That is the case with much of the futurology in today’s media, because of the high value we all place on entertainment. With all the talk about intelligent agents, most people think they can go buy them in the corner drugstore. Ray, too, brings up his experience with speech translation to demonstrate computer intelligence. The Lab for Computer Science is delightfully full of Victor Zue’s celebrated systems that can understand spoken English, Spanish and Mandarin, as long as the context is restricted, for example to let you ask about the weather, or to book an airline flight. Does that make them intelligent? No. Conventionally, “intelligence” is centered on our ability to reason, even imperfectly, using common sense. If we dub as intelligent, often for marketing or wishful-thinking purposes, every technological advance that mimics a tiny corner of human behavior, we will be distorting our language and exaggerating the virtues of our technology. We have no basis today to assert that machine intelligence will or will not be achieved. Stating that it will go one way or the other is to assert a belief, which is fine, as long as we say so. Does this mean that machine intelligence will never be achieved? Certainly not. Does it mean that it will be achieved? Certainly not. All it means is that we don’t know-an exciting proposition that motivates us to go find out.
Attention-seizing, outlandish ideas are easy and fun to concoct. Far more difficult is to pick future directions that are likely. My preferred way for doing this, which has served me well, though not flawlessly, for the last 30 years, is this: Put in a salad bowl the wildest, most forward-thinking technological ideas that you can imagine. (This is the craziness part.) Then add your best sense of what will be useful to people. (That’s the rational part.) Start mixing the salad. If you are lucky, something will pop up that begins to qualify on both counts. Grab it and run with it, since the best way to forecast the future is to build it. This forecasting approach combines “nonlinear” ideas with the “linear” notion of human utility, and with a hopeful dab of serendipity.
Ray observes that technology is a double-edged sword. I agree, but I prefer to think of it as an axe that can be used to build a house or chop the head off an adversary, depending on intentions. The good news is that since the angels and the devils are inside us, rather than within the axe, the ratio of good to evil uses of a technology is the same as the ratio of good to evil people who use that technology…which stays pretty constant through the ages. Technological progress will not automatically cause us to be engulfed by evil, as some people fear.
But for the same reason, potentially harmful uses of technology will always be near us, and we will need to deal with them. I agree with Ray’s suggestions that we do so via ethical guidelines, regulatory overviews, immune response and computer-assisted surveillance. These, however, are partial remedies, rooted in reason, which has repeatedly let us down in assessing future technological directions. We need to go further.
As human beings, we have a rational, logical dimension, but also a physical, an emotional and a spiritual one. We are not fully human unless we exercise all of these capabilities in concert, as we have done throughout the millennia. To rely entirely on reason is to ascribe omniscience to a few ounces of meat, tucked inside the skull bones of antlike creatures roaming a small corner of an infinite universe-hardly a rational proposition! To live in this increasingly complex, awesome and marvelous world that surrounds us, which we barely understand, we need to marshal everything we’ve got that makes us human.
This brings us back to the point of my column, which is also the main theme of this discussion: When we marvel at the exponential growth of an emerging technology, we must keep in mind the constancy of the human beings who will use it. When we forecast a likely future direction, we need to balance the excitement of imaginative “nonlinear” ideas with their potential human utility. And when we are trying to cope with the potential harm of a new technology, we should use all our human capabilities to form our judgment.
To render technology useful, we must blend it with humanity. This process will serve us best if, alongside our most promising technologies, we bring our full humanity, augmenting our rational powers with our feelings, our actions and our faith. We cannot do this by reason alone!