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Never mind the machines, it is the un-thinking, un-feeling humans we should fear


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

In worrying about machines with artificial intelligence capability, we have selected the wrong villains.

Apart from the sky, the earth, the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees, everything has been fashioned from the human mind – from intelligence and imagination. It is an intelligence arising from the unique consciousness human beings possess. On this we surely agree.

Other beings, too, are sentient, this we know: animals, including crayfish, and since a lot of you watched My Octopus Teacher, you get it.

That gadget you use, that skyscraper over there, that truck blocking the highway, the highway itself, the collection of wretched shanties. Poverty also springs from our collective minds; it is not a natural state.

Human intellect is capable of having such an awesome and, at times, catastrophic effect on life. From our early bipedalism and fashioning tools for survival and conquest to leaving Earth’s orbit, reaching the moon and… Elon Musk.

Now there’s space debris everywhere out in the cosmos. But hey, we are connected.

We did all these things, all by ourselves and with the help of machines, but they are still nowhere close to being “humanised”.

‘I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that’

There are many who have expressed profound existential angst at the prospect of artificial intelligence (AI) getting so smart that machines turn on us and start ordering us around. Like in Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the onboard computer HAL with his Canadian autovoice at some point tells Dave – politely, mind you – that it no longer takes instructions from humans.

Others are petrified that we are going to get so lazy that we’re going to just turn on ChatGPT, let it run and cruise in the slow lane for the rest of our cul-de-sac lives. Even the “godfather” of AI, Geoffrey Hinton, who at 75 bowed out of his high-profile job at Google, has got the jitters about it all.

Hinton speaks of two schools of thought about “machine learning”. One, comprising the mainstream thinkers, reckons it is all about reasoning and logic.

Of course machines are going to be smarter than us when so many millions choose not to – or have no idea how to – fire up the processor in their own heads.

Hinton’s followers lean towards biology and neural networks where the neurons change and learn. With a big enough data set, they can accomplish further learning – something many humans have forgotten.

This, says Hinton, is a “pivotal moment” in machine learning. He did not say whether he meant our learning of the machines or the machines learning of us. We will have to wait and see.

Slave to the algorithm

All undemocratic or autocratic systems work on the same principle. Deprive people of education and access to knowledge and you can tell them any old bullshit. Also make sure there is zero transparency and no accountability.

In Portugal, where my mother was born in 1925, the illiteracy rate at the end of the 19th century was more than 80%. Higher education was reserved for the rich, the privileged. Someone had to do the low-paid hard graft and dirty work.

In the contemporary world of data scraping and voracious algorithms driving global politics, markets and “consumers” (that’s what you are, not a citizen, accept it), full human mental capacity is being pruned, and in some cases entirely pollarded.

One word: Brexit.

Maybe two: Q-Anon.

There is enough evidence that the machines and their screens, aided and abetted by deceiving, greedy and amoral humans, flipped the US and UK elections.

Twenty-twenty hindsight and all that.

Read more in Daily Maverick: What on earth can adults do to help addled young brains?

Of course machines are going to be smarter than us when so many millions choose not to – or have no idea how to – fire up the processor in their own heads.

And if you deprive people of the information and education needed for them to understand impending self-harm, then what is there to do?

Let’s make them buy more stuff in the meantime.

Feelings, nothing more than feelings

But here’s the curveball. Machines can’t feel. That is why you don’t miss Siri. And it is feeling that lies at the very heart of consciousness.

As Professor Mark Solms, who holds the Chair of Neuropsychology at the University of Cape Town, has highlighted, the mind “is not just information processing, not just memory. The mind is feeling and feeling lies at the heart of consciousness.”

As long as human beings make machines do what our own brains can do without these machines being “sentient”, we are dealing with something “a lot less conscious”, says Solms.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Artificial Intelligence and the great ethics cage fight of 2023

Feeling (and we are not talking emotions here; they’re different and totally unreliable) underpins consciousness, regulates survival and is self-preservatory. Homeostasis, a self-regulating process during which a living organism maintains internal stability while adjusting to changing external circumstances.

Of course, there are many humans who are incapable of doing this. Donald Trump.

And the end for these individuals is never pretty or cheap. But wait. What if a machine begins to have self-preservatory feelings?

Solms’s research indicates that, though it might not be impossible for us to create artificial consciousness, it has not yet been penned into the calendar – whichever one you choose to follow.

But, he correctly asks, why would we opt to create a conscious, sentient being that we can dominate?

“Why would you want to make a conscious machine? That is just making a slave. Why would we want to do that?”

Trump and millions of others would not hesitate for one single second to respond to Solms.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Petty criminal records lock away the future for SA’s youth

Remember, the former president of the US said he could shoot someone in the street in New York and get away with it. Give him a machine and… you see where we are headed.

Anyhow, human intelligence, ingenuity and our capacity for cooperation and flourishing are only marred by our equal capacity to be duped and manipulated.

It is not the machines we should fear. It is the humans. It is always the humans. In particular telesales people, bankers, lawyers, politicians and faux religious prophets (for profits).

Fight them all, with your mind. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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  • Dou Pienaar says:

    ‘It is not the machines we should fear. It is the humans. It is always the humans. In particular telesales people, bankers, lawyers, politicians and faux religious prophets (for profits).

    Fight them all, with your mind.’ Good advice! thank you.

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