2015 : WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT MACHINES THAT THINK?

Complexity Scientist; Scientist in Residence at Lux Capital. Author, Overcomplicated
"Naches" from our Machines

When I think about machines that think, while I am interested in the details of their possibility, I am more interested in how we might respond to these machines. As a society, we can respond in many different ways. For example, if they fail to exhibit anything we might take for self-awareness or sentience, then they are certainly clever, but we are secure that humanity is at the top of its cognitive pedestal.

But what about when these thinking machines are as smart as us, or even far more intelligent? What if they are intelligent in ways that are completely foreign to our own patterns of thought? This is not so unlikely, as computers are already very good at things we are not: they have better short and long-term memories, they are faster at calculations, and they are not bound by the irrationalities that hamstring our minds. Extrapolate this out and we can see that thinking machines might be both incredibly smart and exceedingly alien.

So how shall we respond? One response is to mark these machines as monsters, unspeakable horrors that can examine the unknown in ways that we cannot. And I think many people might respond this way if and when we birth machines that think about the world in wildly foreign ways from our own.

But it needn't be so. I prefer a more optimistic response, that of naches. Naches is a Yiddish term that means joy and pride, and it's often used in the context of vicarious pride, taken from others' accomplishments. You have naches, or as is said in Yiddish, you shep naches, when your children graduate college or get married, or any other instance of vicarious pride. These aren't your own accomplishments, but you can still have a great deal of pride and joy in them.

And the same thing is true with our machines. We might not understand their thoughts or discoveries or technological advances. But they are our machines and we can have naches from them.

So what does this naches mean for technology? Well, at the most basic level, the creators of these machines can shep naches from the accomplishments of their technological offspring. For example, there are computer programs that are capable of generating sophisticated artworks or musical compositions. I imagine that the programmer of these pieces of software is proud of the resulting piece of art or music, even if he or she isn't able to generate these himself or herself.

But we can broaden this sense of naches still. Many of us support a sports team and take pride in its wins, even though we had nothing to do with them. Or we are excited when a citizen of our country takes the gold in the Olympics, or makes a new discovery and is awarded a prestigious prize. So too should it be with our thinking machines for all of humanity: we can root for what humans have created, even if it wasn't our own personal achievement and if we can't fully understand it. Many of us are currently grateful for technological advances, from the iPhone to the Internet, even if we don't fully know how they work. But they work in incredibly powerful and useful ways.

Furthermore, when our children do something surprising and amazing, something we can't really understand, we don't despair or worry; we are delighted and even grateful for their success. In fact, gratitude is a powerful response to how many of us deal with technology currently. We can't understand the machines we have completely but they work in incredibly powerful and useful ways.

We can respond similarly to our future technological creations, these thinking machines we might not fully understand. Rather than fear or worry, we should have naches from them.