Intelligent Life Revisited

by mkriegh

In December of 2009 I delivered a talk at the New York Society for Ethical Culture entitled “What Intelligent Life is Made Of.” It was this talk that prompted me to start my Intelligent Life blog. The focus of the talk was on the increasing likelihood that our technology is evolving intelligence that is not human. I presented a look at a number of ideas about how this evolution is occurring, what it means, and what the implications for humanity might be. There is no question that our machines are getting smarter. For the present time, they are leveraging our capabilities. They are doing things that our minds are not well structured to do, such as statistical analysis of varying kinds of outcome in order to make decisions for the future of an endeavor or an enterprise. And I think we can still view much of this technology as benign to some degree.

Because of my interest in this topic, I keep track of articles that are published about machine intelligence and the impact of technology on humanity. There have been a bunch lately that have me wanting to revisit the topic. I thought it would be of interest to periodically share links to articles I have found interesting or disturbing. I am going to start with the impact of machine intelligence on the labor force.

Analytics in 40 years: Machines will kick human managers to the curb, Via ZDNet – This article makes the case that the days of middle management, possibly on up to the CEO level, are numbered. It discusses a maverick presentation at a conference by Nigel Rayner of Gartner. Rayner says:

…we stink at rational decisions. In addition, compensation packages, peer pressure and other nonsense simply distort good decision-making. Machines simply do a better job. Humans can’t process information overflow, short product cycles and the pressure to deliver results. “The way we have evolved means that humans don’t make rational decisions,” said Rayner. “We’re not hardwired to be rational. And even if we were, the current environment and the pace of business would make it hard for executives to balance short-term and long-term needs.”

More Jobs Predicted for Machines, Not People, via NYT – The title says it all.

Faster, cheaper computers and increasingly clever software, the authors say, are giving machines capabilities that were once thought to be distinctively human, like understanding speech, translating from one language to another and recognizing patterns. So automation is rapidly moving beyond factories to jobs in call centers, marketing and sales — parts of the services sector, which provides most jobs in the economy.

New Technology and the End of Jobs, Jeremy Rifkin, via

Corporate leaders and mainstream economists tell us that the rising unemployment figures represent short-term “adjustments” to powerful market-driven forces that are speeding the global economy in a new direction. They hold out the promise of an exciting new world of high-tech automated production, booming global commerce, and unprecedented material abundance. Millions of working people remain sceptical. In the United States, Fortune magazine found that corporations are eliminating more than 2 million jobs annually. While some new jobs are being created in the US economy, they are in the low-paying sectors and are usually temporary.

There is lots to wonder about here, and worry about. It suggests to me that we need to really rethink the whole thing. At minimum, we need to think way more seriously and collectively about what we are doing here, which is largely making ourselves irrelevant to the socioeconomic system we have believed in for so long. Among the glimmers of hope is the fact that humans are still way better at creative thought processing than machines, though my talk on intelligent life suggests that we shouldn’t rest too comfortably on our laurels there. At the end of the day, humans are just great at being human. We must begin to evolve a socioeconomic model that puts that at its heart.  We really need to think seriously about what constitutes a meaningful life and about making that the focus of our socioeconomic activity. To end on a little bit more of an up note, a thoughtful article from the NYT:

The Meaningfulness of Lives, Todd May, via NYT

A promising and more inclusive approach  is offered by Susan Wolf in her recent and compelling book, “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters.”   A meaningful life, she claims, is distinct from a happy life or a morally good one. In her view, “meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” A meaningful life must, in some sense then, feel worthwhile.  The person living the life must be engaged by it.  A life of commitment to causes that are generally defined as worthy — like feeding and clothing the poor or ministering to the ill — but that do not move the person participating in them will lack meaningfulness in this sense. However, for a life to be meaningful, it must also be worthwhile. Engagement in a life of tiddlywinks does not rise to the level of a meaningful life, no matter how gripped one might be by the game.

And a thoughtful essay by E. F. Schumacher, Buddhist Economics.

From the Buddhist point of view, there are therefore two types of mechanisation which must be clearly distinguished: one that enhances a man’s skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave. How to tell the one from the other? “The craftsman himself,” says Ananda Coomaraswamy, a man equally competent to talk about the modern West as the ancient East, “can always, if allowed to, draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsmen’s fingers; but the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work.”  5 It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.

And, finally, one of my favorite quotes from Moby Dick:

I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country;

I suggest that we need to evolve a socioeconomic system centered on our humanity, that this is where happiness is to be found. Anything else turns the world and our future over to the machines…