Over this past weekend, I was having a conversation with one of my favourite philosophers about a couple of books that he has recently read, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and the follow-up Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, both by Yuval Noah Harari. In particular, there was a passage from Homo Deus that he was very keen to share with me (because it was about my favorite Baseball team) that sparked an idea for how to respond to your last post.
Where we left off was Neuromorphic chips and robots being able to not only have feelings but to recall those feelings just as human beings do. And in that lies the rub. Sure, a robot can replicate a lot of things that humans can do and this blog (and the many others like it) will be teeming with excitement over how this is all progressing, but does that make them human?
However, before I get to that, I should share where this journey has taken me. As I looked into Neuromorphic chips, I became fascinated with reinforcement learning. One of my worries previously was about ‘who was teaching the robots’, but companies like DeepMind are teaching the robots to teach themselves through trial & error, just like humans do. In a nutshell, this approach pretty much involves giving robots goals to complete without giving them specific strategic training on how to complete them.
One of the most mind-blowing (and news generating) stories that I (and a few million other people) came across happened when some of Facebook’s robots who were being taught to negotiate invented a language of their own, and of others that learned how to lie in order to close the deal.
Now that one got me. Because of course my belief is that we have nothing to fear from robots and that people need to be turning their minds to all of the exciting new possibilities that will exist for us once we’re no longer required to perform all of the mundane, everyday tasks that human beings need to do in order to free us up to do the things that we want to do. But if robots can lie, then maybe Elon Musk is right and we should be scared of AI.
With my limited knowledge of programming and technology, I have always felt confident in the belief that human beings were the ones writing the code that will govern robots’ behavior. I don’t know who wrote this, but I took solace in the belief that the ability to reason creatively and independently is what would separate us from the machines. Using that ability, humans write the rules. And then all of a sudden, we’re not writing the rules. And even when we do write the rules, the robots are learning not to follow them.
And while that’s scary, there is still joy in it. We have robots writing songs (check out Bot Dylan, the robot that writes folk songs), producing new styles of art, and even a movie. It seems that almost every day there is a new mind-blowing story about something a robot is doing, like humans.
Only they aren’t doing them like humans. They are doing them like robots who are mimicking humans, based on data sets that we provide them. Somewhere inside all of these remarkable things that we’re watching robots learn to do are rules. (Hopefully including the Zeroth Law of Robotics as Rule #1).
This was where my conversation went to this weekend. In a world where robots will be able to do everything we can do, what will our role be? Phil shared a passage from Homo Deus about the Oakland Athletics, which was basically a summary of the book Moneyball. The passage referred to how Billy Beane (the General Manager of the A’s) used algorithms to find statistics that were more useful in constructing a winning Baseball team and suggested that Baseball scouts fought against this change because they believed that selecting promising Baseball players was an art form, whereas Moneyball proved them wrong.
Only it didn’t. The A’s haven’t won a World Series in the Billy Beane era. There are too many little moments that happen in Baseball, and in life, that robots can’t account for. A robot’s optimum baseball team, painting, song lyric and so on will be based on rules. The legendary Bill Bernbach once said, “rules are what the artist breaks, the memorable never emerged from a formula.”
It’s not our ability to reason creatively and independently that separate us from machines. It’s human beings’ ability to create art that breaks rules and weaves our unique, individual stories into a shared experience that gives meaning to our lives that robots will never be able to take away from us.