Phil-osophically Speaking: March 25, 2011


The Computer as Human

It was one of the most haunting scenes in cinematic history: HAL 9000 is the latest in artificial intelligence; a sentient, on-board computer that functions as the brain of the spaceship Discovery. It understands human language, its nuances and ambiguities, and pleasantly converses with the crew by speaking in the softest, most dulcet tones.

Then Hal, the epitome of technological perfection, seriously malfunctions and Discovery’s two astronauts must disconnect its cognitive functions in order to protect the mission. Wary of HAL, they enter into a see-through soundproof pod to prevent the computer from overhearing their plan. The life force of HAL is represented by an enlarged, piercingly red eyeball. That eyeball now focuses menacingly on the pod. The camera shifts back and forth between the silently moving lips of the astronauts inside the pod and the iconic red eyeball of HAL. Suddenly, the viewers shockingly realize that HAL is reading the lips of the astronauts. HAL, fearing his own technological death embarks on a murderous rage against the crew.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey presented the dark side of artificial intelligence. It’s what came to mind when I read about the match pitting two of the greatest Jeopardy game show champions against a room-size IBM computer named “Watson.” The eidetic minds of the two champions, harnessing encyclopedic recall, were no match for the computer. Ken Jennings, who had won a record 74 games against human contestants, obsequiously bowed to the mighty Watson saying, “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”

I could not help but think of G.K. Chesterton. When challenged with the argument that man should acquiesce before the vastness of the universe, Chesterton said he would no more surrender his dignity to the universe than he would to the nearest tree because it was bigger than him. In the 1970s, the philosopher Peter Singer called upon humanity to give up its foolish and self-centered notions about our species being superior to other animals. He called this unfortunate inclination as “speciesism” — prejudice in favor of one’s own species.

Yet, unlike Homo sapiens, animals are amoral; they have no concept of their own obligations much less the rights of others. It is a state of affairs that calls for mankind to exercise a benevolent despotism over the animal kingdom, but Singer argues for equality. The misguided Singer is now joined by those, like Jennings, who see computers like Watson not as our equal but our lord and master. For decades now there have been those who are deadly serious about machines acquiring a kind of consciousness, what is often alluded to as artificial intelligence. In 1950, Alan Turing published a famous paper, Computing Machines and Intelligence, in which he asked a provocative question: “Can machines think?”

Turing believed that the only way to determine if a machine has “intelligence” is to have its behavior reflect human behavior. He devised an experiment, now known as the Turing test, where questions are fed via a computer terminal to several pairs of unseen correspondents. A human judge then engages in natural conversation with one human and one machine, each of which tries to appear human. If the computer can fool 30 percent of the judges, then it could be said to have passed the test. Turing predicted that 50 years hence, in 2000, the computing power and sophistication of computers would be such that it would achieve the 30 percent threshold. It is now 2011, and although some computers have come fairly close, no program has yet hit the magic number although the general feeling is that it is just a matter of time.

But, then again, so what if a computer ultimately fools 30 percent of the judges. Would such an eventuality prove that a machine can think; that it has a mind? There are those who maintain that the human brain is essentially a computer and consciousness is like a computer program. It is true that computers have achieved a potential that was once thought to be exclusively the property of a human being. These machines can compute many times faster than our brain, they can store and recall more information; they can beat the best of us in chess and now Jeopardy.

But does this mean computers are like human beings? Can they ever feel, like us, that we are a divine creation, governed by immutable moral laws? Does a machine love, know curiosity, have a sense of humor, grieve, show empathy, feel obligated? Does it have a conscience; can it feel guilt, feel a sense of longing for a cherished land, can it become jealous or whimsical, can it hope for a brighter future? Does it have emotions, the capacity to turn experience, and all the suffering and triumph that life encompasses into works of art; can a computer write novels like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, or music like Bach or Beethoven? Can it be tempted by the deadliest sins or inspired by the highest ideals?

The answer to all of these questions is no. Human beings are not biological machines. Nestled deep within the folds of human flesh is the greatest force in the Universe – the ability to make moral choices. Materialists may go on believing that the mind can be explained physically and thereby give credence to the idea that human intelligence can be artificially produced, but they delude themselves. The mind has non-physical properties and therefore the gamut of human intelligence and emotions cannot be explained in purely physical terms.

To see computers as overlords is to see the human personality as a psychological fiction; something that can be mimicked, a charade that views our most cherished beliefs and values as rooted to an evolved behavior rather than an innate ability to make moral choices is not only fallacious but a philosophical travesty. The idea that human beings are purely programmatic is to make us, as one physicist remarked, nothing more than pieces of meat of various sizes wobbling up and down emitting sound waves.

To capture and bottle the divine spark that makes us human will always elude us, for it is anything but, as one famed sleuth was known to say, ‘elementary, my dear Watson.’

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