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 Kristinn Thórisson


Think about it: The brain is a physical entity. Even if it were found to harbor some unknown laws of physics, and even if those laws were found to be essential to what we intuitively mean when we say that it "thinks", the brain is still a physical system. So we will be able to build a replica. Not perhaps today or tomorrow, but certainly within the next four or five decades. Pretty exciting, right? To a lot of people, the answer to this question is a definite "no". Many people seem to dread this thought more than they dread the Bomb.

Why are people afraid of artificial intelligence? Maybe they think that if we can create an artificial human we will have proven once and for all that humans are nothing more than fancy machines. Browsing the bookstores brings forth countless examples of authors with purported "proof" that humans are oh-so-much more than "simple algorithms". Using any half-baked argument in sight, from religion to metaphysics, why would they spend the energy trying to convince their readers of this? Clearly, they are afraid that they might turn out to be wrong. So we have to assume that this is quite possible. Should that be the case, it brings up the question how - in the future - we would tell difference between human and robotic behavior. My argument would be to say that it's *already* hard to tell, when, after all, the majority of people behave like robots, mindlessly copying each other on almost everything: Going after the latest fashion, buying junk food with dangerous additives, upgrading their computers whenever the advertisements tell them to (based on the amount of computing power now amassed on the average desktop you'd think every family was doing protein folding at home), watching sports on TV, believing the stories of organized religions, working relentlessly towards that "bigger and better" car (that they see in the ads while watching sports), and spending much of their free time on shopping sprees.

In fact, most people take a lot of pride in what they consume ("My boyfriend just bought a Mercedes!"). Wouldn't the world be more interesting if most people instead took pride in what they *produce*?

There is a significant lack of dialog about the importance of creativity in society. If aliens visited the Earth they would wonder what happened to all the good ideas on this planet, because they'd have a really hard time finding signs of creative output. They would observe our television technology and marvel at the fact that such a simple device can render large populations virtually motionless for hours, completely free of a single creative thought or idea. (The only few hours in the day, in fact, when they could be doing *anything* they wanted.)  If the aliens were to float the theory that television sucks out all human will to be creative, the result would undoubtedly be a pile of alien Ph.D. theses on the subject.

I've never heard of anyone who went to war over artificial intelligence. I've never heard of anyone who still claims the earth is flat - because of artificial intelligence. Have large groups of people ever hated each other - because of artificial intelligence? Has someone you know ever shut their ears to sensible arguments about the origin of life - in the name of artificial intelligence? Have you heard of an institution that protects its constituents from crimes they committed - in the name of artificial intelligence? Has your girlfriend ever done anything you found illogical - because of artificial intelligence? I didn't think so. Maybe if you replace the term 'artificial intelligence' with 'religion' in these sentences, more of the answers will be 'yes'. Because what people *really* should be afraid of is religion. Religion has a way (and a history) of shutting people up and taking away their will to ask questions. There is no place for *why* or *how* in religion, only *what you should be doing*, and *thinking*. As a result, a lot of people, religious or otherwise, are afraid to ask questions - many people don't even know how. Strangely, religion spreads. It's one of those things that people mindlessly copy from each other. If they didn't everyone would have their own unique religion.

Which brings us back to artificial intelligence. If people knew how to ask questions about what it means to be a human, or were even motivated to ask *any* questions about the matter, they wouldn't be so afraid of A.I. But most of the time people think the thoughts and have the opinions that others have had before. They believe what they consume from the media, instead of doing their own research based on reliable sources, and coming to their own conclusions. Imagine how the world would be if most people were actually producing novel thought, instead of regurgitating the thoughts that are already echoing between others throughout society.

In a related story, no artificial intelligence has so far been created that shows human-level creativity. There is progress, however, using software to identify new protein structures and invent novel chemical compounds, and one case of a painter robot that produces artwork indistinguishable from that of a human artist. A computer has won the world championship in chess, but as of yet, no robot has come up with anything even resembling a years worth of work of the average, dumb scientist, engineer, writer, or plumber.

Given this state of affairs, people should be *longing* for artificial intelligence, not fearing it. In a matter of decades computers will be powerful enough to simulate a human brain on our desktop (assuming the majority of people keep upgrading their computers - mindlessly, of course). Then we can use A.I. to create even more mind-numbing television programs (no need to hire another creative director, just hit "go" on the joke-o-matic). At that point people can safely continue to pass on creative thought, and go on with their favorite pastime of consuming mass quantities: Their personal A.I. will come up with all the thoughts that are needed to keep the rest of society going.

Why is it so hard to find original thought in the world? Is it because all or most of the interesting thoughts have been thought already, so we leave it to the "weirdos", "eccentrics" and the so-called "intelligentsia" to think the rest? Or is it because there are so few interesting, original questions and ideas in the world to think over? Actually, neither could be the case; after all, in the last century humanity has discovered and invented more interesting phenomena and things than in all the many hundred thousand years of human evolution before that. That, by the way, is not because of a significant increase in creative thought - merely the coordination of a large number of people in ways that sustains their work for more than a few months at a time. After all, creative thought takes a lot of work.

Sure, inventors and scientists are revered, and there are some real inventors (I know a few) who are actually creative. Many scientists, however, have a significant lack of imagination. I blame this on the fact that in society as a whole, and especially the in the educational system, there is no fundamental understanding of the creative process, or the value of creative thought. As a result we are unable to support creativity within our many programs - we're even unable to detect it when it pops up in our back yard. So the only solid conclusion can be this: There's a serious lack of support for creative thought in society, and a serious lack of dialog about it.  With this being the situation, no wonder scientific progress creeps along, gadget mania is the primary driving force of technological innovation, and the average citizen keeps being afraid of robots and artificial intelligence.

Now, it's possible you might think that this article contains few if any original thoughts, and that I should have spent more time coming up with new ideas instead of writing down what you've already seen elsewhere. To you I say 'I am proud to be a robot!'

2002 © K.R.Thórisson

Kristinn Þórisson, Kristinn R. Þórisson, Kristinn R. Thorisson, Kristinn Thorisson


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