I propose to consider the question, “Can human beings think?”
You may recognize the above as a provocative twist of the question posed by Alan Turing in his landmark paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, published in 1950 while he worked at the University of Manchester.
“Can machines think?” Turing asked.
The surprising short answer, almost 70 years later, is, maybe. Within the last three months, for example, I’ve had several satisfying conversations with AI algorithms concerning the purchase of bargain burial plots, my credit score and winning the International Lottery. One of those, who self-identified as Betty, promised when asked, “Of course I’m a real person,” but then disconnected, artificially offended, I suppose, when caught in a lie, unable to compute the square root of 16.
Machine intelligence marches on. IBM contends that, by 2020, 85% of all customer interactions will be handled without a human agent. Meanwhile, sadly, human intelligence becomes more suspect. Beyond 2020, how many of our species will remain who understand, for example, that the real King James never played basketball for the Cleveland Cavaliers? How many will walk the earth who have never heard of Alan Turing? The University of Manchester? 1950?
Yet historical awareness, performing simple math and successfully interacting with customers are much less than what we hope comprises human intelligence. Humans at their best, we like to think, are compassionate, loving, caring, good. But the human record, and a seeming regression in those qualities we associate with being human, beg the question; is mankind losing its humanity?
Consider the following baffling abstract from a 2012 article that appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics by Oxford-Martin School Post-Doctorate Research Fellow, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, post-doc, Ghent University, Department of Philosophy…
After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
This chilling justification for killing newborns did not spew from a cold algorithm but from “actual people,” (to use Giubilini and Minerva’s phrase), not in some deviant blog post but a peer-reviewed academic journal in the field of bioethics! In biblical times, when pagan cults sacrificed their young to various gods, they were, at least, victims of superstition, ignorance and false hopes. But this modern, academic, “bio-ethical” argument for infanticide seems to be no more than a numbing call to condone murders of convenience.
Who are these young experts? Our planet’s next generation of scientists, leaders and thinkers are most commonly called millennials. When discussing them, researchers typically include those born in the early 1980s through the early 2000s. Self-identified millennial, Lorenzo Jensen III, in an article published online, listed 27 Causes That Could Lead to the Millennial Generation’s Downfall, beginning with Depression…
We are the first generation without a bigger plan, the only thing we have to do is going to school, getting a job and being a worker bee for a society we don’t believe in. People get suicidal and depressive by their lives because they don’t see what they live for and what they work for. At first we are happy to be able to buy all the stuff we always wanted to buy until we realize that it’s meaningless in the end.
Jensen goes on to list Apathy, Social Media, Heroin, Lack of Human Interaction, Lack of Opportunity and Loneliness beside twenty more excuses for failure, as if he and his fellows are the first to experience life on this difficult sphere. “The real killer of the millennial is stress,” Jensen concludes. “Drugs, suicidal depression and obesity are just physical manifestations of constant long-term stress.”
Jensen’s view seems to be representative of many of his generation and amounts to a colossal declaration of detachment and victimhood. As planet earth’s future leaders become increasingly shallower, disinterested in all things not food, drug, tattoo, entertainment, YouTube or fitness related, other, older members of their species continue to gas Syrian citizens. Elders of Isis and North Korea flaunt additional murderous ambitions. And while older men in Iran export terrorism and develop a nuclear arsenal, millennials tout their angst ad nauseam and rationalize killing newborns.
Why should we not be concerned about the future?
Alan Turing once proposed to test a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from that of a human. Perhaps, when machines are perfected, they will likewise propose a method to identify those who have survived among their creators who are able to convincingly think and act like real human beings.