Why Don't They Call It Artificial Stupidness?

Shilo Zylbergold | Best Medicine

I visualise a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans, and I’m rooting for the machines - Claude Shannon

Considering all the debate and posturing these days about the benefits and dangers of Artificial Intelligence, or AI for short, you must be asking yourself if you really feel threatened by high functioning machines and computer programs that seem on the verge of taking over the planet and replacing its present landlords: you and me.

Are robots really out to get us? Maybe it hasn’t reached the point where they are planning to destroy our species, but they are getting to be extremely annoying. Take the robot test, for instance.

You know the feeling. You’re trying to get to a website in order to take care of a very important matter and you get side-swiped by an idiotic dialogue box that demands that you tick off the little square next to the statement “I am not a robot”. And just to make certain that you are not indeed a robot that has been programmed to lie about its mechanical orientation, you are subjected to completing a small test to prove that you are flesh and blood and not some machine language algorithm.

What does this test look like? Sometimes there is a grid of nine photos of intersections and you are asked to identify which of them contains a traffic light. Or, you might be asked to pick out chimneys in a grid of skyline pictures. If this seems too difficult, and you keep failing the "not a robot" test, you may be shown a series of alphabet letters and numerals that have been depicted in a cursive style comparable to a Salvador Dali surrealist masterpiece. When you fail to recognize even one of these distorted characters, you begin to question your humanity and doubt creeps in as to whether or not you may indeed be a robot.

In all actuality, Artificial Intelligence is a bit of a misnomer. Expecting a robot to disqualify itself because it cannot pass a test that makes most humans fail miserably as well is idiotic. Perhaps we should call it Artificial Stupidity, or more fittingly, Artificial Stupidness.

Science fiction novels and movies have long played upon our fears that the very same machines that we have created to serve us will someday seek to supplant us. In the 1951 classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” the 8-foot tall robot, Gort, is just about to destroy humanity for harming its master, when it is calmed by the words “Klaatu barada nikto” which is space alien for “just chill”. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the HAL 9000 computer which runs everything onboard the spaceship attempts to dispose of the human crew when it senses that they are about to decommission it for faulty decisions. Even in the Star Wars saga, the two robots, C-3PO and R2-D2, although benevolent and eager to serve, often get their humans into dire circumstances because of their limitations. In contrast, Robocop and the Terminator wreak havoc on any humans who stand in the way of their missions.

As you can see, AI is nothing new; it’s been around for almost forever. Devices such as the abacus, the slide rule, and the calculator have been our friends since the time we first had to figure out how much 15 per cent of the total bill at a restaurant was, so we could leave the proper tip at the table without seeming too chintzy or overly extravagant.

The next giant leap in robotics came with self-directed robot vacuum cleaners which do an adequate job at removing dust from carpets, but whose main aim is to scare the living daylights out of house cats while occasionally ingesting the odd pet hamster.

At about the same time, there arrived the dawning of the computer age. You may remember those massive mid-20th century early analog models that took up about four floors of an office high-rise building although all it could practically do was add up numbers and round off the sum to 2 decimal places. Much later came the introduction of more compact digital machines which could solve such complex computations as amortization problems where you can discover in a matter of nanoseconds that you’ve spent half your life paying the mortgage on your house but all you’ve really paid off is the interest on the interest and you still owe the entire original amount.

If AI continues its march towards domination, how long can it be before robots wanting access to vital data will have to take the “I am not a human” test. If they succeed at being able to assemble IKEA shelves by following the printed directions, or are able to program an ancient VHS recorder using the remote (which no human over the age of ten could ever figure out), then they will receive a passing grade and be granted entrance to the protected site. However, if they flit about from site to site while taking the test, simultaneously checking sports scores, weather forecasts, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok postings, and a myriad of other distractions, then for certain they will show themselves for the impostors that they are.

There are strong arguments being made on both sides of the AI debate. On one hand, supporters are quick to point out that the ability of AI to analyze and learn from mistakes far outstrips the human learning curve. Humanity will receive the benefits from the advances made by AI. Taking a look at the medical research field, there are so many treatments and life-altering medications that have been made available because of AI involvement. At this very moment there are over a half million research papers published about AI discoveries and 350,000 AI projects shared in open source. We know for sure that it must have been AI, which has no ability to sense how tasty food can be, that developed and perfected the bland flavor we call hospital meals. Similarly, AI knows everything that has ever been known, and therefore can be expected to perform delicate brain surgery as well as be able to vacuum and swab the floor of your hospital room and also change your soiled sheets. Just make sure there are no cats or hamsters skittering about.

On the other hand, pundits such as Geoffrey Hinton, a University of Toronto scientist who is recognized by many as the “Godfather of AI” because of his founding intellectual research and development, fears there will be a computer takeover and it is unavoidable that humans will be superseded by AI. Just recently, Hinton left his lofty gig with Google’s AI program because he felt obligated to publicize the danger that in a few years, machines may become significantly more intelligent than we humans.

Nobody asked me, but perhaps it’s all a matter of Darwinism and the theory of natural selection. Our species of humans, Homo sapiens, squeezed out the less intelligent humanoids, the Neanderthals, because we were more able to adapt to increasingly taxing conditions. They must have looked down on the Neanderthals the way that we perhaps dismiss robot vacuum cleaners. Is it possible that AI machines will look at us as dumb down creatures who need feeding and looking after similar to how we treat our pets. If this is the case, I hope I don’t get mistaken for a hamster.

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