concerned only with immediate short-term gain and without concern for future generations or the earth itself. But to give them a slight benefit of a doubt, perhaps the problem is that they’ve really lost touch with their bodies and the earth.

Anyhow, in addition to enjoying new AI tools, I’ve been trying to make a point to spend a little more time outside. This morning I went to the swamp area of Crabtree Creek off Raleigh Boulevard. It was overcast and windy, but there were hundreds of birds singing and flying. I walked along the boardwalk at the side of the swamp. There were six great egrets, several great blue herons, and numerous swifts and swallows. I saw a black-and-white warbler, a phoebe, a yellow-rumped warbler, cedar waxwings, and heard, along with the common residents, a parula, and a hooded warbler, as well as a handful of songs I couldn’t identify. I love the spring migration season. It’s good to just clear out the mind and just look and listen.