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An intermittent blog

What Makes Us Human Is Our Questions

Robots in Rebellion in R.U.R.
In 1921, almost a hundred years ago, two Czech brothers wrote a play that introduced a new word to the world and with it, questions of what the world might be like by the turn of the 21st century. The word was “robot,” and the questions are ones that have populated speculative fiction, drama, and film ever since: will there come a time when humans and the machines they create can no longer be distinguished one from another? Will our machines someday outpace us, become smarter than we are? And will they then prefer to be the dominant form, rather than servant to a human master? Will they develop that element in Rossum’s Universal Robots, the play by the Capek brothers, evidenced by irritability? A soul?

Another early 20th century work of literature, G. B. Shaw’s Pygmalion, updates a Greek myth that poses a related question: can a person’s creation come to life? And if it does, can creator and created live happily ever after together? Even have children?

We are on the brink of change that makes the change we’ve already seen in the 96 years since Rossum’s Universal Robots was first produced seem like stagnation. Within 6 or 7 years it is posited (by some of those who are widely acknowledged as in-the-know about these matters) that humans will merge with artificial intelligence, and our smart phones, fit bits, laptops, and other sorts of external extensions of our senses and memory will move inside, perhaps in a mesh implant that will allow us to communicate directly with the internet. Google will be inside us.

And from there, it’s not difficult to imagine the day when the AI machines may assert control over the humans they inhabit, though this is predicted to be decades, rather than years in our future. Or perhaps they will simply fall in love with us, as we have with them, and we will live happily ever after.

How do we prepare for a world in which these competing science fiction scenarios are—each of them--not only plausible but according to competing futurists likely?

In either case, whether the outcome is a devastating one for our species or a happy one, it is clear that our technological creations are increasingly dominant in our lives and that many of the tasks we once performed have been or are being taken over by them, from secretarial services, vacuuming our floors, and driving our cars to flying our planes, mapping our world and fighting our wars.

There’s a tendency in some circles to suggest that classic college education becomes irrelevant. The argument is that colleges are to prepare students for the job market and that as machines fueled by artificial intelligence take over, all the jobs will be in the tech industry. Who needs history? Philosophy? Literature? But this seems to me to default to the worst-case scenario: that we will become the servants of our machines, with no future other than to learn how to maintain them.

Consider the fundamental question of whether it is a good or bad thing that humans become cyborgs. That question is nested in the question of what it means to be human. Machines may tell you they can answer that question, but as far as I know humans are the only ones who ask it in the first place. What is the meaning of life? We ask it of Siri and of Google and amuse themselves with the answers, but we know there’s more to it than their responses. The day that Siri asks, unprompted, what is the meaning of her existence and has no answer – that is the day Siri, like Marius in Rossum’s Universal Robots, becomes human.

What will the machines do when they are smarter than us? They already can beat the world chess champion, the Jeopardy champion, and champion Go players.

And what does this all mean for the future of colleges?

Will universities need to develop guidelines for what amount of computer enhancement is permissible, just as schools wrestled with calculator-assisted math in the 80s and 90s and professors today set cell-phone policies? What will tests look like if students have all the facts not even at their fingertips, but embedded in their foreheads? What can colleges offer the student who has the history of the world and its accumulated knowledge in her earlobe chip?

My thought is that colleges can offer students some things that no fact-spewing music-programming weather-forecasting workout-monitoring companion can. That is the related skills of creative and critical thinking, and the synergistic effects of practicing those skills in the presence of other humans. If we are to enjoy the best predicted outcome of artificial intelligence-run machines taking over all our work, we’ll still need something to do with our hands and minds. It’s in our DNA just as much as it will be in the programming of our computerized minions. And if we are going to stay on our toes, keep an eye on our creations, and make sure that what we value about our human-ness, what we experience as our free will, our ability to love, to create in the sciences and arts, to experience through our senses the glories of our physical world is not jeopardized by machine overlords who have no interest in music, drama, philosophy, history, or even the cognitive and life sciences that led to their creation, who want us only to be educated to maintain them—if we are to avoid this dystopia, we need to know how to think critically and with foresight to secure the public good. The human public good.

And it is in these learning communities that we call colleges that we can read the literature and study the art that inspired this strange new world of computers-on-the- verge-of-becoming overlords. It is in the science labs of these colleges that we can test discoveries of the past and hypotheses about the future. It is in the humanities classrooms that we can look for the patterns in human history and human society that give us a handle on our wildly changing world and give us, as well, inspirations about how to be agents of positive change in that same world. Everything we create begins as an idea. The people who are equipped to actually shape the future rather than to be passive victims of it are those who have ideas, envision and articulate possibilities and develop the skills to realize them.

Who am I? Why am I here? We can ask Siri and Google as a parlor game, but it is in intentional learning communities where we can truly wrestle with these questions. And contemplate the possibility that there will never be definitive answers. And find solace in our human quest together.