Will the brain and machine intelligence successfully work together, asks Richard King
The Digital Ape: How to Live (in Peace) with Smart Machines By Nigel Shadbolt and Roger Hampson Scribe, 346pp, $32.99 2062: The World that AI Made By Toby Walsh La Trobe University Press, 302pp, $34.99 Made by Humans: The AI Condition By Ellen Broad, MUP, 196pp, $29.99
Shortly before his death in 2015 the British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett agreed to be interviewed for a documentary about his life and legacy. ‘‘When I was a boy all I ever wanted was my own observatory,’’ he says in the film’s final scene. ‘‘I knew even then that all the mysteries of life lay hidden in the stars. Having said that, stars aren’t that important. Whereas street lamps — they’re very important. Why? Because they’re so rare! As far as we know, there are only a few million of them in the universe. And they were built by monkeys!’’
The idea that the most impressive thing about human beings is their ability to manipulate their environment through tools is one with an illustrious history. According to this emphasis, humanity is Homo faber — literally, ‘‘ man the maker’’. The French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) saw human intelligence as rooted in pragmatism; it was ‘‘the faculty to create artificial objects, in particular tools to make tools, and to indefinitely variate its makings’’.
The first electric street lamps appeared in Bergson’s lifetime and are, by this reckoning, at least as sublime as the Milky Way and its galactic neighbours. That was Pratchett’s point, of course, one underscored, not undermined, by the description of human beings as ‘‘monkeys’’.
Three new books — The Digital Ape by Nigel Shadbolt and Roger Hampson, 2062 by Toby Walsh and Made by Humans by Ellen Broad — all explore the relationship between the human animal and what might be its most momentous creation yet: artificial intelligence.
In particular they are concerned with how the human intelligence that created AI will be changed by it, and with how these two intelligences will rub along (or not) in the future. Could it be that human beings are on the cusp of creating a new type of Homo — what Shadbolt and Hampson call ‘‘the digital ape’’ and Walsh calls Homo digitalis? Shadbolt and Hampson’s excellent book — the title of which is a reference to Desmond Morris’s 1967 classic The Naked Ape — sits solidly within the Homo faber school of thought.
In a series of wide-ranging chapters, the authors argue that human beings are not just distinguished by their ability to use tools but also largely shaped by it.
The use of tools predates Homo sapiens by more than three million years, and it was the characteristics and abilities ‘‘selected for’’ in that period that gave us our opposable thumbs, fine motor control and capacity for language.
Fire, for example, is a technology that allowed hominids to ‘‘pre-digest’’ food by cooking it, with the result that more energy became available for running a large and complex brain. ‘‘We didn’t invent our original tools,’’ write Shadbolt and Hampson. ‘‘They invented us.’’
It follows that human beings have evolved in a way that makes them dependent on tools, and that the tools we create continue to affect our sense of what it means to be human. What goes for hand-axes goes too for AI and for modern machines more generally.
The power and reach of the human brain, write Shadbolt and Hampson, ‘‘are exponentially extended — and modified — by a cornucopia of machines entwined with our desires and behaviours, rooted in a vast industrial infrastructure’’.
The human brain now operates in tandem with technology, a symbiosis of which Stephen Hawking was both an example and a living metaphor. Our complex personal and social being is increasingly augmented by cognitive computing.
As for the question of whether that computing will itself become ‘‘intelligent’’ in the sense enjoyed (or endured) by humans, Shadbolt and Hampson are sceptical. They are more concerned about ‘‘natural stupidity’’ than artificial intelligence, and remind us that human sentience is the result ‘‘of hundreds of millions of years of descent with modification from prior living things’’.
But that a new kind of human being is being ‘‘built’’ by contemporary technology is something of which they are in no doubt. The 4 per cent of DNA that separates us from chimpanzees becomes ever more significant as the ‘‘stupendous multipliers’’ of technology transform our modern environment. Soon, indeed, we will be able to manipulate or ‘‘edit’’ human DNA itself, a prospect as frightening as it is impressive.
While Shadbolt and Hampson are broadly confident that the digital ape will remain an ape with a new array of transformative tools, Toby Walsh is more equivocal. Indeed it is never entirely clear, in the opening chapters of 2062, whether its author conceives of Homo digitalis as literally ‘‘the evolution of the genus Homo into digital form’’ or the evolution of Homo sapiens into a digitally augmented being.
‘‘Rather than replace us,’’ he writes, at the