Natural responses to technological change

This music was composed by a prolific, young composer named Emi. During a brief career, Emi created thousands of works, many of them in the style of famous composers, such as Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin. These compositions have been described as moving, soulful, emotional. In many ways, Emi may prove to be one of the most important composers of the age. Emi is also a computer program.

When many listeners first learn the nature of these compositions, particularly after believing they were created by a person, their opinion of the work changes dramatically. Music they previously called soulful or inspiring becomes calculating, stilted, even mechanistic. This points to a human chauvinism about the growing intelligence of our machines which we would be wise to examine. As with so many developments in artificial intelligence, there seems to be resistance against any encroachment into what we regard as the realm of human intellect. Just as chess masters once denigrated the abilities of chess-playing computers, each new hurdle in AI will probably be met with similar resistance.

Though it may sound a little strange, I’m going to suggest that this response follows a pattern similar to Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Grief is a normal response to loss and it may be that many people feel they are losing something crucial when technology begins to take on functions previously exclusive to humans. Obviously, disbelief is a common enough reaction to new and developing technology, but it’s hard to maintain for long in the face of direct evidence. Emi’s creator, University of California, Santa Cruz professor, David Cope, has reported considerable anger from listeners in response to Emi’s work, as well as his later program, Emily Howell.

It’s almost as if the listener felt tricked or cheated once they discovered the music was created by an artificial intelligence rather than a natural one. As for bargaining and depression, I suspect these are not unfamiliar to people who have seen their career plans radically altered by the continually shifting technological landscape.

Then there’s acceptance. So much AI has been accepted that most of us no longer categorize it as AI at all. When was the last time you used spell check, or a voice menu or played a video game and acknowledged the leaps in artificial intelligence that made them possible? Typically, we don’t. They simply become another piece of the background of our technologically enhanced lives.

All of these are probably very natural responses. We humans have considered ourselves to stand at the pinnacle of intelligence for so very long. Nothing in the animal kingdom even comes close to the height of human achievement and for the most part, our machines are even further down the scale. Many will argue that the types of intelligences exhibited by these machines is very limited and domain-specific. That they are examples of weak AI – sets of rules and knowledge bases and Bayesian pattern recognition algorithms. There’s no way any of these could ever develop into something that would rival our marvelous minds.

But more and more evidence is indicating that our brains are themselves composed of myriad subsystems which together make up the sum total of our intellect. Marvin Minsky’sSociety of Mind” describes the concept very well. Why shouldn’t an artificial general intelligence be composed of modules, agents and subsystems too?

With each new leap in machine intelligence, we come a little closer to slipping from our pinnacle on Mount Intellect. Lightning-fast calculation, expert diagnostic systems, face and image recognition, real-time voice translation. Exponential improvements in both hardware and software are rapidly driving us into a new era. It will be an era in which we’ll likely share the stage of superior intelligence with many other players. That is, we will if we’re lucky.