Sunday, March 26, 2017

Humane Humanoids vs. Mercantile Homo Sapiens

© Huma Shah March 2017

The fear of intelligent machines draws analogies with Luddites’ rejection of 19th-century industrial methods, increasing production at the cost of human labour, and 21st century concerns over foreigners taking jobs.

The 4th Industrial Revolution’s intelligent technologies will execute many jobs we humans do, but much better, in all sorts of industries including financial, legal, education and transportation. Machines will observe the results of their behaviour, modify their own programmes “so as to achieve some purpose more effectively” (Turing, 1950, p.449). Such intelligent machines are not the biggest existential risk to our species. The mercantile human is and has been throughout history.

The human species is a mercantile breed for whom trade has eclipsed benevolence over the centuries. Past great empires were enriched on the backs of human slaves (Frankopan, 2016). Vegetarian Leonardo Da Vinci’s ingenuity included military designs that could throw inflammable materials causing serious injury to enemies of the 15th century Milanese (White, 2001).

Humanity’s penchant for personal pleasure through cruelty to others is viscerally captured in the new TV series Westworld (2016). It depicts a future game world in which wealthy guests, the outsiders are hosted by humanoids on whom the vilest acts can be perpetrated through depraved scenarios designed by the narrative department at the adventure park. Human visitors act out their desires inflicting pain, after which each robot’s memories are wiped to erase the suffering in a session: “these violent delights lead to violent ends” (Shakespeare, quoted in Westworld, 2016). We need only open a newspaper on any given day and learn what horrors we humans wreak on each other.

Nonetheless, “limitations of the human intellect” (Turing, 1950, p.445) require us to develop smart machines. Guidelines on future and emerging technologies (Palmerini et al., 2014), applied by multidisciplinary teams learning from and reducing mistakes of the “sufficiently elaborate” machines (Turing, 1951, p. 473; Shah, 2013), even if they do “outstrip our feeble powers” could ensure they do not “take control” (p. 475).  Advances in intelligent technologies, through the following of instruction and learning from experience, will produce driverless vehicles reducing road casualties, enhance student engagement through deployment of bots in pedagogy, medics diagnosing accurately and sooner, surgical operations increasingly error-free, deep learning programmes improving performance for our savings and investments, conversational humanoids attending the elderly and the unwell for dignified living, sophisticated programmes helping us to harness nature and prevent damage from weather-related disasters, and all-seeing machines (Person of Interest, 2015), monitoring to protect our privacy and secure us from cyber-criminals. Why would we not want this future?

Anxiety over future machines intent on malfeasant behaviour is valid, but so is the dread of the Homo sapiens who have put aside humane actions to ensure competitive trade advantages for their own particular group. Cooperative interdisciplinary human teams constructing social, cultural, ethical, moral and legally-binding technologies could lead to equitable sharing of the planet’s natural resources. Artificial Intelligence does not have to be a threat to humankind, it can help us to preserve our species for longer.

© Huma Shah March 2017

Frankopan, P. 2016. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Bloomsbury Paperback, London UK.
Palmerini, E., Azzarri, F., Battaglia, F., Bertolini, A., Carnevale, A., Carpaneto, J., Cavallo, F., Di Carlo, A., Cempini, M., Controzzi, M., Koops, B.J., Lucivero, F., Mukerji N., Nocco, L., Pirni, A., Shah, H., Salvini, P., Schellekens, M. and Warwick, K. 2014. Guidelines on Regulating Robotics. Deliverable D6.2 EU FP7 RoboLaw project: Regulating Emerging Robotic Technologies in Europe-Robotics Facing Law and Ethics, SSSA-Pisa.  Report accessible from
Shah, H. 2013.  Conversation, deception and intelligence: Turing’s question-answer game. Chapter in Cooper, S.B. and van Leeuwen J. (Eds), Alan Turing: His Work and Impact, pp. 614-620. Elsevier.
Turing, A.M. 1951. Intelligent Machinery, A Heretical Theory. In Copeland, B.J. (Ed). The Essential Turing: The ideas that gave birth to the computer age. Oxford University Press, UK
Turing, A.M. 1950. Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind, Vol 59(236), 433-460
Westworld. 2016. HBO:
White, M. 2001. Leonardo Da Vinci: The First Scientist. Abacus paperback edition, London, UK.