The New Centaur
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.