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I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the dialogue re: AI these days. I get it’s a big deal, and like all big deals, our culture will give it non-stop attention. I suppose the scrutiny is appropriate given the potential implications, both positive and negative, and the various conceived doomsday scenarios. Pulling from this media deluge, I wanted to share with you an excerpt from an interview Fortune reporter, Jessica Mathews, did with Microsoft’s Chief Scientific Officer, Eric Horvitz. She starts off the piece stating that Horvitz, a leading voice in AI, “has spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be human.” Well, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be human too (though probably with less brainpower than Eric!) and that’s probably why I had a weird reaction to this excerpt. Let’s look at the piece and I’ll comment on the backside…

Mathews: These A.I. models are so powerful that they’re making us ask ourselves some really important underlying questions about what it means to be human, and what distinguishes us from machines as they get more and more capable. You’ve spoken before about music, and one of my colleagues pointed out to me a paper that you wrote about captions for New Yorker cartoons a few years ago. Throughout all of the research and time you’ve spent digging into artificial intelligence and the impact it could have on society, have you come to any personal realizations of what it is that distinctly makes us human, and what things could never be replaced by a machine?

Horvitz: My reaction is that almost everything about humanity won’t be replaced by machines. I mean, the way we feel and think, our consciousness, our need for one another—the need for human touch, and the presence of people in our lives. I think, to date, these systems are very good at synthesizing and taking what they’ve learned from humanity. They learn and they have become bright because they’re learning from human achievements. And while they could do amazing things, I haven’t seen the incredible bursts of true genius that come from humanity.

I just think that the way to look at these systems is as ways to understand ourselves better. In some ways we look at these systems and we think: Okay, what about my intellect and its evolution on the planet that makes me who I am—what might we learn from these systems to tell us more about some aspects of our own minds? They can light up our celebration of the more magical intellects that we are in some ways by seeing these systems huff and puff to do things that are sparking creativity once in a while. 

Think about this: These models are trained for many months, with many machines, and using all of the digitized content they can get their hands on. And we watch a baby learning about the world, learning to walk, and learning to talk without all that machinery, without all that training data. And we know that there’s something very deeply mysterious about human minds. And I think we’re way off from understanding that. Thank goodness. I think we will be very distinct and different forever than the systems we create—as smart as they might become.

I appreciate interviews like these are necessary to explore and dissect the essence of this massively disruptive technology. And, again, given my limited brainpower, I am likely unable to truly conceive the level of disorder it could bring. That said, do we really need to ask what distinguishes humans from machines? What distinctly makes us human? I like Horvitz’s answer. Basically, consciousness, emotion, and relationships. I would add creativity and curiosity. As I wrote, a couple of weeks ago, I am an advocate of technology when we use it to enhance our humanness (that’s why I am not a fan of social media 😬). Every day, MenLiving is using technology to help men find friends, to share emotions, and to extend their reach so they can make connection with others wherever they may be. If it comes down to a war between humans and machines, I put my money on us…as long as we are true to what makes us distinctly human.


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