As machines conduct more and more of our thinking for us, life requires us to heighten our awareness regarding the kinds of thinking that truly make us human. The following is a cautionary look at technology’s growing influence over our mental experience and some practical approaches to reaffirm the biological dimensions of our thinking. It is in our experiences of the interface between our minds and our bodies that we stay transcendent of technological advances and more attendant to genuine human fulfillment.
Hello Barbie, Goodbye Human Connection
Barbie is upping her game.
A new talking Barbie, “Hello Barbie,” launches this holiday season. Prepare yourself. Not only is she able to listen and respond to your child’s natural conversations with her, she also remembers what is shared with her in order to adapt future conversations toward your child’s interests. By many accounts, her voice and thinking mirror (and perhaps exceed) the attributes of a best friend. This new interactive Barbie is a clear representation of where the field of artificial intelligence (AI) is taking companionship. As with the holiday launch of the Nintendo Wii system in 2006, the public response will be one of equal parts awe and apprehension. The line between self and toy is once again becoming seriously smudged.
One of our first encounters with an artificial superintelligence was dramatically portrayed by “Hal” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Such a future seemed far away at the time. More recent movies such as Ex Machina and Her show us a more earth-based and near-at-hand prospect. Here we see presented the slippery slope between humans and machines we are already traveling. Machines that can outsmart us in some ways are already greeting us in forms no more alien than the phone you hold in your hand. These “not yet self-aware beings” are not only much smarter than us in some respects, but capable of exhibiting many of the behaviors we’d expect of human friends.
How far away is a future where such gadgets become self-aware? There is general agreement among scientists that within the next two or three decades, we will have met our nonbiological match. For those dubious about the likelihood of such an event, consider three of the latest achievements in the field of artificial intelligence.
- Watson: A machine has proven able to interpret Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek’s prompts, create independent search strategies, extrapolate data from the web, and select/express a chosen best response—all at a faster pace than the game show’s reigning human champion.
- Deep Blue: Chess engines have been out-strategizing humans since 1997. The most recent achievements involve computers reducing the number of searches of possible moves before making their decisions. Whereas Deep Blue required 200 million searches per second to win in 1997, today’s AI chess champions can run on a standard mobile phone and conduct only 20,000 searches per second in order to beat a human chess master.
- Eugene Goostman: Chat bots can now converse with humans with enough embedded idiosyncracies that users can’t tell they are talking to a machine. In 2014, a chatterbot going by the name of Eugene Goostman was able to use humor and other forms of misdirection to convince judges he was a 13-year-old boy. Machines like Goostman now come very close to mirroring the creative and impulsive verbal expressions of an adult human.
It is not hard to imagine a near-future Barbie that has the combined intelligence of Watson, Deep Blue, and Goostman.
“Oh, Barbie, Susie didn’t invite me to her birthday party. I’m so sad. What should I do to get her to like me?”
Current Barbie may answer, “That sounds like a question you should ask a grown-up.” But imagine a near-future Barbie responding with a chess master’s logic, access to comprehensive databases on child interactions, and the ability to express her solutions with culturally cool vocabulary.
Whether imbued with actual self-awareness or not, she would be near enough to human to keep your child captivated for hours. It’s not a hard scenario to imagine.
Frankly, we must admit to ourselves our toys have already become somewhat more interesting to us than our human companions.
Let’s take a moment to let the significance of that last sentence percolate.
Now ask this: What does a biological friend have to offer that a machine can never attain?
Slow and Fast Thinking
Machines assist us primarily in what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls the “slow thinking” of complex problem solving. They help with tasks requiring prolonged attention—like reading in a second language, map reading, or doing algebra. In the realm of slow thinking, sustained cerebral focus is paramount and biology serves as unnecessary distraction.
It’s no wonder, then, that we love our machines, as they allow us to artificially reach beyond our physiological limits. We rely on Google Translate to do our interpreting for us, Waze to find our quickest route through traffic, and MathPapa to show the work while doing our algebra homework for us.
Our success at machine-assisted slow thinking increases our productivity, speeds access to goods, and radically expands our social reach. By these measures of wealth, letting our computers do our slow thinking makes us more successful at everything we do.
What a shocker, then, to realize we are not happier for it. On the contrary, studies show that our subjective well-being is connected not to success but to how we focus our thinking.
While the mind lends itself to technology, the body defies us from merging with it. We grow tired even with our favorite toys. Unlike the nonbiological gadgets, friends, and teachers that now surround us, we remain tied to our deepest existential instincts for basic instruction on how to find meaning and happiness. No Best Friend Barbie will ever help us to respond fully to matters of craving, intimacy, death, and grace. Even if Barbie’s brain fired with the same number of artificial neurons, we are best served by our fellow humans for guidance on being mortal. Why? Humans alone share the instinctual awareness of their own mortality. This awareness seemingly always manages to catch us by surprise.
Instinctual Instruction at Work
We decide to run and are quickly faced with our deep bindings to the physical world; gravity and traction slowing us down, muscles and bone struggling to coordinate, skin and blood responding to slight changes in temperature, what is inside the body and what is out in constant dialogue.
Suddenly we trip over a dip in the earth and the dialogue transforms into one of immediate hazards. We undergo a full systemic threat response to the coming concussion between flesh and asphalt; shunting off breath and blood flow, perceptions of time shorten to highlight the imminent fall. Countless automatic transformations of the nervous system kick in as the hands reach out to brace for impact.
Just as suddenly, we catch ourselves before falling and avert the minor catastrophe. Another of life’s mini-shocks has, nonetheless, arrived to astonish us—recalling in us the leftover distress from times we weren’t so lucky, foreshadowing some of the more permanent surprises to come, providing a sneak peek at that final cliff edge that awaits us all.
This kind of thinking, which Kahneman calls “fast thinking,” is organized by a sensational orientation with our surroundings. It accounts not only for our felt experiences while using our bodies (as shown above) but also for the manner in which we conduct our most simple operating procedures (reading, driving, counting). It is our fast thinking that largely determines our happiness, for it is responsible for how we are spending our time.
The influence of our biology within our fast thinking is so pervasive and familiar that it’s frequently hidden from view. Each fast thought arrives embedded around a cluster of past and present biological changes occurring just outside of our attention. The world at this level appears to us painted by an unseen artist—sometimes murky, other times crisp—surreptitiously adding color and then taking it away.
Studies on human well-being show us that the most fulfilled humans are those who maintain a healthy balance of moods and the transient emotional states of pleasure and pain, including a successful cognitive coding of present and past affects. All these elements are inherent to our fast thinking processes. Try asking Barbie for help with that!
Self-Actualization and Why It Matters
Being both a cerebral (slow-thinking) and experiential (fast-thinking) creature is no simple task. Machines continue to assist us with much of the heavy lifting of prolonged mental activities, thus shortening the time required to be our increasingly productive selves. Yet they also threaten to enslave us by pinging our attention to meaningless, machine-like activities. When bored or overly challenged by life, we take refuge in the guaranteed problem-solving worlds of Candy Crush, the artificially enhanced companionship of Facebook, and the voyeuristic intimacies of YouTube. These make the work of thinking, socializing, and amusing ourselves much simpler, but they don’t necessarily help us become our fuller, happier selves.
Human joy is a biological challenge and requires from us our own biological solutions.
Self-actualization is a term coined by Abraham Maslow over 50 years ago referring to the goals of his most “emotionally healthy” clients. In his studies, he described the activities of those who had their basic needs gratified and were seeking a higher purpose in their lives. Maslow defined the qualities of their deeply human activities as including:
- keen sense of reality; aware of real situations
- see problems in terms of challenges and situations requiring solutions, rather than see problems as personal complaints or excuses
- need for privacy and comfortable being alone
- reliant on own experiences and judgment; independent; not reliant on culture and environment to form opinions and views
- accepting others as they are and not trying to change people
- comfortable with oneself, despite any unconventional tendencies
- a few close intimate friends rather than many surface relationships
- sense of humor directed at oneself or the human condition
- spontaneous, creative, inventive, and original
- seek peak experiences that leave a lasting impression
As we see from Maslow’s list, most activities are oriented toward improving relations with nature and one’s fellow living beings. They embody inherent values that no machine can inspire from us. They are derived instead from the spontaneous biological energy of one’s whole being: a composite of one’s deeply personal and deeply social selfhood.
When bored or overly challenged by life, we take refuge in the guaranteed problem-solving worlds of Candy Crush, the artificially enhanced companionship of Facebook, and the voyeuristic intimacies of YouTube. These make the work of thinking, socializing, and amusing ourselves much simpler, but they don’t necessarily help us become our fuller, happier selves.
It’s hard to say how Maslow might have adapted these qualities to our current technology-saturated existence. Self-actualized people do not shun their environment, he said, but rather seek solutions for society as it is. Yet we can also deduce from his list that best practices come from those who have found their own unique answers to the conditions of human suffering, not from nonbiological programs that occupy our minds in an imagined dimension where such problems have been rendered moot.
Like it or not, we are already having our biological instincts trained out of us by our machine companions.
When is the last time you heard a navigation device tell you, “Come on, see if you can remember this time. It’s OK if you get lost.”?
Would you be willing to install a Facebook filter that warned, “Think twice before sending this; the ‘likes’ you’ve been receiving lately have not been authentic.”?
Will Siri ever learn to prompt us to put her down and learn to tolerate our boredom?
Our focus on having machines do our slow thinking for us is fast reaching its natural endpoint. As they assume an increasing role as our teachers, it’s now time to advance a new level of humanity into our gadgets. Fast thinking prowess is something only a human being can teach a machine. It has little to do with productivity, strategizing, or winning over new friends. It has everything to do with experience, emotional depth, attunement with nature, and instinct.
In conclusion, in order to educate Barbie in best practices for raising fully human children, I’d like to suggest some new expressions for her, borrowed from Maslow’s list of self-actualized values.
“Wait for it.”
Let’s see how long we can simply pay attention to what’s going on right now.
“How does that feel in your body?”
Let’s see if we can discriminate thoughts from sensations.
“Why not just try it?”
Let’s do something you are unskilled at to see if it might become fun.
“Go ahead and disagree with them.”
Let’s practice having unpopular opinions and speaking up about them gracefully.
“It’s OK to change your mind.”
Let’s see if we can really understand what they are thinking. They might have a point.
“Stop what you are doing right now and go outside.”
Yes, let’s do that.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Kahneman, D., Diener, E., & Schwarz, N. (1999). Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Kahneman, D., Krueger, A., Schkade, D., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A.A. (2006, June 30). Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion. Science 312, 5782:1908-10.
- Maslow, A. (1993). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.
- Vlahos, J. (2015). Barbie Wants to Get to Know Your Child. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/magazine/barbie-wants-to-get-to-know-your-child.html?_r=0
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