The Magazine

Man vs. Machine

The limits (?) of artificial intelligence.

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By JAMES C. BANKS
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Barrat and other techno-critics might argue that this does not matter: After all, a steamroller does not need an IQ to run over you; a nuclear weapon does not need to think to explode. But it matters because, as long as we are unable to invent a fully self-conscious machine, machines will always have to borrow their consciousness or drive from humans. Toward the end of this book, Barrat mentions Moravec’s Paradox: Tasks that humans find easy robots tend to find difficult, whereas tasks that humans find difficult robots tend to find easy. Barrat sees this as evidence of how imperiled we are. If computers can easily acquire reasoning capabilities, how are we to defend ourselves? But it is the smaller things—adaptability, creativity, the ability to think on one’s feet and reconfigure one’s environment for survival—that are at the root of human success.

Nonetheless, if Barrat does not always make a convincing case, his predictions are preferable to those of some of the techno-utopians he interviews. If there is anything more disturbing than the prospect of being destroyed by a self-replicating computer that feeds itself by harvesting carbon, it is the visions of people like Ray Kurzweil, a man who “plans to fend off death” through dieting and exercise “until technology finds a cure he’s certain will come.” 

Immortality has long been a pursuit of the “transhumanist” movement, but there is nothing immortal about the sort of goal that Kurzweil is setting for humanity. It may be nonagenarian, and it may hold the promise of indefinite, if not eternal, life. But in the transhumanist world that Kurzweil and others dream of, we would still be fed with the same food, killed by the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, and warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer. 

In such a world—a world in which people may have the ability to live forever but are not guaranteed to do so—would anyone muster the courage to  set foot outside his front door? Would people still desire to raise children if they had no intention of leaving any legacy to them? Or would we become a society of old minds trapped in young bodies with the desire to achieve no more wisdom than will preserve our bodies for another year?

Time will tell. But, as Aldous Huxley’s savage-hero from Brave New World points out, a world without adversity makes virtue irrelevant. It is also a world in which humans could survive, but in which their humanity would not last an hour. 

James C. Banks is a writer in New York.