What does it mean to be human?

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The Institute of Technology Professionals (ITP) held a debate about Artificial Intelligence at IBM’s Auckland offices yesterday, but the discussion soon turned into what it means to be human.

The eight panellists, ranged from people who work in AI-related fields for large corporates, to independent contractors and members of academia. While this is a generalisation, the former appeared more optimistic, the latter more dystopian about whether AI will knock humans off the top of the food chain.

Peter Harrison, from DevCentre, and vice president of the Open Source Society painted the bleakest vision. He said that currently machines have about 25% of human intelligence but that their learning ability is exponential – which means that in just 10 to 20 years we could all be answering to robots. And they won’t care what we think, we’ll be like ants – if we get in their way, we’ll be squashed. He also compared us to horses, once cars were invented these animals were no longer useful for transportation so their numbers were radically culled. Or we might become robot pets – the point being that AI means machines will be much, much smarter, very, very soon.

His thoughts were echoed Richard Wilde, who is the founder of the Reason and Science Society at the University of Auckland. His view is that the AI train is not going to stop at the “human station”, and that the singularity – that moment in time when machines learn to learn – is forecast to occur between 2040 to 2050.

But Stu Christie, Chair of the AI Forum of NZ and Investment Manager for the NZ Venture Investment Fund was more upbeat. He referenced Y2K – when everyone thought that as it clicked over to 1 January 2000, computers would crash, and with them the entire global digital economy, but nothing happened. Sonya Crosby, Chief Innovation Officer at SKYCITY, was also optimistic, maintaining the need to ensure that humans determine how machines behave.

In answer to concerns that AI is rendering a huge amount of human work unnecessary, Christie emphasised the role of culture and creativity. It’s about ‘STEAM’ not ‘STEM’ – that is Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, he told the audience.

The 100-strong audience were extremely engaged in the discussion, with many questions about how human beings will cope when more jobs become automated. Would a universal minimum wage result in a whole lot of bored people with lives devoid of meaning, electing people like Donald Trump and voting for Brexit (yes, those topics popped up)? At one point panellist Isuru Fernando from IBM asked a member of the audience if she could “unpack what she means by emotions”.

It seems AI isn’t just about reasoning, it’s about feelings too.

 

 

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