The rapid advance of computer technology in recent decades has produced a vast array of intelligent machines that far outstrip the human mind in speed and capacity.
With all the rapid advances in computer technology, are we humans moving toward a day when we will be able to “turbo-charge” the mind? Will we soon develop machine-enhanced super-human intelligence? I’m not sure if the prospect of us becoming prodigiously smart cyborgs is exciting or terrifying, but I’m also not sure it’s realistic.
Take our so-called “smart technology.” It was not so long ago that you needed separate devices for taking photos, listening to music, surfing the web, checking email, and talking on the phone. These days, you can do all that and more on one attractively designed, lightweight device. We may call that a “smart phone” but that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere close to being genuinely smart, not in the way humans are. It does lots of things and it’s not very big, but that’s not enough to make it smart in any significant sense. What manufacturers call “smart technology” is not really smart, so we shouldn’t let the labeling mislead us.
Granted, we have developed some technology that has surpassed human intelligence in certain feats. Take Deep Blue, the chess machine that beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov back in the nineties. Although Kasparov is a remarkably smart human being, he was no match for the superior “brainpower” of Deep Blue. But what exactly does this power amount to? Certainly, Deep Blue is better and faster than even the smartest humans at calculating chess moves. That’s a very limited capacity—not something that, by itself, deserves to be called intelligence. If you asked Deep Blue to do something that any five-year-old could do, like get milk from the fridge, it would be stumped! How’s that intelligence?
You might think that although Deep Blue doesn’t have the kind of intelligence that surpasses human intelligence in all or even most domains, the fact that we can create machines that are superior to us, even in this limited capacity, suggests that we are moving in the direction of having genuinely smart technology, and that someday soon we will develop machines that truly deserve to be called “intelligent.” Indeed, Deep Blue is old news by now. Today we have platforms like Siri, that apparently “understand” natural language, which definitely seems like technological progress. But can we really say we’re moving any closer to something like human intelligence in machines?
Let’s return to the example of the five-year-old getting milk from the fridge, a pretty basic task by human standards. As simple as it is, it does involve a lot of very different capacities. First, the child has to be able to understand the request, which requires knowing English (or some other natural language). Then she has to be able to navigate her environment—she has to be able to get to the fridge without bumping into other objects, figure out how to open the door, and so on. On top of that, she has to be able to recognize milk among the many objects in the fridge. As far as I know, there’s no machine that can successfully accomplish basic tasks like that, never mind more complicated tasks.
What’s the point here? The point is that intelligence is not simply a matter of computing power. Deep Blue may be faster at retrieving information and calculating possibilities than humans, and if that’s all we mean by “intelligence” then sure, we’ve already built intelligent machines. But it’s nothing like human intelligence, so it’s not especially interesting in this context. Certainly, human intelligence is partly explained by computational speed and capacity, but that can’t be the full story or robots would already be fetching milk from the fridge, making tea, and asking if we’d like cookies with it.
The upshot is that if we are to build genuinely intelligent machines, we first need to figure out exactly what intelligence is, and what kinds of systems are capable of being intelligent. Only then can we realistically talk about “turbo-charging” the mind by incorporating intelligent technology into our bodies.
Of course, we already are incorporating technology into our bodies—we have pace-makers, artificial hips, cochlear implants, and so on. You can have a sub-dermal chip with your medical info implanted into your hand, if that’s your kind of thing. Google Goggles, which allow us to see the non-virtual world with all kinds of information virtually superimposed, have already been invented and maybe they’ll soon create a contact lens version. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time till we get nanotech phone or remote control implants. And that could happen whether or not we ever build intelligent machines. So, the more technology advances, whether it’s truly intelligent or not, the more and more we will be able to merge with machines. A cyborg future of sorts definitely could be in the cards for humans.
The question then is, will merging more and more with technology make us super-intelligent, or will it make us super-dumb? We already offload a lot of our cognitive work onto objects in our environment, which allows us to be efficient, but, it could be argued, also makes us stupid and lazy. Ever since I’ve had a cell phone, for example, I can’t remember anyone’s number. I’ve also become a really bad speller because I don’t need to remember exactly how to spell anymore. If I get close enough, the spell-checker will do the rest of the cognitive work for me. I even use a GPS device to get from my office to the bathroom down the corridor. Okay, it’s not quite that bad. Yet.
But there is a real danger of us becoming slaves to technology, less and less capable of doing things for ourselves. So, we need to ask whether all these technological advances ultimately increase or decrease our intelligence. And if it turns out they really can increase our intelligence, is that a goal we even ought to have? I mean, what’s the ultimate point here? Are we going to become wiser or happier as a result of becoming smarter? Will merging with the machine make us kinder to one another? Or is there a danger that we will lose our essential humanity the more we incorporate technology into our lives and into our bodies?