MON­KEY BUSI­NESS

Will the brain and ma­chine in­tel­li­gence suc­cess­fully work to­gether, asks Richard King

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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