Better than human?

One thing that has always fascinated me is this concept that machines are better than human. Certainly, machines can be made that perform very specific tasks, on average, better than a human doing the same very specific tasks, but does this really make them better than the humans they replace? Or is the idea that humans can be replaced with something better merely an offshoot of this?

When the Deep Blue computer beat World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, did it make Mr. Kasparov less significant as a person, or even as a leader in the world of chess? When the Watson program distinguished itself against top-ranked human opponents on Jeopardy! , did the human players become something less as people? And yet, the fact that these machines bested their human counterparts at these very narrowly defined tasks is somehow seen as the impending doom of the human species. Indeed, some are even comparing machine vs. machine, as if that day has already come.

Here is why this is vastly premature: Mankind’s claim to fame has always been as an aggregate of a wide array “good enough” survival traits, as opposed to being exceptionally good at any one characteristic, including our vaunted intelligence. Thus, we have dominated on this planet, even though there are many species that are stronger, faster, tougher, better clawed and toothed, and even longer lived than us. Indeed, even in today’s civilized society, if you were to drop a group of people into the Amazon with nothing more than a compass and a pack of matches, a not-insignificant percentage of them would be able to figure out how to survive long enough to get out. Not all, but not trivial, either.

Humans are survivors. We have earned the right to call ourselves that through millions of years of adapting to nearly every conceivable type of change. If a robot is used to take a job from one of us, we have the capacity to do something else. Deep Blue – or any other highly specialized machine – can no more be used for something else than a hammer can be used as a violin. Thus, I have no more fear of the impending reign of the “robot overlords” than I do of a screwdriver, or any other tool.

I wonder what Watson would have to say about that?

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Filed under Fear, Robots, Technology

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