The Artificial Intelligence Threat: Heart vs. Hardware

New York Times social philosopher and mustachioed Minnesotan Thomas Friedman recently wrote a column about the existential crisis facing humanity as artificially intelligent super-computers like IBM’s Watson learn to do things—diagnose patients, write poetry, compose music, design buildings, tell jokes—that only humans are supposed to be capable of.

If a computer can compose a love sonnet, it begs the question: What does it mean to be human in the age of intelligent machines?

To answer that question, Friedman asked Dov Seidman, a “corporate virtue” consultant and author of, How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything, for his input (the title of which should win an award for its zen-like blend of redundancy and grandiosity.)

Now, you might think “corporate virtue” is one of those Orwellian oxymorons that masks the dark designs of the C-suite with the sweet scent of piety. But no, he’s serious. Sounding more like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz than an ethical futurist, the one thing machines will never have is “heart,” Seidman insists, adding that it is through the human capacity for love, compassion, virtue, and imagination that our uniqueness will endure. Quoth Seidman: “The technology revolution is thrusting us into ‘the human economy,’ which will be more about creating value with hired hearts — all the attributes that can’t be programmed into software, like passion, character and collaborative spirit.”

Friedman agrees. I don’t.

Here’s why:

According to a lot of hyper-intelligent people (Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk among them), the threat posed by an advanced from of artificial intelligence that can teach itself and has access, via the Internet, to all the knowledge in the world, is that it might one day decide human beings are expendable. Then there would be a war of some sort, and in the ultimate battle between man and machine, having a heart (whether organic or metaphorical) might be a liability. If our synthetically intelligent, ever-so-logical adversaries don’t care how much heart and passion we have, only how many resources we are gobbling up relative to our pitiful productive utility, we are toast. Besides, they will have listened to all of our conversations and read all our emails, so they’ll know how much human beings hate each other. Knowing this, they will reach the inevitable conclusion that humanity must be destroyed, if only to make way for some other, better creature to crawl up from the muck and take over the world. You know, something like a basset hound or a rabbit, an animal that mostly minds its own business and isn’t so fascinated by the laws of thermodynamics.

There is an intuitive appeal to this version of ultimate doom, because mankind’s head is lofted on a spike of irony. We will be destroyed by a monster of our own making, of course! (Then again, the idea that a hyper-intelligent machine would want to continually improve itself may just be wishful Western thinking. Maybe it would get so smart that it would realize how pointless it is to get any smarter. Or maybe it would just stop learning one day and, like so many people, develop a narcissistic personality disorder and spend the rest of eternity admiring its own genius.)

To comfort readers sipping coffee and contemplating their own extinction, Seidman and Friedman offer a hopeful message, one that attempts to reaffirm the dignity and worth of human beings in a world that is increasingly indifferent to them. Both agree that in the future, when working with your hands is stupid, and working with your head is irrelevant, people will create “social and economic value” with their hearts—most notably in what Friedman calls “STEMpathy” jobs. That is, jobs that combine the intelligence of computers with the compassion of humans, like a doctor who uses IBM’s Watson to help her diagnose and treat patients. (What happens when people no longer need a human doctor to diagnose their ills or prescribe them medication, S and F do not dare say.)

 For the vast swath of humanity that is now finding itself displaced and discarded by the relentless march of technology, S and F don’t offer much hope except to remind us that people are, you know . . . special. What differentiates us from a mindless beasts roaming the savannah is our ability to wonder and dream, to turn the fairy dust of our ideas into nifty stuff we can sell on e-bay. The human heart will always prevail, they say, because to think otherwise would be conceding defeat. Love still conquers all, because in desperate times we cling to clichés that reaffirm what we want to believe, not what we fear might be actually, horribly true.

Never mind that the work done by people who actually use their heart—artists, musicians, writers, poets, philosophers, social workers, mothers, caregivers—has been so systematically devalued that almost no one can make a living at it. As any recent college graduate who studied anything with the word “human” in it is discovering, finding work that “values” an interest in, or empathy for, people is hard to come by. Following one’s “heart,” or “passion,” is in all too many cases a one-way to ticket to minimum wage and misery. Most “heart work” isn’t work at all, it’s charity, or a hobby. Ask any artist. Economically speaking, most of the wage work humans can do that computers can’t—deliver pizzas, mow grass, tile a roof, dance naked, teach literature, wipe a baby’s butt—pays so little that it literally has no value. If, however, you are comfortable bathing your eyeballs in the soothing blue glow of a computer screen all day and are blessed with the temperament of a coder, the opportunities available to you are pretty much endless.  

In almost every way possible, then, our culture is systematically devaluing humanity. Having too much “heart” and not enough calculus is now a serious social and economic liability. Care too much about people and not enough about software algorithms? Welcome to the lower middle class.  

But machines didn’t make this happen: people did.

People decided that the most important things in the world are profit margins and efficiency. It just so happens that to maximize both, it makes more and more sense to take people out of the equation.

People decided that getting an hourly wage for a job was a good way to distribute income. It just so happens that one of the best ways to boost profit margins is to keep wages low.

Artificial intelligence may be a problem in the future, but the problem confronting us now is human intelligence—specifically, the lack thereof. For almost two-hundred years (since Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818), sci-fi books, movies, and TV shows by the thousands have warned us about the dangers of putting too much faith in technological progress. As always, however, it’s the humans behind the machines—the ones who create, own, and operate them—that are the real threat.###