Why Humans Will Forever Rule Over the Machines

Terminator-2Everywhere you turn nowadays, you hear about the imminent triumph of intelligent machines over humans. They will take our jobs, they will make their own decisions, they will be even more intelligent than humans, they pose a threat to humanity (per Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk). Marc Andreesen recently summed up on Twitter the increased hubbub about the dangers of Artificial Intelligence: “From ‘It’s so horrible how little progress has been made’ to ‘It’s so horrible how much progress has been made’ in one step.”

Don’t worry. The machines will never take over, no matter how much progress will be made in artificial intelligence . It will forever remain artificial, devoid of what makes us human (and intelligent in the full sense of the word), and what accounts for our unlimited creativity, the fountainhead of ideas that will always keep us at least a few steps ahead of the machines.

In a word, intelligent machines will never have culture, our unique way of transmitting meanings and context over time, our continuously invented and re-invented inner and external realities.

When you stop to think about culture—the content of our thinking—it is amazing that it has been missing from the thinking of the people creating “thinking machines” and/or debating how much they will impact our lives for as long as this work and conversation has been going on. No matter what position they take in the debate and/or what path they follow in developing robots and/or artificial intelligence, they have collectively made a conscious or unconscious decision to reduce the incredible bounty and open-endedness of our thinking to computation, an exchange of information between billions of neurons, which they either hope or are afraid that we will eventually replicate in a similar exchange between increasingly powerful computers. It’s all about quantity and we know that Moore’s Law takes care of that.

Almost all the people participating in the debate about the rise of the machines have subscribed to the Turing Paradigm which basically says “let’s not talk about what we cannot define or investigate and simply equate thinking with computation.”

The dominant thinking about thinking machines, whether of the artificial or the human kind, has not changed since Edward C. Berkeley wrote in Giant Brains or Machines that Think, his 1949 book about the recently invented computers: “These machines are similar to what a brain would be if it were made of hardware and wire instead of flesh and nerves… A machine can handle information; it can calculate, conclude, and choose; it can perform reasonable operations with information. A machine, therefore, can think.” Thirty years later, MIT’s Marvin Minsky famously stated: “The human brain is just a computer that happens to be made out of meat.” Today, Harvard geneticist George Church goes further (reports Joichi Ito), suggesting that we should make brains as smart as computers, and not the other way around.

Still, from time to time we do hear new and original challenges to the dominant paradigm. In “Computers Versus Humanity: Do We Compete?” Liah Greenfeld and Mark Simes bring culture and the mind into the debate over artificial intelligence, concepts that do not exist in the prevailing thinking about thinking. They define culture as the symbolic process by which humans transmit their ways of life. It is a historical process, i.e., it occurs in time, and it operates on both the collective and individual levels simultaneously.

The mind, defined as “culture in the brain,” is a process representing an individualization of the collective symbolic environment. It is supported by the brain and, in turn, it organizes the connective complexity of the brain.  Greenfeld and Simes argue that “mapping and explaining the organization and biological processes in the human brain will only be complete when such symbolic, and therefore non-material, environment is taken into account.”

They conclude that what distinguishes humanity from all other forms of life “is its endless, unpredictable creativity. It does not process information: It creates. It creates information, misinformation, forms of knowledge that cannot be called information at all, and myriads of other phenomena that do not belong to the category of knowledge. Minds do not do computer-like things, ergo computers cannot outcompete us all.”

The mind, the continuous and dynamic creative process by which we live our conscious lives, is missing from the debates over the promise and perils of artificial intelligence. A recent example is a special section on robots in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, in which the editors brought together a number of authors with divergent opinions about the race against the machines. All of them, however, do not question the assumption that we are in a race:

  • A roboticist, MIT’s Daniela Rus, writes about the “significant gaps” that have to be closed in order to make robots our little helpers and makes the case for robots and humans augmenting and complementing each other’s skills (in “The Robots Are Coming”).
  • Another roboticist, Carnegie Mellon’s Illah Reza Nourbakhsh, highlights robots’ “potential to produce dystopian outcomes” and laments the lack of required training in ethics, human rights, privacy, or security at the academic engineering programs that grant degrees in robotics (in “The Coming Robot Dystopia”).
  • The authors of The Second Machine Age, MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, predict that human labor will not disappear anytime soon because “we humans are a deeply social species, and the desire for human connection carries over to our economic lives.” But the prediction is limited to “within the next decade,” after which “there is a real possibility… that human labor will, in aggregate, decline in relevance because of technological progress, just as horse labor did earlier” (in “Will Humans Go the Way of Horses?”).
  • The chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, dismisses the predictions regarding the imminent “breakthroughs in information technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence that will dwarf what has been achieved in the past two centuries” and the emergence of machines that are “supremely intelligent and even self-creating.” While also hedging his bets about the future, he states categorically “what we know for the moment is that there is nothing extraordinary in the changes we are now experiencing. We have been here before and on a much larger scale” (in “Same as It Ever Was: Why the Techno-optimists Are Wrong”).

Same as it ever was, indeed. A lively debate and lots of good arguments: Robots will help us, robots could harm us, robots may or may not take our jobs, robots—for the moment—are nothing special.  Beneath the superficial disagreement lies a fundamental shared acceptance of the general premise that we are not different from computers, only have the temporary and fleeting advantage of greater computing power.

No wonder that the editor of Foreign Affairs, Gideon Rose, concludes that “something is clearly happening here, but we don’t know what it means. And by the time we do, authors and editors might well have been replaced by algorithms along with everybody else.”

Let me make a bold prediction. Algorithms will not create on their own a competitor to Foreign Affairs. No matter how intelligent machines will become (and they will be much smarter than they are today), they will not create science or literature or any of the other components of our culture that we have created over the course of millennia and will continue to create, in some cases aided by technologies that we create and control.

And by “we,” I don’t mean only Einstein and Shakespeare. I mean the entire human race, engaged in creating, absorbing, manipulating, processing, communicating the symbols that make our culture, making sense of our reality. I doubt that we will ever have a machine creating Twitter on its own, not even the hashtag.

I’m sure we will have smart machines that could perform special tasks, augmenting our capabilities and improving our lives. That many jobs will be taken over by algorithms and robots, and many others will be created because of them, as we have seen over the last half-century. And that bad people will use these intelligent machines to harm other people and that we will make many mistakes relying too much on them and not thinking about all the consequences of what we are developing.

But intelligent machines will not have a mind of their own. Intelligent machines will not have our imagination, our creativity, our unique human culture. Intelligent machines will not take over because they will never be human.

Originally published on Forbes.com