dumbing down

Illustration of a child robot looking at a flower

In a hilarious series of sketches on British comedy show “Little Britain”, Carol Beer — a bank worker, later travel agent, and hospital receptionist — offers the very worst examples of customer service, answering every request by typing it into her computer, waiting for a response, and then telling the customer, “Computer says no”.

But as much as this is a sketch, I think it also hints at something else. We already had bureaucracy, but now we have bureaucracy plus digital incompetence, with processes based on rigid computer programs and people at the mercy of machines (or rather the programmers who created them).

Our reliance on machines to make our decisions for us displaces the most important human elements in favor of cheaper and faster technology. When we do that, we outsource meaning-making, moral judgment, and feeling — which is what a human being is — to machines. We happily submit ourselves to machines and forget that there’s anything else to life. Just look around you — almost everyone is glued to their smartphones.

But our machines and algorithms are not becoming more intelligent. If we think that, we have it backwards! For our technology to work perfectly, society has to dumb itself down to level the playing field between humans and computers. We already force ourselves to think within pre-configured options, talk in emojis, and reduce our persona to a few status updates on social media. We are making idols with eyes that do not see, ears that cannot understand, mouths that cannot convey meaning, and brains that cannot think. The most significant thing about this line of thinking is the dangerous reductionism it represents.

To close the gap between the ease of capturing data and the difficulties of the human experience, we make ourselves perfectly computer-readable. We become digits in a database, dots in a network, symbols in code — and therefore less human.

Today’s computer claims sovereignty over the whole range of human experience, by showing that it “thinks” better than we can. The fundamental metaphorical message is that we are only biological machines. Our nature, our biology, our emotions, and our spirituality become subjects of the second order.

For all this to work many technologists assume that humans are like machines in some ways. From this they move to the proposition that humans are little more than machines. And they finally argue that human beings are machines. Thus it follows that machines become human beings. And from here, the jump to a superintelligent artificial intelligence (AI) is trivial.

But the truth is that machines can’t be humans and vice versa. Computers work with concrete symbols, but feelings, experiences, and sensations aren’t easy to put into symbols. And yet they mean something to us. Machines cannot feel and — just as importantly — cannot understand. Even though machines can simulate parts of the human experience, or play chess or Go, fly a plane, drive a car, or find patterns in a muddle of data — much better than us — they lack a fundamental understanding of the thing they’re doing. Regardless of the enormous progress in machine learning, and AI, in the last few years, and the success in the long term, we have to take this misconception into account.

Leaving aside the philosophical questions of AI, and its viability, the issue becomes mostly pragmatic. Whether or not AI succeeds in the long term, it will nevertheless be both developed and deployed with uncompromising efforts. But if we submit ourselves to semi-intelligent programs, failing to plan for the robot apocalypse will be the least of our worries. We’re already starting to live our lives inside machines. Our smartphones and social media are prime examples. The tragedy is that machines will remain as ordinary and dull as they are today, and overtake us anyway.

The world may be driven by efficient machines, but we don’t have to behave like them. We don’t have to reduce our thoughts and feelings to zeros and ones — equivalent to the grunts of early human language — and convince ourselves that’s just what humans have been all along.

These days, people are desperate to have real connections. To feel heard, understood, cared about, and maybe even loved. No artificial connections, not just another name in a database, and not just another fully automated email or targeted ad.

Perhaps we have even more to fear from people who act as if they are computers than from computers programmed to pretend to be humans.

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