The New Centaur

 In Culture, Fred's Blog, Giving, Philanthropy, Technology

The Imitation Game is a new movie that tells the story of Alan Turing and his near miraculous breaking of the Nazi “Enigma” code during World War II. Historians believed that by cracking that code, Turing may have shaved two years off of the war.

The movie’s title comes from the “Turing Test,” another one of the mathematician’s genius achievements. To put it simply, the Turing Test is a test of a computer’s ability to imitate intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

Is it possible to develop an artificial intelligence that can not only imitate but replace human intelligence? Don’t be too quick to say no.

Stephen Hawking and others recently wrote in The Independent, “Artificial Intelligence (AI) research is now progressing rapidly. Recent landmarks such as self-driving cars, a computer winning at Jeopardy! and the digital personal assistants Siri, Google Now and Cortana are merely symptoms of an IT arms race fuelled by unprecedented investments and building on an increasingly mature theoretical foundation. Such achievements will probably pale against what the coming decades will bring.”

All of this brought to mind an article that Kevin Kelly wrote recently in Wired. The article focuses on recent breakthroughs in the world of AI.

Kelly writes that what we really want is artificial smartness: “Unlike general intelligence, smartness is focused, measurable, specific. It can also think in ways completely different from human cognition…”

Smartness is not about judgment, intuition, discernment or values. Its singular focus is to connect data – and eliminate error – in ways that would not occur to a human.

Kelly writes, “A cute example of this nonhuman thinking is a cool stunt that was performed at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March of this year. IBM researchers overlaid Watson with a culinary database comprising online recipes, USDA nutritional facts, and flavor research on what makes compounds taste pleasant. From this pile of data, Watson dreamed up novel dishes based on flavor profiles and patterns from existing dishes, and willing human chefs cooked them.”

The computer’s inventions were apparently quite tasty.

All of this leads me to wonder what the merging of AI with our own intelligence will look like, especially in philanthropy. The potential benefits are mind-boggling, as I imagine that the eradication of terrorism, disease and poverty would be at the top of anyone’s list.

But for now, philanthropy is still thinking that “faster, better, more efficient” means success. We Skype instead of spending days in travel. We donate online instead of sending checks. We access data in seconds that before was expensive and took months to compile. This is all smart and improved – but it is not new.

So what will it look like to actually think in completely different ways about Christian philanthropy? What will not merely tweak us but actually change the entire way we give as human and AI align?

Some may remember the uproar over the 1997 chess match between IBM’s Deep Blue and the reigning chess grand master Garry Kasparov which ended in defeat for Kasparov. This loss spurred the champion to pioneer the concept of a “man-plus-machine” chess player combining the strengths of AI with unique human skills.

Kasparov called this combination a “centaur” after the mythological half-human/half-beast: “A centaur player will listen to the moves whispered by the AI but will occasionally override them – much the way we use GPS navigation in our cars…Today the best chess player alive is a centaur: Intagrand, a team of humans and several chess programs.”

Centaurs are usually thought of as grotesque and unnatural, but there is at least one instance of a centaur that is admirable – Roonwit in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle.

Roonwit is insightful. He stands by truth even when all around him are believing lies. He is discerning, able to distinguish truth from falsehood because of his careful thought. He is constant and consistent in his beliefs. He is wise and brave – a perfect combination of strength and intelligence.

Some of us may want to run from technology or confine it to being a mere tool. Some believe AI can and will replace what makes us uniquely human – and the pinnacle of God’s creation. The truth is the melding of the two – human and artificial – is here already and, hopefully, the new centaur will be more akin to Roonwit – something both powerful and wise. We don’t yet know. We are peering through a glass darkly.

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Showing 6 comments
  • Avatar
    Mark Berner

    Dear Fred,

    You and your readers may be interested in this important article by noted Yale computer scientist and polymath David Gelernter in the January, 2014 Commentary. (The Economist profiled David several years ago and compared his influence on information technology to Steve Jobs).

    David systematically examines and then destroys the arguments for the singularity, where mind merges with machine. He also takes on the naturalistic and reductionist assumptions of modern technology and philosophy, ending with a thoughtful meditation on Jewish and Christian understandings of human nature. David is an observant Jew who is deeply read in Christian thought.


  • Fred Smith
    Fred Smith

    Dear Mark – Well, I don’t know about the other readers but I know I will be interested in David’s article. I’m not thinking about a “singularity” scenario as much as the effect of AI on philanthropy. I can imagine all sorts of negative effects so I am working hard to think about positive effects. Again, not thinking about changes in “speed and efficiency” but substantive changes in the way we approach our work. A local friend suggested he could just enter all his giving preferences and criteria into an algorithm and turn his computer loose on finding options for him without using consultants, third parties, community foundation resources, The Gathering knowledge base, etc. Eliminate the middle man in the transaction completely. Given the sophistication of the algorithm and the criteria he could probably get pretty close to an optimum gift from his desk. Of course, would that qualify as Christian philanthropy? Is that a substantive change or just an incremental change in speed and efficiency?

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    Nathaniel Hansen

    The scenario you paint of the algorithm is here. Watson at IBM is fully capable of such work.

    The human is still the last mile when it comes to heart decisions, of course. And when a machine can make heart-based decisions, when a machine can truly be self-reflective, even if modeling ideals from ancient Greeks….then we hope this machine will be benevolent to us humans…we hope it will be a “Roonwit”.

    In the early stages, our “Roonwit” will abide by the whims of its benefactors. We hope these benefactors are humans with a heart for all that is good, all this is noble, all that is true, all that is beautiful and praiseworthy.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      I cannot think of a single technological advance/breakthrough/paradigm change that has not been used for both good and bad. Unfortunately, that is our nature. I’m not being cynical – just reflective.

  • Avatar
    Michael Murray

    Thanks Fred, for challenging us to think about the effects of AI on our capacity to make decisions as wise, human stewards. I doubt seriously that our reflections will speed up or slow down the development of AI. (Would knowing that the development of the automobile would cost over 35,000 human lives a year in the US alone have effected it development?)
    But causing us to pause and reflect on what it means to be a human being is well worth your effort. Indeed, Phyllis Tickle says that we are in the midst of answering three vital questions at this stage in history: What is the source of authority for our culture and our world (the Bible has disappeared as a source for our culture); What does it mean to be a human being? and What is the meaning of the Atonement? She believes that it will be another 50 to 100 years before there is some consensus answers to these questions. In the meantime, things are somewhat “mean………..” Again, thanks!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Mike – I think the acceleration of AI is now pretty much a machine function in that the machines are learning independently. All we can do is unplug them from the grid to stop that. We are not so much teachers as classroom observers. Those are three great questions!

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