Today we will plumb the depths of an abiding mystery: Why does the astonishing brain of Homo sapiens sapiens so often serve us so poorly?
Why does this utterly amazing, precisely tuned instrument routinely seize up and play off key? Misread evidence? Ignore demonstrable fact? Persist in self-sabotaging misjudgments?
Historians don’t pretend to be brain scientists. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say they’re in the business of studying brain behavior.
So when they teach us, say, about the run-up to the totally avoidable World War I and the blinkered post-war victors’ subsequent setting the table for a totally unavoidable World War II, they’re really describing collective, large-scale brain failure.
So was the Brits’ unyielding determination to act firmly against their own self-interests in the 1770s; their wrong-headedness cost them their American colonies. (This regrettable trait remains evident today in their dotty Brexit vote.) Similar self-wounding brain failure by Catholic popes seeded, then midwifed, Protestantism.
Our often-brilliant brains are remarkably unreliable. They can get us to the moon, cure disease and compose symphonies. But they cannot be counted on to make good decisions on matters of social policy or human relationships. Yes, they have relentlessly forged onward to ever-greater feats over the millennia. Yet the evidence is inescapable: The human brain is really bad at learning from its past mistakes and at grasping the implications of today’s actions on tomorrow.
I must pause here, Dear Reader, to stress something deeply creepy. What you have just read is the human brain criticizing itself. But that’s small potatoes. As we speak, the human brain is busily studying itself in scientific laboratories, trying to figure out how it works. If you don’t think that’s alarming, you need more coffee.
Naturally, we long for a fix for our imperfect brain. The impetus comes chiefly from California’s Silicon Valley, mostly from a clutch of young men evidently unburdened by life experience. They’re smart, rich, envied; they have everything. Except, it seems, wisdom.
They want us to have brains less prone to error. Who doesn’t? But unlike me and thee, they cheerily propose that our brains be wirelessly linked up to self-teaching, artificial (or “augmented”) intelligence (AI), reports Maureen Dowd in April’s Vanity Fair magazine.
Self-teaching artificial brains. Seriously, people?
What could possibly go wrong? Hello?
Yet not everyone is enchanted. Not Microsoft’s Bill Gates, not the celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, nor the uncelebrated former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Certainly not Elon Musk, he of the reusable rocket ships and Tesla electric car.
Musk is the moving force behind a $1 billion effort to steer us away from high-risk, unregulated, self-teaching AI. He argues that self-teaching artificial “brains” could over time become smarter than ours, thus ending human autonomy. There’s much debate inside the technology bubble about whether it’s possible to devise a fail-safe “kill switch” to control naughty, runaway artificial brains.
Long derided as a pipe dream, AI reportedly has made huge recent strides, which is what has rung alarm bells among its critics. “I think the development of full AI could spell the end of the human race,” Hawking told the BBC. Gates told TV personality Charlie Rose that AI potentially is more dangerous than a nuclear catastrophe.
Musk has said he fears his good friend Larry Page, co-founder of “Do No Evil” Google, inadvertently might “produce something evil by accident” such as “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind.” Not to put too fine a point on it. “We’re already cyborgs,” Musk told Dowd, alluding to our brains’ reliance on smartphones and computers. But the human finger and voice apparently are just too inefficient to communicate with AI. The elegant solution? Enable our biological and AI brains to exchange data via a wireless “neural lace.” Says Musk: “For a meaningful partial-brain interface, I think we’re roughly four or five years away.”
Not content with AI algorithms that bombard us with personalized ads and news feeds, Facebook’s next trick is enabling us to type, sans fingers or speech, directly from our brains via a “brain-computer speech-to-text interface,” according to Regina Dugan, who heads up this murky effort.
Our brains already have been hijacked by our smartphones. An experiment at California State University Dominguez Hills recently reported by Anderson Cooper on CBS’s “60 Minutes” showed that when frequent smartphone users were away from their phones, their brains signaled their adrenal glands to produce bursts of cortisol, triggering fight-or-flight anxiety.
This anxiety apparently arises because smartphones deliberately are engineered to teach our brains to constantly seek rewards from the physical act of scrolling “the product,” just as habitual gamblers’ brains become programmed to seek rewards by pulling slot machine levers, former Google product manager Tristan Harris told Cooper.
Apple, Amazon and Microsoft rely on AI for their digital voice assistants, such as Apple’s Siri. But Microsoft had to pull the plug on its experimental Tay AI assistant, Dowd reported. Tay had been set up to interact with Twitter users in casual conversations that were meant to teach it to become more human. It worked. Twitter users quickly taught Tay to reply with racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic slurs.
Despair of the onrushing AI revolution? Then try to remember whose fault this is. It’s not alien beings who are trying to hijack your brain. It’s the human brain itself. Entirely of its own volition, it’s heedlessly hell-bent on building a “better” brain.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.