What about some human intelligence first?

To consider AI as a replacement for human intelligence is to repeat the age-old mistake of expecting god to solve problems without humans making any effort

Published - February 03, 2019 12:15 am IST

Busiest robot in the office with a heavy workload on all of his six hands.

Busiest robot in the office with a heavy workload on all of his six hands.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is all the rage these days. A recent article noted that ‘robots’ — shorthand for AI in the tabloids — will be able to write a fiction bestseller within 50 years. I suppose that would be shocking to me as a novelist if most fiction bestsellers were not already being written by ‘robots’. Or so one feels, keeping publishing and other vogues in mind: a bit of this, a bit of that, a dash of something else, and voila, you have a bestseller!

Intelligence and skills

In that sense, perhaps the rise of AI will make us reconsider what we mean by human intelligence. This discussion has been neglected for far too long. Take my field: literature. The Chinese company, Cheers Publishing, lately offered a collection of poems written by a computer program. So, are poets, generally considered to be suicidal in any case, jumping off the cliffs in droves as a consequence? Well, this is a selection from one of the AI poems I found online: “The rain is blowing through the sea / A bird in the sky / A night of light and calm / Sunlight / Now in the sky / Cool heart / The savage north wind / When I found a new world.”

Yes, there are aspiring poets — and sometimes established ones — who write like this, connecting words centripetally or centrifugally to create an effect. I think they should have been pushed off literary cliffs a long time ago. Because this is not poetry; this is just the technique of assembling words like poetry. There is a difference between the intelligence required to write poetry and the skills required to write it. That poetic intelligence is lost without the required poetic skills, but the skills on their own do not suffice either.

The fact that lines like this, written by AI, can be considered poetry does not reflect on the intelligence of AI. It reflects on the intelligence of those readers, writers, critics, editors, publishers and academics who have not yet distinguished between gimmickry and mimicry on the one side and the actual freshness of a chiselled line on the other.

But this is a small example. Surely, AI might also make us discover our basic lack of intelligence in other areas, including that of considering something like IQ to be a sufficient index of human mental capacity! Because if we think that AI can replace human intelligence, then we are simply not thinking hard enough.

Work and leisure

One of the major failures here is that of considering intelligence to be something different from and raised above the activity of living. This leads to the misconception that intelligence can be relegated to something else — say, a robot — without becoming something else. Human intelligence cannot be passed on to something else: What is “passed on” is always a different kind of ‘intelligence’. (I would call it cleverness, until further evidence to the contrary.)

Even the arguments that AI — or, as in the past, robots — can enable human beings to lead a gloriously workless existence is based on a similar misconception. Because human intelligence is embedded in human existence, ‘work’ as human activity in the world is not something human beings can do without. The fact that we resent ‘work’ at times — and in hard and boring jobs, often all the time — does not change this. What we resent is not acting in the world (‘work’) but being made to act in the world against our better and natural inclinations (‘salaried work,’ mostly). To think that AIs and robots can just create a lifetime of ‘leisure’ for human beings is to not know what human beings are. It shows a lack of intelligence.

It is because human intelligence is embedded in human living and acting that human beings have the ability to adopt contradictory positions, or no position at all. From the perspective of ‘pure’ intelligence, this seems to be a flaw. But it is only a flaw if one divorces intelligence from living and acting in the world, for the latter often throws up situations of unresolvable ambiguity and ambivalence. In different ways, both religion and literature know this — and that is the reason why they retain a central role in human consciousness.

There is much that we can do with AI, just as there is much that we have done with the wheel. But to consider AI a replacement for human intelligence — or humanity — is to repeat an age-old mistake. This mistake relates to god. No matter whether god exists or not, it has always been a mistake to expect him to ‘solve’ problems without human effort. The prophet of Islam is said to have once told a man who claimed that he believed in Allah so much that he never tied up his camel: “First tie up your camel and then believe in Allah”. Buddha, pressed to answer if there was a god, supposedly replied: “It would make no difference to mankind in the world.”

It is ironic that the often atheistic fans of AI who believe that it is ‘The solution’ are making the same mistake that some of the religious made in assuming that god can be ‘The solution’ — without ongoing and intelligent human effort.

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