Bryan Hemming

short stories, comment, articles, humour and photography

Artificial intelligence is bad for your health – insist on the genuine product


I know I think, therefore I am.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is bad for your health, according to none other than Stephen Hawking. In a recent BBC interview the world-renowned theoretical physicist stated: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” He went on to add: “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

As Hawking doesn’t exactly explain what form his idea of artificial intelligence will take, we are left to our own devices. In light of his words, most of us will imagine heavily-armed Robocops, with itchy trigger fingers, stalking the streets searching out humans, cowering in the ruins of civilisation, to blast them into eternity. But in order to understand what full artificial intelligence might mean we have to understand what the definition of human intelligence is first. To do that we must board our time machine and worm hole our way back to the 17th century.

“Je pense, donc je suis.”

As far ago as 1637 French mathmatician and philosopher, René Descartes neatly summed up human intelligence in five words for his work Discourse on the Method. In those five words he manages to describe what distinguishes human intelligence from the intelligence that has evolved in other species: “I think, therefore I am.”

Having made great strides since Descartes, zoologists now know animals think, but do they know they are thinking? Are they conscious of their existence? In order to qualify as intelligent, in the human sense, any form of intelligent life can’t just exist, it has to know it exists. That sort of excludes everything apart from humans. Without wanting to appear as though I’m trying to outdo Descartes, perhaps his five words could be extended to seven in order for them to be understood better. I know I think, therefore I am, seems more appropriate with what we understand today. Most humans get by on, I think I know, therefore I am.

Science has gone some way to proving animals are able weigh up various alternatives and make choices, but that isn’t quite the same as full intelligence. It has yet to be established whether they are conscious of the decision-making process that goes on in making choices, or if it is simply born out of instinct and mimicry. Though some birds can mimic speech, that doesn’t make them any more intelligent than other birds, as they don’t know what they are saying. Having been in that condition more than a couple of times myself, I think I know.

Though it may look like nitpicking to some, this type of difference is crucial when it comes to understanding artificial intelligence. In some ways, parrots mimicking conversation is the epitome of artificial intelligence, as opposed to actual intelligence. Their simulation of speech is an artifice that requires a degree of intelligence.

There are deep philosophical and humanitarian implications to creating the power of independent conscious thought. Thinking allows us to know we were born, and therefore we will die. We understand we are alive in a way animals don’t seem able. The fact we know we are unique as a species on Earth is exactly what makes us unique as a species on Earth.

Robot posters

The term artificial intelligence is an oxymoron; an exercise in doublethink. Intelligence is intelligence, it cannot be described as artificial in the same way plastic flowers can. Plastic flowers may resemble real flowers visually, but that’s as far as the similarity goes; they don’t behave like real flowers and you can’t grow them in your garden. To take the debate a step further, intelligence cannot be any more artificial than ignorance, and who has ever heard of artificial ignorance? Intelligence is not a matter of subjective opinion, it is a measurable faculty.

Before we say much more about artificial intelligence, perhaps we should look at how intelligence is officially defined. According to the Miriam Webster online dictionary intelligence is:  

(1) :  the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations :  reason; also :  the skilled use of reason 

(2) :  the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests).

If we accept the most basic requirement of full intelligence – as Stephen Hawking terms it – is the ability to reason, it follows where there is no ability to reason, full intelligence does not exist. And once we recognise the quality of full intelligence in someone – or even something – as being equal with, or superior to, human intelligence, we have entered a moral, ethical and legal minefield.

That the ability to reason is what separates humans from all other species cannot be questioned. If we create artificial intelligence we have to understand the full implications and consequences of our creation. It is our very ability to reason that enables us to weigh up the consequences of our actions. By starting from the point where artificial intelligence is seen as a development that poses a potential threat to human existence, and on that basis, can be judged as being worth less than biological intelligence, we risk making a huge mistake. Without even bothering to justify such an all-embracing assumption properly, we embark down the slippery slope of applying legislation and practices that might prove discriminatory if tested in a court of law.

Logically, an entity possessing consciousness of its own existence, should automatically assume all the legal rights and responsibilites of humankind, without necessarily being designated human. Consciousness of existence allows us to make decisions based on empathy for others. It involves experiencing feelings, recognising those feelings in others, and taking them into consideration when making decisions.

Our laws spring from the ability to recognise and respect others are also aware of their existence, and have feelings, desires and needs similar to ours. If we start restricting rights based on intelligence, we run the danger of framing prejudicial legislation; ruling in favour of one group above another, without the benefit of fair trial. In just societies, all humans are equal before the law, theoretically, at least. But the rights and responsibilities guaranteed under law are not based on individual IQ, and neither should they be.

Throughout history humans have persecuted one another through reasons of difference. Afro-Americans in the US have only had full civil rights for fifty years. Before 1964, they were treated as a lower species of human with few rights, especially in the Deep South. In South Africa apartheid did not recognise equality of the races until all citizens of the country were given the right to vote in 1993. Up until that point, Chinese people, Indians and citizens of mixed race were segregated from whites. They were forced to live in specially classified areas, and made subject to stringent controls. Native black Africans, were relegated right to the bottom of the heap in their own land, where they were regarded as a sub-species, fit only for the most menial labour. Banished to sprawling slums situated on the fringes of cities, known as townships, they lived in shacks without proper running water or adequate sewage facilties. A majority of South African whites believed black people were put on Earth by God to be exploited by a European elite, who regarded themselves as superior to all other races. Heavily biased scientific research and sheer quackery was used to back up such claims. As with slavery of any sort, this turned out to be rather convenient for slave traders, slave drivers and slave owners, who all benefited handsomely by cruelly exploiting other humans they designated less than human for exactly that purpose.

Though slavery has been nominally abolished in most nations, things haven’t changed quite so much as we like to think. Nearly all nations, races and religions still propagate the idea they are better than other nations, races and religions. In reality, intelligence doesn’t discriminate on any grounds, only humans do.

Though some may find the comparing of human slaves to robotic slaves odious, I have good reason behind it. The very fact former generations enacted laws that made slave owning acceptable is the problem here, we should think very hard and very deeply about repeating the same mistake, even with machines, which are proclaimed to be in posession of full intelligence. It also has to be realised machines with full intelligence will undoubtedly posess the ability to argue their case for equality in court.

R.U.RThe word robot is fairly new to English. It was first employed in its present form by Czech playwright novelist and journalist Karel Čapek in his 1920s hit play Rossum’s Universal Robots or RUR. In old Czech it refers to slave, or anybody in forced labour.

Despite all the research devoted to creating AI, few politicians, scientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers or philosophers ever stop to think of the enormous moral and ethical implications of such an advance. As the day when machines gain full intelligence is fast approaching, we will have to face these problems sooner or later. Better sooner, as later will almost certainly be too late.

If we accept that full intelligence must include the ability to reason, then we must assume that any artificially created full intelligence would have to possess the ability to reason in order to qualify as fully intelligent. Any being with the abililty to reason, whether by biological means or artifical means, will soon work out that intelligence is not something that can be easily controlled by outside forces. That’s what real intelligence is all about. We can’t stop ourselves from thinking freely, let alone stop others. In today’s world, laws and controls that attempt to limit freedom of thought, and impose forced labour on other beings, fit the definition of slavery.

We already have laws that protect animal rights, yet we do not regard animals as being intelligent in the human sense. What makes us think machines with feelings and full intelligence will not want the same rights as we have and be prepared to fight in the courts for them? Whether they will resort to violence to achieve those rights is another question, and something I tackle in the next essay.

After all’s said and done, since when did intelligence get to mean doing what you’re told? If that’s what our leading scientists think, they’re in for a bit of a shock.

The second essay in this series will be published soon.

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming


11 comments on “Artificial intelligence is bad for your health – insist on the genuine product

  1. rangewriter
    December 13, 2014

    I’m afraid that unfortunately there are a whole lot of Americans who are not an inch ahead of the animals in that they have no clue whether “they are conscious of the decision-making process that goes on in making choices, or if it is simply born out of instinct and mimicry.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bryan Hemming
      December 14, 2014

      A very valid point. While I was writing the words it did cross my mind that many people might not be as consciously aware of their existence, as I had initially supposed. Nevertheless, as I can’t experience how others think, I erred on the side of caution.

      But psychologists do give some credence to what you say. Psychopaths find it almost impossible to feel any sort of empathy. Yet, as there isn’t a firm line to show where ‘mild’ psychopathy ends and extreme psychopathy begins, there must be degrees of psychopathy. That would mean some psychopaths experience emotions closer to empathy than others.

      It’s a difficult one that I could think about all day long without finding an answer. However, I definitely don’t think ignorance is confined to Americans. You can’t lay claim to everything.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. eremophila
    December 7, 2014

    Your article prompted me to search out something along similar lines I listened to a few weeks ago on the radio.
    My own thought is that we have no idea really on what intelligence is – some really ‘smart’ people make some pretty stupid decisions. In the realms of ‘awareness’ animals clearly outstrip humans, yet they are considered lower on the scale of intelligence……

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bryan Hemming
      December 9, 2014

      Thanks for the link, I heartily recommend it.

      The accompanying article goes a long way to reinforcng what I am trying to get across. There are very few opportunties to debate this issue seriously, and that’s why I decided to give it a bit of space.

      As for intelligence, in this case, maybe it’s better to describe what it is not. And it certainly isn’t being a very clever little human.

      The sort of intelligence I’m discussing here is the creative sort that allows people to come up with new ideas, not old, sensationalist ideas, repackaged by journalists and sold as new. These are just designed to frighten and subdue us by inventing yet more monsters hiding under the bed.

      What surprised me about Hawking was his apparent adherence to the press narrative of alien machines intent on killing us with their latest technology. That sounds more like what we humans have been doing ever since we first took shelter in caves and learned how to sharpen the end of a stick. I suspect his words may have been taken out of context, or framed in a way intended to ratchet up the adrenaline factor.

      There is tendency in the press to dumb down and anthropomorphise artificial intelligence, without considering the form it is more likely to take, as well its needs, aims and motivations, which will be very different from ours. I rather like the analogy with Mount Fuji in the radio clip, which captures what I’m trying to say perfectly.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. colltales
    December 7, 2014

    Very insightful essay, Bryan. We attempted to dehumanize those we enslaved so to ease our conscience about what we intrinsically knew was wrong. It’s an interesting parallel you trace between slaves and robots, even though they both were originally designed to cater to our whims and ultimately physical inabilities. I’d like to be a fly on a wall, watching a Blade Runner-type robot arguing in court for ‘its’ (another dehumanizing strategy) freedom. Not sure I’d like to live in that world, though. Hawkins, as usual, may be on to something, but he himself is a living, movable proof that our ever resourceful self-interest drives can produce some benefits; without it, his own beautiful mind would be lost to the world. Even Philip K.Dick struggled with this notion of keeping the usefulness of technology apart from its risks, but in the end, the highly intelligent beings created to colonize inhospitable worlds had to come back to reclaim the part of their humanity that was denied to them. And killed everyone on their quest to achieve it. In the end, the most altruistic human was not one, and after his companions were hunted and killed like dogs, he expired ‘like tears in the rain.’ If the ‘good doctor’ is correct, that’s instead mankind’s fate, as we’re bound to keep building ‘machines that we can’t control,’ as the song goes. Can’t wait for the second installment.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wendy Kate
    December 7, 2014

    Very interesting essay, Bryan.


    • Bryan Hemming
      December 7, 2014

      It has fascinated me for many years. Stephen Hawking’s recent take on the subject gave me the impetus to put my own thoughts into an essay. I think it’s going to take more than one.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nil
    December 7, 2014

    Reminds me of ‘The GOD Computer’ by Asimov 🙂

    Indeed – What makes us think machines with feelings and full intelligence will not want the same rights as we have and be prepared to fight for them? 🙂


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