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The last things that will make us uniquely human

In a few decades, AI will outstrip many of the abilities we believe make us special. This is a grand challenge for our age, argues researcher Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, and it may require an ‘irrational’ response.

One of the most consequential pieces of news from the US in early 2017 was not from the White House, or even the Twitter feed of Donald Trump. Rather, it was hidden in a report filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles and made available on the DMV’s website.

It details the efforts of Google (or more precisely its Waymo subsidiary) to make autonomous driving a reality. According to the report, in 2016 Google’s self-driving cars clocked 635,868 miles (1,023,330km), and required human intervention 124 times. That is one intervention about every 5,000 miles (8,047km) of autonomous driving. But even more impressive is the progress in just a single year: human interventions fell from 0.8 times per thousand miles to 0.2, which translates into a 400% improvement. With such progress, Google’s cars will easily surpass my own driving ability later this year.

What will be my grandson’s place in a world where machines trounce us in one area after another?

Driving once seemed to be a very human skill. But we said that about chess, too. Then a computer beat the human world champion, repeatedly. The strategy board game Go took over from chess as the litmus test for human thinking; until 2016, when a computer bested one of the world’s leading professional Go players. IBM’s Watson aced Jeopardy – another supposedly human domain – in 2011, and is now dividing its time between identifying cancerous moles and cooking up creative recipes, among other things.

With computers conquering what used to be deeply human tasks – those that require knowledge, strategy, even creativity – what will it mean in the future to be human?

Some are worried that self-driving cars and trucks may displace millions of professional drivers (they are right), and disrupt entire industries (yup!). But I worry about my six-year-old son. What will his place be in a world where machines trounce us in one area after another? What will he do, and how will he relate to these ever-smarter machines? What will be his and his human peers’ contribution to the world he’ll live in?

He’ll never calculate faster, or solve a math equation quicker. He’ll never type faster, never drive better, or even fly more safely. He may continue to play chess with his friends, but because he’s a human he will no longer stand a chance to ever become the best chess player on the planet. He might still enjoy speaking multiple languages (as he does now), but in his professional life that may not be a competitive advantage anymore, given recent improvements in real-time machine translation.

What’s so special about us, and what’s our lasting value?

Actually, it all comes down to a fairly simple question: What’s so special about us, and what’s our lasting value? It can’t be skills like arithmetic or typing, which machines already excel in. Nor can it be rationality, because with all our biases and emotions we humans are lacking.

So perhaps we might want to consider qualities at a different end of the spectrum: radical creativity, irrational originality, even a dose of plain illogical craziness, instead of hard-nosed logic. A bit of Kirk instead of Spock. So far, machines have a pretty hard time emulating these qualities: the crazy leaps of faith, arbitrary enough to not be predicted by a bot, and yet more than simple randomness. Their struggle is our opportunity.

I am not suggesting we give up on reason, logic, and critical thinking. In fact, precisely because I think so highly of the values we associate with rationality and enlightenment do I believe we might want to celebrate a bit of the opposite.

I am not a luddite either. Quite on the contrary. See, if we continue to improve information processing machines and make them adapt and learn from every interaction with the world, from every bit of data fed to them, we’ll soon have helpful rational assistants. They’ll empower us to overcome some of our very human limitations in translating information into rational decisions. And they’ll get better and better at it.

So we must aim our human contribution to this division of labour to complement the rationality of the machines, rather than to compete with it. Because that will sustainably differentiate us from them, and it is differentiation that creates value.

If I am right, we should foster a creative spirit, irreverent takes, even irrational ideas as we educate our children. Not because irrationality is bliss, but because a dose of illogical creativity will complement the rationality of the machine. It’ll keep guaranteeing us a place on the table of evolution.

Unfortunately, however, our education system has not caught up to the impending reality of this Second Machine Age. Much like peasants stuck in preindustrial thinking, our schools and universities are structured to mould pupils to be mostly obedient servants of rationality, and to develop outdated skills in interacting with outdated machines.

If we take seriously the challenge posed by the machine, we need to change that, and swiftly. Of course, we need to continue to teach the importance of fact-based rationality, and how better facts lead to better decisions. We need to help our children learn how to best work with smart computers to improve human decision-making. But most of all we need to keep the long-term perspective in mind: that even if computers will outsmart us, we can still be the most creative act in town, if we embrace creativity as one of the defining values of humanness. Like funnily irrational ideas, or grand emotions.

Because if we don’t, we won’t be providing much value in the ecosystem of the future, and that may put in question the foundation for our existence.

We better start now. Because when the existence and purpose of humanity is at stake, focusing on partisan politics and the social media outpourings of the US president is little more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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Grand Challenges

Future Now asked 50 experts – scientists, technologists, business leaders and entrepreneurs – to name what they saw as the most important issues of the 21st Century.

Inspired by these responses, over the next month we will be publishing a series of feature articles and videos that take an in-depth look at the biggest challenges we face today.

Viktor Mayer-Schonberger is Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

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