• Artificial Intelligence
  • Andrew Fiala
  • FEB 13, 2018

Will robots supplant humans? Machines are fast and accurate, but cannot feel or wonder

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It is reasonable to fear artificial intelligence. Dystopian films such as “Terminator” and “The Matrix” show what could happen if AI turns against us. Less drastic anxieties concern self-driving cars making life-and-death decisions on the roads.

But there are also reasons to cheer for smart machines. We already enjoy the benefit of the computers at YouTube and Amazon, which give us suggestions about what to watch or buy.

Smart machines could be employed to diagnose diseases or do dangerous and tedious work. Robots already are at work in factories. It is easy to imagine AI employed by military and police forces or in response to emergencies. With proper regulation, this could be beneficial.

Machines are better than us at looking for patterns and sifting through data. Human beings get tired and distracted. We are slow and biased. Machines are fast, impartial and relentless. This helps them do amazing things. But the computer’s cool efficiency also fuels our fears. We obviously need safeguards to prevent a Terminator takeover.

But this side of the robot apocalypse, the real challenge of AI is how it forces us to reconceive our humanity. We have long viewed ourselves as the smartest beings on earth. Intelligent machines may knock us off this pedestal.


Computers have excelled at Jeopardy, sudoku, chess and other games and puzzles. AI will beat us in activities that require quick retrieval and processing of information.

Trivia games can seem pointless when Google exists. But the machines’ superiority in information processing can help us understand ourselves better. Why, after all, do we play games and solve puzzles?

Even though the computers will win, they don’t enjoy playing. But we play games and process information because it is fun. For human beings, there is intrinsic joy in thinking, playing and learning. We also enjoy sharing our thoughts and stories with other human beings.

The AI revolution reminds us of the intrinsic value of art and science. We like to discover and create things. Computers can sift data. in astronomy, particle physics or art history. AI can write musicpoetry, and screenplays. Computers have even created visual art. But the machine takes no delight in the process.

The artistic applications of AI have been especially interesting. One example is a short film written by an AI computer named “Benjamin.” The resulting film – called “Sunspring” – features inept dialogue and a bizarre lack of plot.

It is amazing that AI can write even rudimentary dialogue. And Benjamin will improve over time. The machines are just getting started. They will get better at creating meaningful narratives and understanding the connotations and allusions of human languages.

It is possible to imagine Benjamin writing a better screenplay. But – and here is the rub – it is impossible to imagine Benjamin laughing at its own creations or crying at the desolation portrayed in its words.

Machines don’t laugh or cry. They don’t play. Nor do they experience wonder, loneliness or love.


The AI revolution is forcing us reassess what we do and why we do it. Why do we study astronomy or create art? In the age of AI, the answer to this question cannot be merely external, about the product. What matters is the process.

The point of art is to create. And the point of thinking is to think. What matters is the creative act. Poets experience joy in putting words on paper. Scientists experience awe in understanding.

We study ourselves and the world around us because it fulfills our basic desire to understand and create meaning. What matters is the internal delight experienced in learning, exploring and discovering.

We are essentially different from machines. We are curious and creative. We play, laugh and love. Other animals do some of this. But machines cannot. They have no inside and they lack insight. They process data without knowing why or what for.

If we can avoid robot Armageddon, we will have a chance to rediscover the joy of being human. AI may free us from drudgery. It may cure diseases and find new worlds among the stars. It might even create interesting art. But only a human being can appreciate the wonder of being human.

The blog originally appeared at The Fresno Bee.

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