If you’ve ever seen the 1984 movie The Terminator, then you know computers can have a dark side.  There’s the famous scene in which Kyle Reese dramatically declares that computers “decided our fate in a microsecond: extermination.”

We can all watch The Terminator without fear because we know that none of it is real.  It’s just a story, a script, the clever tricks of set designers and cinematographers.  But perhaps 1980s film makers predicted the future in ways no one could have foreseen.  Computers may not be prepared to overthrow the human race, but they are becoming smarter in ways that rival the human mind.  With the development of technology over the last couple of years, computer intelligence has become more science than fiction.

Computers can seemingly do anything.  They can tell you the exact temperature in Bucharest, Romania with a quick google search.  They can forage through terabytes of data to find you the dress Taylor Swift wore to the 2010 Grammys in subseconds.  They can tell if you’re lying.  They can even keep your heart beating.

We live in an era of technology, and with that there’s good and bad and better and worse and an endless debate between purists and progressives.  But what happens when technology goes beyond that?  What if a computer could not only react to code and directives given by programmers?  What if a computer could think?

Those are the questions developers hope to answer with artificial intelligence, or AI.  AI not only spits out numbers, but thinks as well.  They learn, register emotions, and react to situations just like humans.

Take Amelia from IPSoft.  Amelia is a virtual agent who understands what people ask—even what they feel—when they call for service.  So if you call asking for technical assistance, Amelia will be the one to answer.

But Amelia is so much more than just automation.  If you make a request Amelia doesn’t know how to complete, you’ll be referred to a human to help you out.  Amelia will see how the human consultant addresses the problem, and will copy that route if she ever encounters it again.  In this way, she learns.

Amelia can also sense the emotions of the customer she helps.  She does this by recognizing common phrases and even personality traits.

According to Daniela Zuin, director of marketing for IPSoft, “The way in which Amelia tracks the emotional status of the customer she is speaking with has been enriched, too, so that we can understand mood and personality in addition to just the sentiment of individual phrases.  All of these elements are critical in being able to provide a very human response.”

Artificial intelligence is beginning to think like a human, and even understand emotions like one.  Computers are becoming more and more like the most complex, high-functioning specimen of intelligence we know: the human brain.  And if they can think and feel and understand like we do, where do we draw the line?  Is that really still a computer?

The Turing Test was developed by Alan Turing in 1950.  The purpose of the test is to determine whether or not a computer can be said to be intelligent.  If a computer can trick at least 30 percent of people into thinking it’s human, then it can be said to have intelligence.

But intelligence is more than being a supermachine.  A computer can easily beat you one hundred times over in chess, but it doesn’t know what it’s doing.  Despite its success, it wouldn’t pass the Turing Test.  Intelligence is the difference between recognizing algorithms and understanding that a game is being played.  The computer is not thinking, it’s processing.

Take IBM’s supercomputer Watson for instance.  It was able to beat the world’s best Jeopardy players by a landslide in 2011.  While it is one the most advanced machines in language analysis and computational power, it’s still very obviously a computer and wouldn’t pass the Turing Test.

Oscar Schwartz is gave a TED Talk called “Can a Computer Write Poetry?”  He has a website called Bot or Not where readers decide whether a poem was written by a human or a computer.  There are some poems on the website that have fooled 65 percent of readers into thinking they were written by humans.  So, by that virtue, those computers have more than passed the poetry Turing Test.  But Schwartz sees it as a lot more complicated than a passing or failing grade.

“For some reason, we associate poetry with being human.  So that when we ask, ‘Can a computer write poetry?’ we’re also asking, ‘What does it mean to be human and how do we put boundaries around this category?  How do we say who or what can be part of this category?” Schwartz said.

When someone hears how easily it is to be tricked by a computer, their reaction is probably one of discomfort.  So why is artificial intelligence so disturbing?  I’d argue it’s because it blurs the lines.  It makes us question what humanness is, and if it can be so easily replicated and improved by numbers and code and cold metal, is it really all that special?

If our humanity is the way we write and communicate, then computers are just as human as us.  But if it’s something else, something more intangible, maybe the way that we feel things, then computers have some catching up to do.

The approaching reality that humanity can be copied and understood by a mathematical algorithm is unsettling.  It seems to go against what we perceive humanity to be: visceral, precious, and singularly ours.  AI can be incredible, but it can also be very, very scary to realize that perhaps we are not as “human” as we’d like to think.  With the development of AI, computers become more human and humans seem to become less.  AI shows us humanity is not some bright, glittering spark nestled in the hearts of us all.  It is numbers.  It is equations.  It is able to replicated.  It is, against all definitions, mechanical.

“The human is not a scientific fact.  It’s an ever-shifting, concatenating idea and one that changes over time.  So that when we begin to grapple with the ideas of artificial intelligence in the future, we shouldn’t only be asking ourselves, ‘Can we build it?’  But we should also be asking ourselves, ‘What idea of the human do we want to have reflected back to us?’” Schwartz said to wrap up his TED Talk.

No one can tell you if computers are eventually going to take over the world, Terminator-style.  No one can even tell you where computers will be five years from now.  Alan Turing predicted in 1950 that a computer would be able to pass the Turing Test forty years from now, yet some already have.  In a society where technology is growing at an exponential rate, there’s no way to know all the effects.  But while that uncertainty is frightening, it’s also breathtaking.  Who knows what feats AI will be able to accomplish that today, we consider impossible.


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