Let me begin with my ending. I am not terrified by A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). I’m far more afraid of our own Organic Intelligence. The slingshot, catapult, gun, cannon, and atomic bombs were made by us—not the computers. We used our highly evolved brains to wage war; we turned our knowledge of Smallpox, even before we understood it, to poison Native Americans.
We destroyed forests and plains for profit and polluted our skies, seas, and the air we breathe. And artificial intelligence has us scared to death? Really? We’re afraid that it will take over and render our organic intelligence irrelevant and end up replacing us. This is a kind of intellectual version of the racist and xenophobic Replacement Theory. The Robots are coming for us, and, the irony of ironies, we’re building them and programming them. Training our replacements? Right? Well, maybe.
The future threat is absolutely real, but I fear that we are blind to the present abuses of A.I. Calling itself an algorithm, A.I. decides who warrants a medical procedure, insurance, credit, or a loan. The banker, doctor, and actuary didn’t turn me down. It was that algorithm. Remember when we complained that doctors thought they were God? When the bean counters became God, we missed the doctors. With the algorithm becoming God, we’ll miss the bean counters. Now that computers can beat us at chess and retrieve information (and misinformation) instantly, what are we here for?
The killer robots don’t need to kill us; they can simply depress us by making us feel irrelevant. Many of us believe that this is all new, that deep fakes are so much more deceptive and dangerous than shallow fakes. We may think that for the first time, we cannot trust our eyes and experiences to discern what is real and what is fake.
This week the fake explosion at the Pentagon has us rightly concerned. But didn’t too many believe their eyes when they thought that Oliver Stone’s JFK was real history? Can we trust our eyes in a world of CGI/Special effects and Internet misinformation? Not uncritically. The perils are real: past, present, and future. We have to deal with it. Outlawing A.I. in a global environment is useless. Understanding and compensating is critical. Panic, however, will not help. We think in words and pictures. Our organic intelligence is not about simply marshaling facts. Memorizing words, stories, scriptures, history books, or even science books have little relationship to intelligence. Putting it all together by taking information and images and borrowing ideas and themes from different sources is where our organic intelligence lies.
I had a friend in high school and freshman year of college who was a nice guy and got good grades. He had a photographic memory. You could ask him, “What’s on page 46 of the Western Civ textbook?” He’d recite it word for word. But he wasn’t a gifted student. His intelligence never measured up to the expectations raised by his command of facts. He committed suicide. When Archimedes jumped naked from the bath screaming, “Eureka!” it was because of what he’d put together. It wasn’t information alone but catalyzed intuition and inspiration.
So far, artificial intelligence does not seem to display intuition or inspiration but only (yet impressively) a cold combining and recombining of words, facts, and theories. Yes, there is some kind of creativity. A.I. can be smart like my high school friend. It can paint in Picasso style or write in Shakespearean style. The results are, by definition, derivative. A.I. will beat us at chess. It will take jobs away—as the industrial revolution changed our world and drove workers from fields to cities, and then Covid drove workers from cities to kitchen tables and Starbucks. A.I. will both destroy and create jobs.
A.I. cannot, however, answer the big questions of life and death and meaning. Their poems and symphonies don’t threaten our best composers and poets. We can ask a source of A.I. to count the stars; we can have it search for the patterns that we ask it to, but will it have the impulse, the curiosity to willingly gaze into the heavens, behold the stars and see Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, or Orion and his belt? Will it be struck in silent awe at the grandeur of creation and the billions of stars being born, growing, and dying? Will it appreciate the mystery of life and consciousness? Will it have a soul? Till then, we’re ok.