Man vs. Machine

5 minute read
Joel Stein

Some people weigh both sides of an argument and use logic to arrive at the correct conclusion. These people are not columnists. We are blessed with the talent of instantly sensing what’s right, without the bother of rational thought. Do I know anything about the complexities of the federal government or health care? No. Does that stop me from having a strong opinion on Obamacare? No. Because I see the big picture, which is that sick people make me sad.

So I’ve always intuitively understood that the singularity, which is the theory that in a few decades machines will be smarter than us in every way–capable of producing better architecture, poetry and, hopefully, children’s-television programming–is a stupid idea. But the wacky concept that our brain is a replicable computer has become mainstream. A conference in New York City on June 15–16 called the Global Future 2045 International Congress is working toward building avatars for us to upload our brains into in 32 years. I am pretty sure that my avatar is going to be disappointed when it discovers how long it took me to do the math on that 32-years thing.

A society that thinks of itself as a bunch of robot avatars is a society that will care a lot more about things I don’t care about, like efficiency, and less about things I do care about, like making fun of efficiency. To dispel this fallacy that a computer could be as emotional and annoying as I am, I tried to talk sense to Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research, who co-wrote Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. He seemed like a reasonable homo sapien, amenable to my arguments. “It feels like something to be alive, and we don’t think machines have feelings like that,” he said, with the gentle calm of an evil computer. “But if you told me I’m going to put together a bunch of carbon and oxygen and nitrogen and form them into cells and it’s going to have feelings, that’s equally crazy.” These, I believe, are the exact words a robot would say when it found out how babies are made.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of the new book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, told me that my idea of a computer as a mere logic machine was impoverished. He said there are already computers that make paintings and operas and write articles about baseball games on the basis of box scores. When I asked Dennett if he thought there would ever be a computer powerful enough to write a humor column, he said, “The only way you’re going to do that is if it has roughly the human predicament of vulnerability and making mistakes and being lonely.” Then I asked if such a machine could really exist, and he delivered the best debate ender I’d ever heard: “Why bother?”

Even though my job was safe, I was still upset. Was I afraid that I lack free will, since I’m just a bunch of algorithms responding to stimuli? Was I fearful of a race of superior robots’ enslaving me or, worse yet, doing all my mindless chores but making fun of me when I’m not around?

To see how a person copes with knowing he’s just a beta version of a future genius machine, I called Ken Jennings, who won 74 Jeopardy! games in a row and was later beaten by IBM’s Watson. “I still have not gotten over it,” he said of his defeat. “This was the one thing that made me a special little snowflake.” Oddly, the way he makes himself feel better is by admiring Watson. “There’s no insult in being in the same family as an iPhone,” he said. That’s when I remembered that Jennings was a computer programmer. The problem is that anyone who thinks about artificial intelligence is a total nerd, and nerds love robots.

I needed to talk to a brain guy, not a computer guy. My friend Alex Flint, a neurointensivist whose company, image32, allows people to share medical imaging, told me to stop worrying. “We don’t understand squat about how the brain works, so how are you going to model it?” he said. This is great news to all of us who don’t need medical attention for our nervous system.

Still, Alex said the brain is indeed a machine. Some of it’s mechanical, some akin to processors, but it’s conceptually replicable. When I told him I needed to believe humans are authentic, soulful beings who lust after other authentic, soulful beings, he said, “All those magazine photos of women are Photoshopped, and I know that doesn’t bother you. You like it.” I can’t wait until we can program computers to be neurointensivists who aren’t also jerks.

In the end, I was depressed, convinced that I’m basically a robot and that a robot can also get depressed about being a robot. But it turns out that our brains are such good computers that in less than a day I’d adjusted. I’m ready to interact with nonflesh creative, emotional robots, and I’m ready to be annoyed when they tell me they find the term nonflesh offensive. I shall laugh with them, listen to operas with them and love them. As long as they don’t have wrinkles or cellulite. My new fear is that they’ll feel the same way about me.

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