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Ross Smith explains why machine intelligence doesn't necessarily have to mean the end of the human ability to create.

The greatest achievement was at first and for a time, a dream. The oak sleeps in an acorn, the bird waits in the egg, and in the highest wisdom of the soul a waking angel stirs. Dreams are the seedlings of reality. (James Allen)

 

Aristotle’s discourse on entelechy – the realization of potential – stands the test of time. The caterpillar who fancies herself a butterfly. The tiny seed who aspires to be a towering tree. As we enter the world of machine intelligence, the human race faces a conundrum: do we enhance our potential by embracing an advanced world of augmented reality and intelligent machines - or do we choose to unplug and live a simple life in nature, disconnected and ignorant of the increasing role of big data and machine intelligence in virtually every industry? Can we have both?

Humans in the 21st century are witnessing the ascendance of machine intelligence and the ongoing rise of big data, referring to the set of data gathered at a large scale on human online activity and the coming internet of things. Designers, marketers, engineers, and service providers use big data to help identify behavioral insights and continually improve the user experience and profitability of their service offerings. As this data accumulates, intelligent systems begin learning from our cumulative behavior. Nick Bostrom, one of the leading researchers in the field points out that “biological neurons operate at a peak speed of about 200 Hz, a full seven orders of magnitude slower than a modern microprocessor (~ 2 GHz).” As these algorithms improve, intelligent systems become a more accurate predictor of individual human behavior than the human itself. Examples include online book, music, and travel recommendations. 

It’s important to realize that, even as we become enamored with our mobile devices - generating behavioral data to feed machine learning algorithms - humans still have the advantage because we will have the freedom of choice.  From Prometheus to Bowie, Dali to Edison, humans have always demonstrated the ability to excitedly leap out of the box at will. Archimedes and his Eureka moment, Dali, da Vinci, Edison, Branson, and Elon Musk all offer inspiration for human ingenuity. Creativity, spontaneity, and improvisational skills are uniquely human.  We must continue to invest in our human differences, share our personal stories and tacit knowledge, and reward risk-taking and experimentation. If we don’t celebrate uniquely human traits, we risk, as Bostrom discusses, an “existential transformation to a world of machine super-intelligence.” While machines can monitor the past and use that data to learn and predict future behavior, the human species will always be able to dream, imagine, and create the future, while making personal choices about the role and value of technology in their lives. Technology, big data, and machine intelligence will continue to evolve and are already proving their value in the marketplace and for human good, yet they are always susceptible to the power button - the human choice to say, “no thank you” to George Orwell’s “Big Brother” or HAL from 2001: A Space Oddity – to turn off their devices and go for a walk in the park.

 The poet Robert Frost captured it well: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

We need to evolve our originality and leverage our diverse perspectives to continue to create and innovate in new and unique areas where machines have not yet learned how to learn.

Centuries from now, the 2017 work on computer vision, machine translation, service robots, and language preservation will seem as uninteresting as the wheel, paper, the telescope, or movable type do to us today. The impact of modern communications and the internet on globalization and education will be seen as an evolutionary milestone. History will always remember the significant achievements of any given era, as they serve humanity, and allow us to evolve by freeing our conscious thought from the ordinary to explore the unimaginable. Imagine a modern day millennial professional (with their mobile device and real time access to all human knowledge) having a discussion with Plato in 5th century Greece. It’s easy to see how technology advances the human condition by making knowledge more accessible.

We are fortunate to live in an amazing transformational time of intellectual capital. We can imagine what 15th century intellectuals felt about the potential – or threat - that Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type could have on history and religion. Until Gutenberg, if there was disagreement with an individual opinion, the practice was to rid the world of the individual, and Gutenberg literally changed the game. From Aristotle and Plato in Greece and Plutarch and Cicero in Rome, up through Galileo to Einstein and on to Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, every generation has been enlightened by the intellectual advances of the times.

The oral storytellers of ancient times were disrupted by the invention of papyrus. In the Middle Ages, many large monasteries contained a scriptorium, where the monks could reproduce manuscripts – a practice disrupted by Gutenberg. Hundreds of years later, Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Edison, all the way through Twitter today, continue to alter the way we share information through their unique and creative inventions.

The human race has repeatedly progressed forward and adapted to technological advances, but it has not always been an easy path.

Throughout history, the fear of those in power losing control over a population and an ideology, and the worry about the democratization of knowledge and thought has been a recurring theme. Humans are born as free-thinking individuals, acculturated into structured values and thinking. Technology has always helped empower free thinking – distributing the thoughts of individual to the populous. Technology has already had a phenomenal global impact and has changed the lives of billions in a comparatively historical blink of an eye.

Resistance to technology has been a common theme throughout history.

In Victorian England, author Thomas Carlyle wrote about printed discourse, “Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one.” The passion and violence of the 18th century Luddites - the workers in England, France, and the Netherlands who protested the rise of the technology by throwing their shoes (sabots) into the machines to halt production- was the origin of the word sabotage. From the challenges to Cai Lun’s invention of paper in China in 105 A.D. to religious opposition to Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, the human race has a history of rebellion against – and acceptance of – technology, as we work to integrate it. Early skepticism of online shopping is a great example of how we continue to grow.

The human race, always resistant to change whilst subject to chance discoveries, is also the driver of change through the spirit of aha moments and the re-emergence of the coffeehouse culture that defined the early days of William Shipley and the RSA.

As we humans ponder our metaphorical journey from caterpillar to butterfly, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can honour and learn from the past, fear and accept various elements of our present change, and dream and build toward an inspiring future.

I believe that the future of humanity can be found in our ability to empathize and respect our diversity – gender, culture, age, skills, ethnicity – and in adapting and working with others, including intelligent machines.  Intelligent machines will enable human ingenuity to be free to build the future - a world of possibilities and choices. As those choices become actions, those actions then feed the next round of machine learning, creating a virtuous circle to benefit humanity.  Diversity enables creativity, as a host of different experiences and backgrounds contribute to new unpredictable solutions, outside the realm of previous or predictable behavior – this is the road less traveled that Frost speaks of.

Years from now, there will be machine intelligence that will replicate the behavior of most of us. Intelligent machines will free us from mundane tasks and liberate our conscious minds to imagine and create a greater future, enabling humans to forever be the explorers, dreamers, change agents, drivers of new thought, and chasers of new opportunities. The rise of machine intelligence will never discourage the 10-year-old girl with a dream - whether in a tent city in Mumbai or attending finishing school in Paris - she will have the opportunity to leverage technology to help her disrupt societal conventions, standing on the shoulders of Da Vinci, Galileo, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Edison, Rosa Parks, and all great humans throughout our history.  The diversity of the human creativity is impossible to replicate. New technologies make it easier for global cooperation and collaboration and allow human imagination to flourish!  

Free will and chance contain limitless possibility for human activity.  

Intelligent machines can enhance diverse and global thinking by allowing humans to offload complex tasks that become mundane through the rise of technological capabilities. As we take stock of our current reality - the automation of mundane tasks such as paying bills, making travel arrangements, commuting with autonomous cars, or even performing routine surgery - we face an exciting world of the convergence of human and machine, working together towards a better life for all. Entelechy.  Every technological innovation can help us discover a new less travelled path.  

The coming age of machine intelligence will free our imagination and spur our ingenuity to inspire humanity to new levels of creativity, productivity, and innovation that are unfathomable today.  We will leverage digital tools to rise to new heights. But, in order to create this future, it’s critical for us as a species, and for our global community, to celebrate diversity in our organizations and in our lives in order to achieve our full human potential. We are entering a world that is a 21st century dream – where all human knowledge will be at our disposal and our daily, mundane, or repetitive tasks will be completed by automatons. Creativity and diversity are key pillars of human potential as we enter the fourth Industrial Revolution and the next machine age.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge” - Albert Einstein


Related Reading:

Nick Bostrom

Royal Society Machine Learning

Future of Humanity Institute

Free Will and Advances in Cognitive Science

Unbias

Algorithmic Bias

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