Is it getting beyond us?

2022-01-03, 11:07am Op-Ed


Sudhirendar Sharma

Sudhirendar Sharma

The boundary between humans and machines is getting blurred as AI adds a nonhuman concept of the world into scientific inquiry, discovery and understanding.

Human intelligence is literally at stake, as Artificial Intelligence (AI) with its ever increasing capacity to learn, evolve and surprise is becoming a ubiquitous enabler. From online shopping to medical research, and from unmanned aeroplanes to autonomous weapons, machines performing human-level intelligence have rapidly become a reality. And, these are not done yet. Using new algorithms and inexpensive computing power, the machines have become capable of producing insights and innovations that are often  beyond humans. With AI assuming a majority of social roles, it is challenging our understanding of reality and our role within it. 

AI is indeed helping the human mind in accessing new vistas, bringing previously unattainable goals within sight. Who would have imagined chess game AlphaZero to outsmart grandmasters by deploying unorthodox tactics. Antibiotic Halicin discovery by an efficient and inexpensive technique remains beyond human conception. On the destructive side, AI-enabled weapons have the potential to launch digital attacks with exceptional speed and make conflicts more difficult to limit. Illustrative as these examples may be, the trouble with AI is that it accesses reality differently from the way humans access it, and therefore generates outcomes which are not only unpredictable but often inconsistent. When intangible software acquires logical capabilities, it is bound to pose challenges to human perception and cognition.   

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and MIT computer scientist Daniel Huttenlocher assess the challenges AI-powered technology poses. They rest their primary discernment on Rene Dascartes’ enlightening promulgation ‘I think, therefore I am’ which reverberates today as a compelling question:‘If AI thinks, then who we are?’. By devising solutions beyond the scope of human imagination, AI will assert the supremacy of nonhuman learning and application. It already does by altering the role our minds have traditionally played in shaping, ordering, and assessing our choices and actions. The authors weigh the future by asking whether or not the humanization of AI-powered devices are creating confusion on what it means to be human, what is intelligence, and what is consciousness?

The boundary between humans and machines is getting blurred as AI adds a nonhuman concept of the world into scientific inquiry, discovery and understanding.  However, the advent of AI obliges us to confront whether we are comfortable with what we know through human reasoning or are prepared to engage with algorithm generated logic.The Age of AI is a reflective primer on a subject that is fast becoming a reality of modern life. It helps raise thought-provoking questions on the impact of AI on our relationships with knowledge, politics, and society. Whether an individual can find space for careful thinking in this emerging future is one matter. 

The authors are convinced that AI is a grand undertaking with profound potential benefits, as it unleashes new scientific breakthroughs, new economic efficiencies, new forms of security, and new dimensions of social monitoring. However, they are also clear that AI is equally capable of distorting and presenting information that may misguide consumers capacities for independent reasoning. ‘The dilemmas AI raises for societies are profound,’ say the authors. With much of our social and political life dependent on network platforms, securing space for debate and discourse that form public opinion is discerning to uphold democratic principles.

The Age of AI paints a broad brush on AI and its potential to alter the trajectories of societies and the course of history. The game changing features of AI are all but known, and the book doesn’t cut a new ground on that. What it does, however, is to seek ways to make AI auditable – making its processes and conclusions both checkable and correctable. To that effect, Henry Kissinger lends his diplomatic weight to the need for international accords on the use of AI, as the machines are already showing the promise of outstripping some of our mental processes, that will allow us to ‘make peace with them and, in so doing, change the world.’

At an individual level, the book does ring a bell. It lets the reader know that human reasoning and autonomy is at stake, and it is upto us to limit how much of it we intend to bargain for. Should we take AI proclamations by faith, like the proverbial Greek Oracle, from clear evidence that they are superior or should we pick and choose the relevant? In a world where plurality is being marginalised, should we rely on a single voice that delimits our choices. The Age of AI calls upon political leaders, philosophers and theologians to probe AI’s deeper implications in making human life fulfilling. The time to define our partnership with artificial intelligence is squarely upon us. 

The Age of AI 

by Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher

John Murray/Hachette, New Delhi 

Extent: 256, Price: Rs. 799.

Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer and researcher specializing in development issues. He is based in New Delhi, India

First published in Deccan Herald on January 02, 2022