Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Future Computers: Clever or Wise?

Originally posted on March 18, 2011

In a recent Time Magazine February 21, 2011, a feature article speculated on the exponential growth of computer speed, power, size of memory, and other variables. As an example, a computer named Watson beat other experienced (human) contestants in a difficult game of Jeopardy! Computers will become smarter than humans soon! (?).

I’m dubious about the potentials of artificial intelligence as a substitute for humanity, for a number of reasons: First, the human touch, look, glance, smile, and who knows, even maybe smell (pheromones?), that, when combined with voice in its subtleties, can offer encouragement and support. Another related theme is that of play, which involves a subtle shifting among different frames of reference, juxtaposing these—including the gradient of “as-if”—that I doubt can be programmed into a computer in other than rudimentary ways. The whole realm of intuition, inspiration, the interpersonal archetypes (such as romance, cuteness, nurturance, etc.) transcend any rationality, so conventional intelligence or cleverness won’t suffice.

I wonder, also, about aesthetic power, and to what degree a computer can generate not just an interesting piece, but music that is deeply moving and sustaining, with levels of discovery. That, too, for certain kinds of art. Knowing that naysayers have been wrong many times in the last few centuries, I dare not presume that I am absolutely right—but the aforementioned elements do need to be taken into consideration.

The final point is the problem of human fallibility at multiple levels. The prevalence of mistakes among the very clever and alert continues to be impressive. So along with making computers more clever, there would need to be efforts at many levels to counter the power of absent-mindedness, carelessness, distractibility, over-estimating one’s own powers,  and other forms of folly. Applying this concern at a slightly higher level, the clever in our culture gets trumped by the politician, and as a class, this group is far from being free from folly. In other words, what if very clever computers are applied to social or political programs that are in themselves fundamentally unsound or even evil?

On the whole, although I am dismayed, I have not been shocked to discover the pervasiveness and depth of folly in my fellow humans. I view humanity as being at a rather immature phase of its overall potential evolution. The more ignorant are often mixed with the stupid—that word referring to having as a background belief the idea that what one knows is sufficient. (In contrast, wisdom involves, among other things, sharply being aware of the tendencies to be seduced into illusion, and as a corollary, that what one thinks one knows may be transcended by new discoveries or based on previous notions. A lively process of intellectual humility and checking and revising seems to me to be the opposite of stupid. One can still err, but bland hubris generally is then not at the root.)

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