Intelligent robots still not the real thing

Whilst machines will become better at helping people perform difficult mental tasks, what needs to be challenged is the idea that machines can replace man

It is not that surprising that we read about fears of machines replacing humans. Change is usually unpredictable and we do not like change very much.

The image of Frankenstein looms over us. Should humans be worried about new Frankenstein creations or should we counter that these notions are selling us humans short?

Recently I came across Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book: Homo Deus — a brief history of tomorrow. This book pulls no punches in telling us that one day, machines will overtake us. And once artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence, mankind may be exterminated. No, I promise you this is not an Arnold Schwarzenegger film! The author believes that in the age of data-driven global network systems, with algorithms that give you anything you need, the machines we create will become more important than mankind itself.

Others have written that machines have begun to outstrip human intellect and can even teach their creators how to play games better. There is the example of Alpha Go, a machine that has perfected how to play the complex Chinese game of Go where players battle to dominate a 19×19 board with black and white tiles. It is said that while it takes humans years of practice and learning to master the game, it took Alpha Go just four weeks. Alpha Go has become the new Deep Blue, the algorithm that beat Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997. DeepMind, a company now owned by Google, is working on creating artificial general intelligence, an algorithm that can acquire skills through trial and error, rather than be taught a specific skill like playing chess or Go.

Whilst all this is definitely happening, and machines will become better at helping people perform difficult mental tasks, what needs to be challenged is the idea that machines can replace man. A machine is not and cannot be a human being. Human beings are different to machines — and to animals — in that they have consciousness.

Humans are sensuous social individuals who possess free will, autonomy, the ability to work using nature, change nature, and in so doing change themselves. The unfolding of history since man came into being has been well documented. Historical change, technological revolution, innovation are all creations of man. Whether you are an artist, a novelist, a comedian or a teacher, what makes you different from machines is that you can think, you have your imagination, you can reason and you can turn your imagination into tangible creations for others to view, consume in some way, and enjoy.

In elevating technology over man, Harari is trivializing what is unique about human beings. Just because machines have speed and enormous capacity for data storage and crunching, this does not mean they can replace all of people’s mental faculties. Robots are not capable of having philosophical, aesthetic, political or moral insights. Only humans can do these things.

Can computers even tell jokes? Apparently Amazon’s voice assistant Echo can. But as one data scientist responded: ‘computers can be funny under a template. On the other hand we as humans have complete freedom for how we define jokes. We are amazing!’ I can only agree. We should not sell ourselves short.