The idea behind t-shirt of the week (more often month) is a bit like the old section in Wired magazine called Japanese Schoolgirl Watch. This might sound a little iffy, but is actually about trends and, in particular, catching a shift early. (In Japan, School Girls were often onto fashion trends way before anyone else). It’s much the same with bumper stickers and especially t-shirts. They can express a sentiment, micro-trend or weak signal that perhaps isn’t so obvious elsewhere. Normally my t-shirt posts have a social or political angle. This one just made me laugh.
Back in November 2016, when Trump was elected President of the United States, Erik Hagerman had a plan. Distressed by the hoopla of US politics he decided to stop reading the news. His experiment was part protest, part a coping mechanism and part extreme self-care. Living alone on a pig farm in rural Ohio this was clearly achievable in ways that it might not be had he lived somewhere else like Chicago. Hagerman travels into the local town, Athens, to buy coffee and to shop, but he keeps up his news blockage with the help of white noise from his headphones and an agreement with family and friends not to talk about current events. He does read the art reviews of the New Yorker, browses the classifieds and watches American football with the sound on mute, but otherwise he has been remarkably successful in constructing a world where very little he doesn’t like gets through to him. In this regard, he might be regarded as similar to the hundreds of millions of people that get their news via Facebook, which similarly filters out numerous stories and events. His approach has shades of Thoreau’s Walden too. Previously a senior executive with Nike, Disney and Walmart, he now spends his days (and his money) restoring a disused coal mine into a pristine pond – a project he calls The Lake.
Back in 2018, I personally stopped listening to most news on the TV. I still read a few newspapers, but mostly weekend papers and I read them several weeks, if not months, late. Does this work? In my experience, it does. I’m calmer, I’m able to see connections between ideas and events better, and I can scan the paper (it has to be on paper) faster because I have the benefit of hindsight. Why not try it yourself?
Earlier this year I gave a friend some young onion plants. He sent me a picture of them recently. Instead of the monsters that they were supposed to grow into they had ended up no larger than spritely spring onions. He asked me how mine had done. Rather than telling him that they had turned into show stopping giants I said mine had hardly grown at all either. I lied to him to spare his feelings. Could an AI do that? Is that a calculation a computer might make?
I don’t think an AI can demonstrate
compassion, not unless it had been
told to or learned, from experience, that this was an effective response in a
particular situation, in which case the action would be insincere. It would not
be authentic. It would come from the head, not the heart, and therefore would not
a compassionate act.
You might argue that people
might not care. Or perhaps people might be incapable of telling the difference,
but if that were the case where would that leave human autonomy? What might such
simulated compassion, or automated kindness, say about individual identity, empowerment
or free choice? If we start to trust machines with our feelings more than
people where does that leave us?
As is so often the case, parts
of the future have already been distributed. Kindergarten robots in Japan are
currently socialising young children, while at the other end of the age
spectrum, aged-care robots are displaying synthetic affection to older people
with dementia in care homes. The fact that neither of these groups have fully
functioning minds adds an interesting overlay to ethical debates concerning the
limits of automation (as do differing cultural interpretations of what
constitutes ethical behaviour).
Personally, I think that most
able-minded adults could tell the difference between true affection and affection
simulated by an avatar or a robotically embodied AI.
But if human affection were for
some reason missing, or unavailable, perhaps it’s better than nothing. After all, we create strong bonds with our
pets, so is there much of a difference? I’d say yes, because pets are living
creatures with feelings of their own. AIs don’t have true feelings and never
I’ll leave kindness and compassion sitting rather uncomfortably on the fence in terms of their potential for automation and turn instead to another human trait that overlaps emotional intelligence, which is common sense. Currently, a five-year-old child has far more common sense than the most advanced AI ever built. A child doesn’t need massive amounts of data in order to learn either. A child simply wanders around, exploring and interacting with its surroundings, and soon develops general knowledge, language and complex skills. Eventually, they combine broad intelligence with imagination and, if you’re lucky, a quirky curiosity about the world they inhabit. AIs do not. Even the most advanced AI today doesn’t even come close.
If you define intelligence
(as opposed to intelligent behaviour) as the ability to understand the world to
the point where you can make accurate predictions about various aspects of it
and then use such knowledge to work out what else might be true then AI still
isn’t very intelligent. Human brains endlessly update and refine themselves based
upon physical interactions with the world using inputs from sensory organs. An
AI might come close to doing this in a narrow area, but not to the extent that
humans are able.
Despite recent developments, AI
is still ruled by a mathematical logic that is devoid of any broad contextual understanding or
flexibility. For example, a surgical robot might know how to do what it does, but
not why it’s doing it. Frankly, the AI just doesn’t care. It would also be unaware
of, and therefore unconcerned by, whatever exists outside its immediate operating
environment. It is perfectly possible to extend any situational awareness and any
navigational ability, but not, in my view, to the extent that humans can navigate
the world. It’s one thing to design an autonomous vehicle that can ‘understand’
a complex road system, but it’s another thing entirely to design a machine that
can travel around any human built (or natural) environment interacting with the
almost infinite number of objects, people and ideas that may come its way. This
isn’t simply because the world is highly complex, it’s because much of what
happens in the world can be subtle, nuanced and confusing. The world is an
interconnected system containing random elements and feedback loops, with the
result that it can and does constantly change.
For humans, this isn’t too
much of a problem. This is because even babies come fully equipped with a highly
sophisticated sensory perception system and a reflexive learning mechanism that
allows them to quickly react to changed circumstances. In fact, our ability to
adapt to changed circumstances and survive in wildly different environments is possibly
what marks us out from every other living species. Human intelligence is highly
fluid, with the result that we are hugely adaptable and resilient. One reason
for this is that our learning occurs even when we have very limited experience
(what an AI might regard as limited data) or even no experience at all
Something that’s strongly related
to this point is abstraction. AIs do
not possess the ability to distil past experience and apply it in new
situations or to radically different concepts. AIs cannot think metaphorically in
terms of something being like something else. AIs cannot think in terms of
abstract ideas and beliefs, which is the basis of so much human insight and invention.
It’s also the source of much merriment and
humour. An AI capable of writing a really funny joke? Don’t make me laugh
out loud. As Viktor Frankl observed in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “it is well known that humour, more than
anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to
rise above any situation, if only for a few seconds”. If an AI is being funny
it is no more than a ventriloquist’s dummy.
Creativity, or original thinking, is often held up as an example of something we possess that AIs do not. I don’t think this is completely true. It’s perfectly possible for a machine to be creative. Alpha Go’s highly unusual 37th move during its second match against Lee Sedol in 2016 is proof enough of that. Perhaps Alpha Go’s human challenger should have recalled the words of the Dutch chess grandmaster Jan Hein Donner, who was once asked how he’d prepare for a chess match against artificial intelligence. His response was that “I would bring a hammer.” Deep Mind, the company behind Alpha Go might respond to that response by saying that this wouldn’t be fair, but this is example of how humans can think laterally as well as logically. Such originality and unpredictability is another human trait that AIs will have to deal with.
One thing I can foresee (eventually)
is an AI creating an artwork that resonates with people, not because it was
created by an AI, which is frankly irrelevant, but because of the beauty of the
work produced. Perhaps this could be
achieved by an AI studying great artworks throughout history, working out some rules
for what humans find aesthetically pleasing and synthesising some original
A formulaic approach works for Hollywood films and popular music, so why not art? I’m not suggesting that an AI could write Citizen Kane or Gorecki’s Symphony No.3, but I’m sure an AI could generate a passable script outline or some nice melodies. This would be especially true with human help, or collaboration, which I suspect is how things will develop. The future of AI is not binary. It is not humans Vs. AI, but humans + AI.
It may even be possible, but
I highly doubt it, for an AI to propose a new artistic paradigm, such as
Cubism, which would rely on pattern breaking rather than pattern recognition,
but to what end? Such a move would only matter is we, as humans, decided it did.
Art exists within a cultural construct in which humans collectively agree what
has meaning or consequence, but I don’t expect an AI would be able to understand
that anytime soon either.
For me great art can be a number of things. It can bring joy, by being a beautiful representation of something we agree collectively is important, it can be provocative, or revealing, in terms of addressing a deep issue, or an important question, or it can be something that speaks to the human condition. How can an AI speak to thehuman condition when it is not, and never will be, human? An AI can never have any real understanding human realities such as birth and death, nor the hunger, lust, joy, fear and jealousy that surround so many human impulses and colours so much human activity.
Again, you might argue that
this simply isn’t true. All it would require for an AI to address such
philosophical questions would be enough data and a program. But what would the data
consist of and what might the programme be designed to do? What exactly is the
problem when it comes to the human condition?
Human existence is not a
logical problem. Moreover, the question would surely be different each time it
was asked, because we are all different versions of the same thing. Every human
mind is personalised based upon individual experience. Not only are no two human
minds the same, no two individuals are even changed in the same way by the same
experience. How do you code for that beyond reducing everything to averages and
In short, an AI can never know what it feels like to be me
because it isn’t and never will be me. AIs are cold calculating machines incapable
of summing up the human experience let alone my own experience. There is no ‘I’
in AI and never will be. Not unless someone works out what consciousness is and
is able to replicate it artificially and I doubt that this will happen this
side of eternity.
For me, the fundamental flaw
in the argument than an AI can do pretty much anything a human can do (eventually)
stems from the idea that the human brain is similar to, or just like, a
computer. It’s not. It’s not even
close. Let’s be really clear about this. Computers store, retrieve and process
information based upon pattern recognition and rules. We do not. We directly
interact with the real world. Computers react to symbolic representations of
it, which is an important difference. This comes back to computers not really
knowing about anything including themselves. Does this matter? I think it
matters a great deal.
It’s true that humans make conscious calculations about things all the time, but while such calculations are often rational, or logical, many times they are not. Moreover, our irrationality can extend well beyond the real world. Humans have Gods. AIs do not. AIs do not seek meaning beyond mathematical logic, patterns or rules, while we seek ideologies and ideas to help us explain our short existence. We even anthropomorphise inanimate objects giving them inner spirits and ghosts. No AI would think of that. No AI would give consideration to spiritual matters.
We are more than heads too.
We have whole body intelligence. We sense and react to things in many different
ways, often in ways that are unknown to us. One of the issues with AI to date
has been a focus on logical-mathematical intelligence. This has now broadened
to include linguistic, spatial, body-kinaesthetic and intrapersonal
intelligence, but these are much harder domains to crack. People can and do talk to each other in ways
that a machine can find it easy to copy. But real conversation requires an
understanding about whom one is talking to and constant assessments about that
person’s interests, feelings, experience and intentions. Real conversation critically,
involves some level of genuine empathy and curiosity about that person too. How
can you teach an AI to be curious beyond coding it to ask a series of rather
simplistic questions? Not all communication is verbal either, so you need to
account for that too, which AI can do up to a point. But curiosity is based
upon something else, which is a burning desire to know and understand the world
and I’ve no idea how you’d code that. Yes, there’s reinforcement learning, which was used by AlphaGo, but how such
learning might work alongside some human behaviours is unclear.
In short, human intelligence
is a complex, nuanced and multi-faceted thing and to be of equal stature an AI
would have to develop deep capability across a multitude of areas. Copying, or
reverse engineering, the human brain is also easier said than done given that we
know so little about how the human brain, let alone the human mind, works.
Saying that in a decade or two we’ll have machines surpassing human levels of
intelligence displays a profound ignorance concerning the complexity of the
Take a simple thing like
human memory. We have next to no idea how this works and it could take another
century for us to even come close. This
isn’t to say that brains can only be made biologically, but one suspects that
making one otherwise could be a lot harder than some over caffeinated
Then, of course, there’s the
idea that many of the things that are hugely important to humans cannot be
measured in terms of numbers or data alone. How, for example, do you weigh up
the relative importance of a poem Vs. a grapefruit? Where would you even start?
It’s also worth remembering
that not all human knowledge is on the web or is even digitalised. We don’t even
know what’s missing. Some things are not
binary either. Many important questions, issues or dilemmas do not have simple
yes or no answers. Some are fluid and others depend deeply on context and
Take love. AIs are proving
rather good at selecting potential partners for people, but is AI really doing
anything more than increasing the search or shortening the odds? An AI can never
An AI can never understand
what love feels like any more than it can translate the ‘knowledge’ that it is
snowing outside into anything meaningful or meaningfully relate such knowledge
to a remembrance of things past. And what of lost love? An AI can be punished,
or rewarded, but ultimately an AI can never understand the fragility of our existence
or what loss can feel like.
An AI can recognise or sense
pain, but cannot physically feel in the way that we do. An AI cannot regret either,
any more than it can understand and accurately assess other human emotions such
as courage, justice, faith, hope, greed or
envy. How, for example, might an AI
respond to a question like “should I leave Sarah for Jane?” Answering questions
like this involves more than pattern recognition or if-then decision trees. It
involves emotions, fears and dreams. Again, how do you code for that? Sure, you
can make an AI aware of the emotional state of a humans (affective computing),
but, in my view, any understanding will be no more than skin deep. Again, AIs
can’t do broad context or understand deep history. This is another reason why I
believe there will be huge developments in narrow AI, but very little progress
in broad or general AI for decades.
For instance, you can program
an autonomous vehicle to predict the behaviour of pedestrians, recognising if
someone is drunk or about to carelessly cross the road while texting. But how
do you anticipate a sudden, irrational and unprecedented desire by someone to
throw themselves in front of a car driving at 50 mph, maybe because they think
that it might be funny? How do you combine self-driving cars that follow rules
with people that don’t? Perhaps the hardest problem for artificial intelligence
will be real human stupidity.
Finally, two points. The
first concerns the popular idea that an AI might one day be capable of doing more
or less anything a human can do, which might include stealing human jobs in
Such a belief supposes no
Humans may rebel in an
anti-technological fashion or enact laws restricting what an AI is allowed to
do. It wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve invented something that we
collectively agree not to use or decide to limit. Or governments might decide
to tax AI, with the result that further developments are constrained.
A spin-off from this thought might
be another, which is that in the future we may decide that while true AI is desirable,
it is neither urgent or important relative to other matters and is therefore a
wasteful use of human imagination and resources.
We have many pressing
problems in the world today, but machine intelligence isn’t one of them. We
have climate change, poverty, wars, economic inequality, a lack of clean water
and poor sanitation.
All these might be addressed
using AI, but AI alone cannot solve any of them, because such issues involve
politics. They involve not only the prioritisation of competing economic
resources, but competing, and ever changing, policies and ideologies.
My last point simply concerns
why. Why are we doing this? What purpose does radical automation, or true AI, ultimately
serve? Is it related to simple arguments about economic efficiency and profit
maximisation that benefit 1% of the world’s population. In general terms, that seems
to be the case at the moment. Or might it be to do with ageing societies and a
shortage of humans in some areas?
I’m not sure what the why is
with AI. What I do think is that many of our current concerns about AI might
not be about AI at all. AI is a focal point for other, much deeper, concerns
about where we, as both a society and a species, are heading. The worry that AI
will somehow ‘awaken’ and take over is similarly misplaced. Even if an AI did awaken, why would it occur
to it to do such a thing? Without anger, fear, greed or jealousy what might be
the motive? I could be
wrong, but even if I am this isn’t happening anytime soon and it’s far more likely
that our fears surrounding AI are merely the latest of a long historical wave
of hype and hysteria.
What I do think is possible, and
I guess this is inspirational in a sense, is that if AI even gets close to
doing some of the remarkable things that a handful of people say is possible,
this might shine a very strong spotlight on what other things we humans should
focus our attention upon. Ultimately, true AI could create a conversation about
what we, as a species, are for and might ignite a revolution in terms of how we
view our own intelligence and how we understand each other. Counter-intuitively, a truly intelligent AI
might spark an intelligence explosion in humans rather than computers, which
could well be one of the best things ever to happen to humanity.
Watson is Futurist-in-Residence at the Centre for Languages, Culture and
Communication at Imperial College London.
I suppose if you’re writing a book about wasting time, empty spaces, messing around and doing nothing at all it goes without saying that you need to waste time, gaze into space, mess about and do nothing at all. I spent most of my day today watching ants.
So it’s not just me then? The world seems to be increasingly run my tyrants and fools. But the triumph of bad people over good is the real kick in the guts. I know it’s only a phase (probably) but even so. I couldn’t agree more about the media. They just make things worse.
I’ve almost finished writing my piece on what AI cannot do. In the meantime, I’ve had a thought. The real problem, surely, isn’t making machines behave ethically. The bigger problem is making humans do so.
The key argument in favour of autonomous vehicles, such as driverless cars, is generally that they will be safer. In short, computers make better decisions than people and less people will be killed on the world’s roads if we remove human control. Meanwhile, armed robots on the battlefield are widely seen as a very bad idea, especially if these robots are autonomous and make life or death decisions unaided by human intervention. Isn’t this a double standard? Why can we delegate life or death decisions to a car, but not to a robot in a conflict zone?
You might argue that killer robots are designed to kill people, whereas driverless cars are not, but should such a distinction matter? In reality it might be that driverless cars kill far more people by accident than killer robots, because there are so many more of these machines. If we allow driverless vehicles to make instant life of death decisions surely, we must allow the same for military robots? And why not extend the idea to armed police robots too? Same logic.
My own view is that no machine should be given the capacity to make life or death decisions involving humans. AI is smart, and getting smarter, but no AI is even close to being able to understand the complexities, nuances or contradictions that can arise in any given situation.