Artificial Intelligence and Human Life

Fifty-two prominent researchers on intelligence, agreed to a broad definition of the term, “Intelligence:”

“Intelligence is a very general capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test‑taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do. Intelligence, so defined, can be measured, and intelligence tests measure it well”

–Gottfredson, L. S. Mainstream science on intelligence: excerpt from an editorial with 52 signatories, history, and bibliography. Intelligence 24, 13–23 (1997).

Intelligence of the artificial variety, if it is ever to be considered on a par with the human variety, should then include each of these abilities, as well as the capabilities for comprehension, “catching on,” etc. A recent film about this very subject has captured some very important aspects of concern, supposing that there is some sort of breakthrough eventually that creates what might be described as a “conscious machine.”

“Ex Machina,” the 2015 Universal Studio film, directed by Alex Garland, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac, tells the story of a reclusive billionaire genius who owns the largest search engine company in the world, who has built a research facility in a remote mountain setting for the purpose of building an artificially intelligent robot, with the expressed goal of passing the well-known “Turing Test,” for determining if the “machine” is self-aware. As the film opens, Caleb, an employee of the high-tech firm, has won a lottery drawing within the company to visit the CEO, Nathan, at his research station and, as a result, has the opportunity to test the A.I. to see if it is truly “self-aware.” If Nathan has succeeded, he claims that it would be “the most important event in the history of man.” Domhnall Gleeson’s character corrects him by describing it as “the most important event in the history of gods.”

We are immediately thrown into the astonishing world of the newly “born” A.I., Ava, and by virtue of the design of a special high-tech suit, Alicia Vikander’s character appears to be constructed of wires and metal bones, illuminated by a variety of internal lights, and covered strategically by patches of flesh-like “skin,” allowing for the display of facial movements, and to give “Ava,” a basic human appearance. The internal workings are visible enough to suggest how the robot functions, while still providing the basic contours of the human form. It is an accomplished display of special effects which are both astonishingly realistic and profoundly disturbing at the same time. The contrast is designed to be unsettling to the moviegoer—to draw us in and to shock us into believing that it could be accomplished.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is a powerfully compelling story, and I recommend it wholeheartedly as a morality tale, which begs the question of how we would have to treat such entities should they actually qualify as being self-aware, as well as a serious warning about what might happen if we don’t get it right. The character of the robot’s creator, Nathan, clearly isn’t sufficiently cautious regarding the implications of bringing a self-aware robot “online,” and he seems callous and narcissistic as an eccentric billionaire genius.

Story elements aside, many of which were designed to create drama and provide tension, the underlying implications of the circumstances surrounding such an endeavor gave me pause to consider why any future human being capable of such a feat would even want to dabble in such an undertaking in the first place. Regardless of the level of extraordinary intelligence required, bringing such an entity into existence would also require just the right balance of human decency, compassion, and empathy, coupled with profound and penetrating neuroscientific acumen. While the technological and scientific principles supporting such an invention would be of great interest to artificial intelligence advocates generally, and those who would stand to benefit financially and otherwise would have an understandable motive to see it through, the actual created entity itself would present humanity with the most challenging and perplexing dilemma it could ever face—how to know if it would turn out to be a powerfully beneficial scientific breakthrough, or the eventual instrument of our own obsolescence!

At this point in human evolution, the possibility of constructing anything even close to the self-aware robot we meet in the film seems, on the face of it, to be a very unlikely development for a number of reasons. Throughout the film, we are presented with brief glimpses of the architecture and underlying technologies which provide the foundation for how such an entity might be constructed and assembled to achieve the desired result of the project, and none of those elements exist currently in any form even resembling in the slightest degree that which would be necessary for accomplishing this enormously complex task. Using even the most sophisticated and powerful computers known to humanity, we can barely reach a level of AI that even just approximates the sophistication of the most basic nervous system of the most minimally sentient creature.

Several projects being undertaken to “mimic” the human brain, using our most promising approaches for “deep learning,” and the giant “supercomputers” like IBM’s Watson, are simply nowhere near being able to reproduce anything resembling even a fraction of the innate capabilities that our own three pound squishy mental organ can manage, with its trillions of connections inside our exquisitely shaped and evolutionarily designed skulls. This inheritance of the long evolutionary path of modern primates provided Homo sapiens with a distinctly and uniquely capable cognitive system, which exists (so far as we know) only within human beings, and consists of the most complex arrangement of neural networks of any known species. It is presumptuous indeed to suppose that any artificial system might one day exist, which could recreate precisely, that which now exists within us, possessing the same character and quality of a living, breathing, sentient modern human.

Even the tiniest quantum “neurons,” represented by the atomic scale of the components proposed by the advent of quantum computers, require supporting technologies that would seriously prohibit squeezing them into a space as small as the human skull. The character of Ava, portrayed unflinchingly in the film by Alicia Vikander, has so many affectations of modern humans, and is intriguing beyond any expectation of her creator or her Turing tester, that we easily get caught up in suspending our knowledge that no such creature currently exists. The interplay between Caleb and Ava reaches a fever pitch eventually, and we are compelled to hang on to the edge of our seats as the drama unfolds.

It is well worth the investment of the resources available to produce sophisticated and intelligent machines, and I’m not suggesting that we abandon artificial intelligence research and development. Many of the films which attempt to portray what might take place in a world where such inventions exist, often only offer a superficial portrayal of the opposing characters, glossing over the significant differences between artificial machines and sentient living humans. In the film, “Ex Machina,” the contrast is absolutely startling, as both human and machine present a potent display of the limits of both the technology and our human understanding of what makes us truly self-aware.

What it usually boils down to is whether or not the film makers believe consciousness is a product of brain physiology—whether it “emerges” out of the firing of neurons and the electrochemical processes defined by neuroscience, or instead exists as a phenomenon of indeterminate origin which is made available to us by virtue of possessing “the right stuff,” –a sufficiently complex cognitive organ.

Any attempt to reduce the complexity and holistic phenomenal experience of consciousness to simply putting together enough neurons in the right arrangement and coordinating systems and functions in just the right manner, seriously underestimates not only the phenomenon itself, but fails to take into account the awesome and sometimes mysterious character of our humanity. Human nature and nurture won’t ever be truly obsolete, as long as we continue to appreciate the supreme value of human life, and acknowledge with gratitude, our awareness of our subjective experience of existing as complex sentient beings. We are imperfect creatures who often don’t understand or appreciate fully how miraculous it is to be a participant in the experience of life on Earth, and we cannot expect any artificial “life” to be anything other than a reflection of the moral character and scientific competence of its creator.

7 thoughts on “Artificial Intelligence and Human Life

    1. Wendi,

      It is reassuring to me to know that you enjoy reading my posts, as it is my expressed goal to provide content that people appreciate well. I also enjoy visiting YOUR blog, which frequently features beneficial content, and interesting views on the subjects about which you write.

      While it is clearly an issue of concern that we consider carefully what might result from our very human efforts in the field of artificial intelligence, the film in this case serves as a cautionary tale, particularly in view of the attitude of the creator, Nathan, who seemed to me to be the wrong sort of person to work on such an important project. His arrogance and narcissism struck me as the antithesis of the kind of person who would devote their time, financial resources, and personal energies to such an important undertaking. Also, since the film is a work of fiction, you should be reassured that no such invention is anywhere near a possibility in the foreseeable future. My point in featuring the film is to recommend it as a way of determining not only what I view as the wrong approach to creating an artificial “conscious” machine, but also to highlight the importance of maintaining a humane and compassionate approach to any such project in the future.

      Thanks for your visit…..John H.

      1. Such a beautiful response to my fears about this topic. Thank you so very much……..and yes, a humane and compassionate approach is a must.

  1. John….an intriguing analysis of AI and its potential, as well as its current day hurdles and dangers. I would refer you and your readers to another source of thought and contemplation regarding this topic, also linked to a source where the voluntary suspension of disbelief is required. It is the 9th episode of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “The Measure of A Man”. It encapsulates much of what you have so adroitly written although I suspect it also oversimplifies the complexities of your post as well as the film you refer to. But, as the episode’s protagonist Lt. Commander Data might say ” I find your ideas intriguing” . It directly confronts the moral and legal ramifications of a fully-realized AI being that has actually reached the level of intelligence and self-awareness you describe and warn about. Something tells me that you have already seen this episode of science fiction, and I’d be interested to hear what you think of it in the context of your own intriguing AI ideas!

    1. I appreciate your thoughtful comment very much, Denny, and your additional link to the Star Trek Next Generation episode is absolutely appropriate and relevant to this posting, so your thought to suggest it is right on the mark. I have seen the 9th episode in season two, “The Measure of A Man,” and I remember well the feeling of relief and actually cheering at the outcome of the trial, which featured a legal hearing to determine the status of an artificial “android” regarding his possession or lack of “sentience.” Several important issues surrounding the nature of phenomenal consciousness and how we should view any android or other A.I. construction which might eventually be judged to be sentient were brought up in the trial, and our obligations to give any form of life the respect it deserves, regardless of how we may differ in the character and quality of our respective forms of consciousness was intelligently and compassionately addressed in the show. It may well be that such beings as portrayed by “Data,” who have artificial components, may only be a possibility hundreds of years from now, and one would hope that by then, humanity will have progressed to the point where humane intelligence, compassion, and empathy rule our actions in this regard especially.

      It seems unlikely to me that we will ever be able to produce any sort of artificial being that possesses the same degree and quality of consciousness as we humans enjoy, but there may come a day when some version of “machine sentience” might result from our scientific endeavors, and it will be incumbent upon the people of that epoch to determine whether or not such a machine inspires them to bestow upon it, the same rights as any sentient human.

      In that episode, the prosecution quite rightly points out the “artificial” aspects of the character of “Data,” and the court proceedings provide us with a window into what might just be the cause of objection in the future, in equating whatever version of “awareness” that a machine might have with that of human beings. The question as to whether we can determine with certainty that any other person outside of us as individuals, actually shares the same degree of self-awareness as we do, remains an open question. All humans experience their personal consciousness subjectively, and when we interact with other sentient beings, we suppose by their reasonable responses and relevant actions that they too are “conscious,” but we cannot know about the true nature of their awareness with the same certainty that we can in our own experience of existence.

      Organic life, biological beings such as ourselves, have evolved over hundreds of millions of years, leading to modern humans who possess a capacity for all varieties of intelligence, wonder, intuition, and creativity that do not rely on artificial cognitive structures like Data’s “positronic brain.” However, the character of Data has demonstrated unambiguously that he is intelligent and self-aware many times throughout the series, and in such a case, it seems to me that the ruling giving him the freedom to choose his path forward was exactly the right one.

      Thanks for giving me the opportunity to expand on what was a challenging and thought-provoking theme….John H.

  2. Hello again! What a suprise to stumble on this article so soon after viewing this very film myself. I loved everything about it. It appealed to my artistic nature visually and to my interest in the social and spiritual aspects of human life and interaction – as it has to you obviously! As usual you have given it all so much more thought and consideration than the brief daydream I had as the credits rolled by at the end of the movie 🤗

    Thankfully you did all the thinking for me and layed it all out here so succinctly that I’ve had the pleasure of reexperiencing the movie and all those intriguing questions once again!

    I agree with so much of what you express here, my objections being only what you’d expect from a Fundamentalist Christian believer such as myself, and would come as no surprise to you since we’ve had so many discussions previous to this – most enjoyable ones for to most part I might add!

    So thanks again for the education, the enlightenment even, that you affect in me as I read your carefully measured words. You remind me once again, to open my eyes and my mind and my spirit to the wonder of creation, and in my case at least, of the One who, amazingly, beautifully, miraculously, created it all, not only for His own enjoyment but for ours also.

    1. It was also a lovely surprise for me to see your comment, and I appreciate your kind words and thoughtful response very much. It is especially notable that, in spite of our differences in worldview, we have so frequently been able to share our thoughts in what has always been a cordial and civilized exchange of ideas, based on mutual respect and genuine friendship. We are fortunate to have such opportunities.

      I’m so glad you share my enthusiasm for this film, and it appealed to me for many of the same reasons you mention. The subject is a vitally important one to discuss, given the serious implications of failing to consider the consequences of creating an artificial construct which might possess capacities that could ultimately present a danger to us all. But as you point out, the film poses many intriguing questions which are relevant now, and which we ought to consider BEFORE such an entity potentially becomes a possibility. The rapid pace of technological advancement is contrasted, in my view, by a serious deficiency in the commensurate advancement of empathy, compassion, and humanity in our dealings with each other as the consumers of those technologies. Our reach seems to be exceeding our grasp.

      There are many benefits that will likely result from the research and development of artificial intelligence, and with the proper concern for the moral and spiritual aspects of our humanity along the way, there is great potential for good in what we might achieve in the pursuit of intelligent machines. Your comment would seem to be an indication of some progress in this regard, and I am encouraged to know that there are such thoughtful and open-minded people as you who recognize the value in expanding our understanding in order to face the challenges to come. Our many conversations have been equally enlightening for me, and I too have been the beneficiary of your interest in the “social and spiritual aspects of human life and interaction.” Your spirit and mine are akin to one another, and it seems likely to me that “the One who created it all,” may derive a fair amount of enjoyment from our interactions, in much the same way as we have.

      The highest compliment any writer can receive is to know that they have been able to remind their readers to open their eyes and mind and spirit to the wonder of creation. The thinking that I do is not intended to alleviate the need for YOU to think, but rather to encourage your own thoughts, and when I measure my words, I try to do so in a way that reflects a measure of the importance of the subject. Crafting writing on the spiritual nature of our humanity as it relates to our subjective experience of consciousness demands careful measurement, and it has challenged me greatly to write about the subject in a coherent and accessible way for my readers. I appreciate very much the time you take to share your thoughts, and hope you will continue to do so whenever you stumble on something of interest here.

      Warm regards….John H.

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