What Does Thinking About Thinking Machines Tell Us About Human Beings?


In his novel Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon identifies the confusion about the subject and object of enquiries: "if they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers." Thinking about machines that think poses more questions about human beings than about the machines or Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Technology enables machines providing access to essential resources, power, speed and communications that make life and improved living standards possible. Machines execute tasks, specified and programmed by humans. Techno-optimists believe that progress is near a singularity, the hypothetical moment when machines will reach the point of a greater-than-human intelligence.

It is a system of belief and faith. Just like the totems and magic used by our ancestors or organised religion, science and technology deal with uncertainty and fear of the unknown. It allows limited control over our immediate environment. It increases material prosperity and comfort. It is a striving for perfectibility. Technology asserts human superiority in the pantheon of creation.

But science is a long way from unlocking the secrets in nature's infinite book. Knowledge of the origins of the universe, life and fundamentals of matter remain limited. Biologist E.O. Wilson noted that if natural history were a library of books, we have not even finished the first chapter of the first book. Human knowledge is always incomplete, sometimes inaccurate and frequently the cause of not the solution to problems.

First, use of science and technology is often ineffective, with unintended consequences.

In Australia, introduced rabbits spread rapidly becoming a pest changing Australia's ecosystems destroying endemic species. In the 1950s, scientists introduced the Myxoma virus, severely reducing the rabbit population. When genetic resistance allowed the population to recover, Calicivirus, which causes rabbit haemorrhagic disease, was introduced as a new control measure. Increasing immunity rapidly reduced effectiveness. In 1935, the Cane Toad was introduced to control insect pests of sugar cane. Unsuccessful in controlling the insects, the amphibian became an invasive species devastating indigenous wildlife.

Life saving antibiotics has increased drug resistant infections. A 2014 British study found that it may cause 10 million deaths a year worldwide by 2050. The potential cost is US$100 trillion, reducing GDP by 3.5%

Economic models have repeatedly failed because of incorrect assumptions, flawed causal relationships, inputs that are more noise than data and unanticipated human factors. Forecasts have proved inaccurate. Models consistently underestimate risks and exposures, resulting in costly financial crisis.

Second, consequences of technology, especially over longer terms, are frequently not understood at inception.

The ability to harness fossil fuels to provide energy was the foundation of the industrial revolution. The long term impact of CO2 emissions on the environment now threatens the survival of the species. Theoretical physics and mathematics made possible nuclear and thermo-nuclear devices, capable of extinguishing all life on the planet.

Third, technology creates moral, ethical, political, economic and social concerns which are frequently ignored.

Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction or remotely controlled drones rely on technical advances. The question of whether such technology should be developed or used at all remains. Easy access to the requisite knowledge, problems of proliferation and difficulty of controlling dual use (civilian and defense) technology complicates the matter.

Robots and AI may improve productivity. While a few creators might capture large rewards, the effect on economic activity is limited. Given consumption constitutes over 60 % of activity in developed economies, decreasing general employment and lower income levels harms the wider economy. In 1955, showing off a new automatically operated plant, a company executive asked UAW head Walter Reuther: "How are you going to collect union dues from those guys [the robots]?" Reuther countered: "And how are you going to get them to buy Fords?

When it comes to questions of technology, the human race is rarely logical. We frequently do not accept that something cannot or should not be done. Progress is accepted without question or understanding of what and why we need to know. We do not know when and how our creations should be used or its limits. We frequently do not know the real or full consequences. Doubters are dismissed as Luddites.

Technology and its manifestations such as machines or AI is an illusion, which appeals to human arrogance, ambition and vanity. It multiplies confusion in poet T.S. Elliot's "wilderness of mirrors."

The human species is simply too small, insignificant and inadequate to fully succeed in anything that we think we can do. Thinking about machines that think merely confirms that inconvenient truth.