Artificial intelligence is playing an increasing role in our economy and culture. Many predict that it will overtake human intelligence, leading to both exciting and terrible results. There’s no way of knowing what all those ramifications might be, but we do know one thing: machines are not humans and never will be. Keeping the differences between the two in mind provides a helpful perspective.
The power of AI is rooted in taking massive amounts of data that is incomprehensible to the human brain and turning it into information and ultimately knowledge that can be used in automated decision-making. Now that we’ve come to understand that knowledge is the source of wealth — the raw materials to make smartphones and spacecraft were available to us long before we knew what to do with them — that’s a big deal.
There is no doubt that artificial intelligence (and the automation that makes it possible) can be of great benefit to humanity, as we use its strengths to amplify our weaknesses. But knowledge goes about as far as AI can take us, and knowledge has its limits. The degree to which we subordinate our roles as humans to machines will only make the world more, well, robotic. Wisdom – the ability to reflect, discern, perceive and understand complex situations – is vital to civilization, and wisdom is a uniquely human quality.
Consider, for example, the decision whether or not to use the services of a robot pen. I recently saw one in action at a trade show and I must admit it was fun to watch the mechanical arm methodically and melodically write a thank you note in near perfect handwriting. But it was also a little scary to witness the production of what amounts to industrially made-up sentiment. It made me think that “robot pen” is a bit of an oxymoron.
I don’t think anyone who receives a thank you note from a robot will for one moment believe that a human made it. Why? First, it’s too perfect. Using a cursive font won’t fool anyone, and even if the engineers were to program a “mistake” or a scribe, there would be something fake about it. Furthermore, the language in the note should be kept rather general so that it applies to everyone who receives it. That too will subtly telegraph that it didn’t come from a human hand.
It’s true that at some point someone probably drafted the words for the robot to write (although AI can now do that in a rudimentary way too), but that’s a long way from a person sitting down at a desk and five or takes ten minutes to create real, sincere and personal thoughts by hand. The inefficiency of handwriting a note is the point; that’s what makes it special (which is why signatures on Christmas cards stamped by a printing press have always been just as problematic). If a machine does the job, it suggests – basically explains – that the receiver isn’t worth the time it takes to create something personal. It is transactional, not relational. Better to risk not sending a note at all than a machine-produced one.
The robotic pen, like the printing press, can efficiently transmit information. But it can’t conveniently adapt that information to navigate complex relationship dynamics. It cannot pick exactly the right phrasing or gauge the subtlety with which to say something. It cannot convey the sense of value implied by someone who has taken the time to personally write a thoughtful message. Admittedly, this example is far less sophisticated than other more sophisticated AI applications, but the track record of much of what we’ve handed over to machines has revealed the same shortcomings, from phone trees to online help desks, chatbots to the endless spam polluting our inboxes. To blatantly criticize a Power Branding principle just because it can be automated doesn’t mean it should be.
The industrial revolution that started in the 19th century has given way to the information revolution, in which factory workers are increasingly replaced by knowledge workers. I find it interesting that the Encyclopedia of Management has a two-part definition of the term “knowledge worker.” It starts by defining them as “those who acquire, manipulate, interpret and apply information”. That is a task that is becoming more and more automated, a development that we all see and welcome to some extent. But the definition goes on to say that they do this “to perform multidisciplinary, complex and unpredictable work” and “apply expertise in various fields to solve problems, generate ideas or create new products and services.” ” Those are skills that are uniquely human. And therein lies the real value.
AI circles talk about ‘the singularity’, the moment when machines become more intelligent than humans, with each generation of machines then being able to create even more intelligent machines, leaving human intelligence in the dust exponentially. But that’s based on a narrow definition of intelligence, neglecting the role of emotion, nuance, judgment and, yes, wisdom. AI will get better and better at mimicking human characteristics – ‘monkeying’ might be a more appropriate term – but it will never be human. There’s a reason it’s called “artificial.”
A machine can make art, but cannot be in awe of it. The moment you automate a relationship, it is no longer a relationship. And relationships are the things of life.
McKee Wallwork + Co. is an Albuquerque-based advertising agency. This column previously appeared on SmartBrief.com† The Director’s Office is a guest column that provides advice, comments, or information about resources available to business in New Mexico. Email to submit a column for consideration [email protected]