A Ghost in the Machine?

In 1967 Arthur Koestler wrote The Ghost in the Machine, which was essentially a critique of the hypothesis that the human mind could be viewed as a machine, a sort of chemical computer. He went on to consider that if were a computer, then what of the metaphysical? That is, whether there was truly consciousness and a spirit in a machine. Fifty years later, the inverse are the questions, with many questioning whether artificial intelligence (AI) is a beginning step on the path to machines gaining a consciousness.

Today, the press and much of popular culture is filled with fears of AI, spinning dire, dystopian nightmares of a jobless, machine-controlled future. Such fear of the future is not unknown, but in American history such concern has been less a part of the psychological landscape. Our science, invention and innovation has instead been seen as part of our American preeminence. Part of our American success. Part of our American future.

Broadly speaking, AI is the advancement of computer systems to simulate intelligent human behavior. AI enhanced computer systems will be able to solve problems, translate languages, and even pick up on speech or visual cues. While current industry will be enhanced, new industries will begin to grow as well. This dynamic in the economy will provide new opportunities and new careers across the services sectors and in the creation of goods.

Consumers seem to be excited by the possibilities. Polling shows that people are eager for the new opportunities and outcomes in health care, clean energy, cyber security, finance and the law. Not only will services improve and expand, but day to day work will change in positive ways. Unshackled from the mundane and the routine, humans will be able to achieve greater satisfaction and happiness in their work. For example, gone will be long days for social workers filling out and approving standard forms at their desk. Instead days will be filled with meeting with foster kids and helping on the human side of adoption. Menial tasks will be replaced with creativity, deep thinking and higher skilled labor. The way we work and play will change as greater economic growth, increasing opportunities and a better standard of living allow us to have greater control of our lives.

But for such innovation to succeed political and public policy leaders will need to understand the technology to some degree and then stay out of the way of innovation. Those dystopian fears will need to be set aside, and decisions made based on fact and reasoning, not on fear and populism.

Much has been made of whether computers could “rule the world” or otherwise suppress humans as they grow too “intelligent.” However, real intelligence or sentience in machines may make for great science fiction, that result is hardly science fact. To show real intelligence the computer must do something that it was not programmed to do. For example, if a computer is programmed with all of the rules of chess and then left to play games of chess against itself, through millions and millions of games it will come to be able to defeat human chess masters because it will learn every strategy in hours not years being able to understand the most probable outcome of every move.

This may seem like real intelligence but it’s not. While some of the results may be unexpected that is not the same thing as intelligence. That is, at least in part, because intelligence is not the same thing as experience. Running though innumerable outcomes to understand the best means to play a game is not the same as intelligence. A human might only be able to get to, and remember, a fraction of those game outcomes. That massive storage of the results is closer to humans collecting wisdom and handing it down to the next generation.

AI is about what can be delegated to the computer as an extension or enhancement to the brain just as an exoskeleton is for human physical capabilities. With AI, computers will do more than they do now as an ever increasingly useful tool to get humans to the same place they were headed, but perhaps a bit faster. Humans will not be giving up the ghost to the machine.

Bartlett Cleland is senior fellow in tech and innovation at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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