What would Socrates say about AI?

Original article was published by Sunil Chathaveetil on Artificial Intelligence on Medium


What would Socrates say about AI?

“One thing I know and that is that I know nothing” -Socrates.

I don’t know, should we care? Do we care? This could be considered a sacrilege in the rarefied corridors of philosophenia, but isn’t it time, we challenged the notion that Artificial intelligence can replace human thought. Theoretically possible, akin to saying, we can travel at the speed of light, but have we?

It is after all artificial, built within the constraints and logic provided by a superior intellect, the human brain. In as much, as we talk about deep learning and the curiously named neural networks in the field of AI science, to suggest that there is some kind of biological capacity out there, these nodes can hardly be a substitute for the trillions of neurons, their complex physical phenomena working on sub nano scales, with their dendrites, axons, synapses and myriad other components. Do we really fully understand the complex electro-chemical properties and their interdependencies that fuel human thought. Is there anybody out there that can positively identify, quantify and replicate human consciousness? I will go out on a limb and say, artificial intelligence today and in the foreseeable future is not a conscious machine. Efficient and effective it certainly is, and highly capable of learning, mimicking and performing human tasks that do not require conscious mindful intelligence, but that’s as far as it goes. Of course, alarm bells are ringing all over traditional industries, and the fear of AI taking over the world is discussed ad nauseam, but it is overblown.

That brings me to the theory, that work as is currently structured, the interests that support it in the form of the vast education industry and corporations that profit from it, make for a strange cocktail of vested interests that are at once responsible for, fighting against and confusing the real issue here. If the labor market of tomorrow looks the same as today, any reasonable person would say that it will lead to social chaos. Can planet earth support 3 billion plus jobs that are at once meaningful and fulfilling? And many of these jobs will have been automated with artificial intelligence along the way. I use jobs here as a catchall for any activity that is generating commerce. So, what is the alternative? Can there be enough jobs going around that will need humanness as a key skill? Shouldn’t there be a delightful mix of gainful activity, productive human interaction and predictable leisure to occupy a human mind and provide fuel for its constant need for gratification? I believe, here’s where technology is stepping in to free up human time to enjoy life. Looking at Artificial Intelligence in this light makes it an ally.

This brings me to the topic of education. Schooling, training, coaching, internships are all uniquely designed to do one thing really well. Get a job, that is if you are up to it and can master the subjects, network well and push your case and don’t want to be an entrepreneur. If you are a good test taker, are lucky to get the right educators that can sustain your interest or check the right boxes to satisfy an algorithm, you have a surefire way to a secure middle-class life. But then couldn’t a machine do a better job at this? Wouldn’t it be vastly more beneficial to tailor education towards a person’s unique interests, and provide teaching methods that can appeal to a child’s sense of fun? Today’s training is inherently designed for a competitive world, reflective of today’s competition for Earth’s resources.

A singular event like the COVID outbreak has thrown open the possibilities of an egalitarian learning landscape where access to high quality content has been flattened to a screen, where physical presence is eschewed in favor of remote, touch-less training. Now if only the content was enriched with subjects like the art of empathy, the science of sympathetic thought, the practice of personal leisure, the science of harmonious engagement , appreciation of nature’s bounty and its non-exploitative application for human betterment, pitfalls of competitive “isms” and the like. We do see many important groups taking measures on these lines, but until the education system moves away from its ability to ignite the animal spirits of competition, to a gentler, meaningful vehicle to actually provide everyone with the same opportunity devoid of the fear of failure, we will continue to see folks inhabiting jobs that can be easily and immediately automated. The fear of AI will really come true. However, if we modify our course to do less of today’s repetitive, mind numbing labor and more of impactful work that needs conscious human thought with appropriate leisure built into it, we will reduce the necessity and societal pressures of creating millions of new jobs every year. Every inhabitant of our beautiful planet will be gainfully employed in an activity that gratifies their mind in their own individual way.

As a caveat, these are thoughts that came to my mind as I spoke to a few folks about Artificial Intelligence, their fears and opportunities. I did not get a chance to speak to any educators, but I wanted to leave these as concepts for an honest and vigorous debate.

“It is better to change an opinion than persist with a wrong one” — Socrates