I, Robot

By James Bennet

Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, likes to say we are approaching an age of “augmented humanity,” in which computers, by doing what they do well, will help humans do better what they do well. Last fall, at the Washington Ideas Forum that The Atlantic convenes annually with the Aspen Institute, I got the chance to ask him just what it is, in his view, that we humans do well.

“Hard question,” he said, and paused, before beginning to talk first not about humans but about computers. “One way to think about computers and people is that the computers are really good at some things that we are no good at, at all. They remember billions of things incredibly accurately, and none of us, even the most brilliant of all of us, do that. And they can search across that in, literally, milliseconds. And come up with all sorts of interesting results that even we, with all of our wonderful reasoning and intuition, can’t do.” Then he pivoted to our species. “Now humans, on the other hand, have judgment, have intuition, and have the ability to recognize patterns in ways that computers are unlikely to for a reasonably long time.”

A reasonably long time, of course, is not forever. And even the other distinctively human qualities he listed—judgment and intuition—appear assailable. Earlier in our conversation, he had described how Google was thinking about the future of its ability to harness the insights into our interests and lives that it can glean from our search queries. “One of the things that eventually happens in that perceived line of reasoning,” he said, “is that we don’t need you to type at all.” That is, computers will be able to judge—or, better, intuit—what we are interested in knowing, at any given moment, by drawing inferences from our past searches and other information we’ve agreed to supply. “Because we know where you are—with your permission—we know where you’ve been—with your permission—we can more or less guess what you’re thinking about,” Schmidt explained.

As Brian Christian writes in our cover story this month, humanity’s once expansive sense of its own uniqueness has been eroding over the past century, beset on one side by recognition of the sentience of other creatures and on the other by the accelerating advance of computer science. (We should probably take it as a backhanded compliment from Mother Nature that the very qualities we once thought made us unique—our abilities to feel and reason—are now leading us to realize we may not be so special after all.) We are not alone in using language, tools, or reasoning, and when it comes to math, I’m probably closer in capacity to the cat prowling past my feet than to the laptop I’m typing on. (A chicken in North Carolina did fight me to a draw in tic-tac-toe once, but that’s another story.)

“What a piece of work is a man,” Hamlet—who knew a piece of work when he saw one—observed. “How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” The last century’s experience left us with a less exalted sense of ourselves not only because other entities turned out to share some of our powers, but also because we often didn’t act much like angels when we applied those powers, including new ones supplied by technology. Could computers move us closer to Hamlet’s vision of our potential? Christian argues that the contest with computers will compel us to hone those qualities of our intelligence that do distinguish us: our suppleness and sensitivity, our creativity and wit. And according to Schmidt, an alliance with computers (Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, has speculated that within 10 years, implanted devices might communicate directly with our brains) will free us from rote memorization and other menial tasks.

Free us to do what, is I suppose the underlying question—to play Angry Birds or learn another language; to act like angels, or not at all like them. The choice is still going to be ours. For a reasonably long time, at least.

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