AI is overwhelming

I remember when I was in fourth grade and I discovered Cleverbot with my friend. We said some pretty vulgar things and it responded with even worse things that previous users had said. This was an example of a chat bot that used users’ responses to build up a huge database; this approach is different from the idea of pre-programming the database before interacting with humans. Cleverbot passed the 2011 Turing test, but what is the significance of the Turing test? I personally don’t believe that it proves consciousness, and I don’t think any test ever will. The thought experiment outlined in Kerzweil’s paper is very intriguing: the gradual replacement of Ray’s brain with a nonbiological equivalent (a continuously conscious Ray) is essentially identical to scanning and reinstantiating Ray’s mind file into new (nonbiological) Ray, and then terminating old Ray. But even though the two results are essentially identical, the latter is much less accepted as having true consciousness. I remember watching WALL-E and Big Hero 6 (spoilers ahead!!!) and seeing the robots “die” made me really sad. Even though their memory chips or whatever had been saved and they were reincarnated into new bodies, I still felt weird about it. Many of my friends firmly believed that the robots were the same afterwards so they didn’t actually die but I couldn’t shake off the fact that they were different.

The conversation in class was so philosophical and at times I felt quite overwhelmed. I think one thing I really started thinking about is what we mean by intelligence. I do think the singularity will eventually occur, but I am also skeptical that it will happen within the next couple decades. I agree with Paul Allen’s view that achieving singularity will “require many more discoveries, some new Nobel-quality theories, and probably even whole new research approaches that are incommensurate with what we believe now”. I also struggle with the value of intelligence. I can’t help but feel that although the quest for higher intelligence is extremely important and valuable, we are failing to consider the rest of life. For example, I greatly appreciate the useful things that AI or technology can do for me, like wash my dishes, translate my essay, etc.. However, I have the privilege of WANTING to seek higher education and do other things with my newly found time. But many people are content with not freeing up so much time, and perhaps people should be more okay with moving at a slower pace; it is great if people can find happiness in doing the dishes, in farming, in doing things that the tech world thinks are boring/should be automated.

In no way do I think that we shouldn’t be pursuing great technological advances; I think that technology is extremely valuable and even if I didn’t, the research would happen anyway. I just think that sometimes there is this bubble in the tech world that needs to be checked up a little (with some philosophy/humanities) and people should be encouraged to feel content with what they have and what they want. I feel like the current researchers of the technology have to be so invested that they can’t really stop to think enough about the implications, but for the many of us, we don’t have to be so caught up in it and we can slow down a little and find pleasure in the smaller things in life.


  1. Jim Waldo

    October 22, 2017 @ 8:19 pm


    Nicely done; some great questions here.

    I sometimes worry when we are having these discussions that we have too narrow a view of intelligence. We often seem to think that intelligence is separable from all of the rest of what makes us human; it is the rational or logical or analytic abilities taken in isolation. The recent discussions of things like emotional intelligence has started to broaden the concept in what I think is a useful way, but I think that is just the start– there is a broad base to what constitutes intelligence, well beyond what we see in AI.

    Your final point is one that we have been working on in the CS program in particular and more generally at Harvard. Ethics is not something that can be divorced from CS (or most any other field), and so we are trying to introduce more places where the connections are made. The STEM fields aren’t just about what you can do; they also need to be about what you ought to do. We can’t teach you the answers, but we can at least try to teach you to recognize when you are confronting an ethical issue, and how to think about it before you build and release your technology.

  2. profsmith

    October 22, 2017 @ 10:50 pm


    I couldn’t agree more that the topic is overwhelming. On top of that, each person brings a different perspective, as you describe, that shakes the foundation of the discussion. I can only hope that what you and Jim describe pushes schools and corporations to think more expansively.

    I haven’t seen Big Hero 6, but WALL-E was fantastic!

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