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Turing, And The Bogus Rivalry With Machine-Based Intelligence

IBM's Watson Wikipedia.org
                     IBM’s Watson           Wikipedia.org

In reality, humans have nothing to fear. Most measures of artificial intelligence use the wrong yardsticks.

We are awash in articles, books and films about the coming age of “singularity:” the point at which machines will supposedly duplicate and surpass human intelligence.  For decades it’s been the stuff of science fiction, reaching perhaps its most eloquent expression in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 motion picture, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The film is still a visual marvel. Who would have thought that Strauss waltzes and images of deep space could be so compatible?  Functionally, the waltzes have the effect of juxtaposing the familiar with a hostile void, making the film a surprising celebration of all things earthbound.  But that’s another story.

The central agent in the film is the HAL-9000 computer that begins to turn off the life support of the crew during a long voyage, mostly because it “thinks” the humans aren’t up to the enormous task facing them.

Kubrick’s vision of very smart computers is also evident in the more recent A.I., Artificial Intelligence (2001), a project started just before his death and eventually brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg.  It’s a dystopian nightmare. In the film intelligent “mechas” (mechanical robots) are generally nicer than the humans who created them.  In pleasant Haddonfield New Jersey, of all places, they are shot on sight for sport.

Fantasies of machine intelligence have lately given way to IBM’s “Big Blue” and “Watson,” mega-computers with amazing memories and—with Watson—a stunning speech recognition capability that is filtering down to all kinds of devices.  If we can talk to machines, aren’t we well on our way to singularity?

For one answer consider the Turing Test, the challenge laid down by the World War II code-breaker Alan Turing. A variation of it has been turned into a recurring world competitions.  The challenge is to construct a “chatterbot” that can pass for a human in blind side-by-side “conversations” that include real people.  For artificial intelligence engineers, the trick is to fool a panel of questioners at least 30 percent of the time over 25 minutes. According to the BBC, a recent winner was a computer from the University of Reading in the U.K. It passed itself off as a Ukrainian teen (“Eugene Goostman”) speaking English as a second language.

In actual fact, humans have nothing to fear.  Most measures of “human like” intelligence such as the Turing Test use the wrong yardsticks. These computers are never embodied. The rich information of non-verbal communication is not present, nor can it be.  Proximate human features are not enough.  For example, Watson’s “face” in its famous Jeopardy challenge a few years ago was a set of cheesy electric lights.  Moreover, these smart machines tend to be asked questions that we would ask of Siri or other informational databases.  What they “know” is often defined as a set of facts, not feelings. And, of course, these machines lack what we so readily reveal in our conversations with others: that we have a sense of self, that we have an accumulated biography of life experiences that shape our reactions and dispositions, and that we want to be understood.

Just the issue of selfhood should remind us of the special status that comes from living through dialogue with others.  A sense of self is complicated, but it includes the critical ability to be aware of another’s awareness of who we are.  If this sounds confusing, it isn’t.  This process is central to all but the most perfunctory communication transactions.  As we address others we are usually “reading” their responses in light of what we believe they already have discerned about us.  We triangulate between our  perceptions of who we are, who they are, and what they are thinking about our behavior. This all happens in a flash, forming what is sometimes called “emotional intelligence.”  It’s an ongoing form of self-monitoring that functions to oil the complex relationships. Put this sequence together, and you get a transaction that is full of feedback loops that involve estimates if intention and interest, and—frequently—a general desire born in empathy to protect the feelings of the other.

It’s an understatement to say these transactions are not the stuff of machine-based intelligence, and probably never can be.  We are not computers.  As Walter Isaacson reminds us in his recent book, The Innovators, we are carbon based creatures with chemical and electrical impulses that mix to create unique and idiosyncratic individuals.  This is when the organ of the brain becomes so much more: the biographical homeland of an experience-saturated mind.  With us there is no central processor.  We are not silicon-based. There are the nearly infinite forms of consciousness in a brain with 100-billion neurons with 100-trillion connections.  And because we often “think” in ordinary language, we are so much more—and sometimes less—than an encyclopedia on two legs.

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“Mere?” Not so Much.

 Individuals who flatter themselves by being about “action” must ultimately face the undeniable fact that survival in American life depends on the water of communication.  What we say matters. A lot. 

In parched California, getting caught watering the sidewalk rather than a patch of grass is likely to annoy neighbors.  And a clueless homeowner’s response that what is involved is “merely” water won’t help.  Everyone understands  what’s at stake.  Water makes life possible.

My incredulity matches those neighbors when I hear someone dismiss another’s comments by noting that those expressions are “mere rhetoric.”  In my field this is the professional equivalent of a thumb in the eye.  I’ll give the phrase it’s due; it hangs around our public discussion like mosquitoes in a Michigan summer.  But it’s a misguided thought.

We use the “mere” put-down to devalue someone’s words, usually on the mistaken assumption that we have other means for understanding each other.  In the usual form, the preferred reality is to preference “deeds” over words.  And that is sometimes the case.  For example, we generally expect that people will act on their stated intentions: that their behavior matters. But even in such cases we are also interested in making conclusions about character based on spoken promises.  Individuals who flatter themselves by being about “action” must ultimately face the undeniable fact that survival in American life depends on the water of communication.  What we say matters.  A lot.

The “mere rhetoric” mistake is often spoken by reporters and politicians, the very folks who most need to acknowledge the debt they owe to the fluency of others.  Their fuzzy thinking sometimes comes with a statement such as this:  “For the moment let’s set aside all the rhetoric about this subject and get to the point about what’s at stake.”  This supposed set-aside is then followed by. . . well. . . more language. Staring at each other in complete silence isn’t much of an option. Not understanding our debt to words shows the same kind of lack of self awareness that allows someone to worry about the government “taking over” Medicare.

Over the centuries thinkers have wondered if there isn’t a better cure to misunderstanding than via verbal pathways.  Most have usually ended up with a synthetic symbol system that mimics mathematics.  No one ever misunderstands what “2” means.  And we don’t think others are hurling abuse in our direction if they talk about a “dozen.”  Mathematical language has the virtue and liability of being completely stipulative.

Football on television is functionally as much about the announcing as the action on the field.  Try watching an entire game without the sound.

But our expressive needs require more.  We revel in rhetoric that is loaded, judgmental, evocative and sometimes rude.  We seek out people who use beautiful constructions that engross and engage.  And this isn’t just in the realms of the novel or poetry. Football on television is functionally as much about the announcing as the action on the field.  Try watching an entire game without the sound.  Similarly, a judgment in the form of a letter grade often matters more to a student than their actual work.  And parents rejoice when their young children begin to pass through the threshold of literacy.

To be sure, we are theoretically capable of stepping back from the rhetorical world.  But the requirements are harsh and, for most of us, not very welcoming.  Lock yourself away in a silent place.  Don’t talk. Don’t listen to others.  And try to control the verbal chatter of a rhetorical mind that can probably run circles around  even your most loquacious relative.  It’s not fun to be denied the gifts of utterance.

The scholar Kenneth Burke reminded us that “Language is equipment for living.”  We are toilers and pleasure seekers in the information age, often allowing our bodies to wither while our heads surf through endless waves of verbiage.  Even social scientists who pride themselves on being rigorous empiricists usually end up studying verbal behavior most of the time.  As for the neuroscientists who often use brain scans to seek the origins of our actions?  Well, that’s mere neuroscience.  The human mind is more than the organ of the brain.  It’s the source and signature of our verbally constructed selves.