On Being Human

Artificial Intelligence is sexy.

At least, that’s what we’re constantly being told.

Technologists wax poetic about how computers can increasingly replicate our ability to think and reason.  Folks like Eric Schmidt gleefully proclaim that people really want Google to “tell them what to do next.”

Even Clay Shirky believes that people re-Tweeting on a global scale somehow means the Internet itself is beginning to engage in human-like problem solving.

Someone recently asked me “Do you think the Internet itself will someday become intelligent and self aware?  Like a big brain?”

I replied “No.  Never.  But something much better could happen.”

Because I’m deeply involved in technology, particularly online tools that connect people across the globe, I think many people suspect I’m in the same camp as all those technologists who see computers evolving into our intellectual equals as an inevitable and joyous concept.

But they couldn’t be more wrong about me.

I see technology as tools for the human mind.  Like a hammer or wrench, these tools become extensions of ourselves.  Like language.  But only extensions, nothing more.

We’re always frustrated by tasks that are difficult for us.  And because of that frustration, we’re very impressed when something comes along that accomplishes those tasks easily.

Likewise, the things that we do easily, the things we do instinctively and brilliantly, we tend to undervalue.  It’s human nature.

So when we see technology effortlessly doing things that are difficult for us (like Google combing the entire Internet for our keywords), we tend to subconsciously think “I bet that tech could also do all that *easy* stuff I do every day.  You know, all that deeper human thought stuff.”

We forget that being human is much more than clever algorithms.  Being human is more than how our physical neurons are interconnected.  Being human is how we build culture over generations, our thoughts mixing with other people’s thoughts through communication and knowledge sharing.  It’s about how we love and laugh together.  How we create art and thereby inspire others with our creativity.

Being human is what happens when human minds touch other minds.

So, no, I don’t think the Internet will become a big brain.  I think it’s misguided to focus on how complex technologies of interconnected computers can be used to recreate the human mind.

Rather, I believe the future lies in technology that connects us with each other in new ways.  Technology like online communities, social media and virtual worlds that allow us to share ideas and creativity.  With other human beings.

So, to that person who asked me about the “Internet Brain” of the future, I’m really sorry.  I just don’t see it.  But something better could happen.  We’ll hopefully realize what being human is all about.  And we’ll all be better human beings because of it, connecting to each other by creating and using new tools that allow us to shape and share our dreams.

Now that’s sexy.

-John “Pathfinder” Lester

About John Lester (Pathfinder)

John Lester is an expert in Multiuser 3D Virtual Worlds, Immersive Learning, Knowledge Management and Community Development. His background is in neuroscience research and medical education, and he previously worked at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and Linden Lab. John is currently the Chief Learning Officer at ReactionGrid Inc., helping clients develop new systems for immersive learning using web and mobile-based virtual world platforms. For more contact info please see http://about.me/pathfinder
This entry was posted in Artificial Intelligence, Psychology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to On Being Human

  1. Ghosty Kips says:

    Hi Path! Excellent blog you have here, I think I’ll stay a while. :)

  2. Fogwoman Gray says:

    Thank you sir! Well said.

  3. Ariel says:

    True. That has been the stated reason for all tech for all time, to free human beings to connect on more noble terms with Life & each other. The next layer is not merely to connect but to act upon those connections in compassion and involvement in other lives.

  4. Fee Berry says:

    I do agree with you, the web is more like the best library. It can deliver information, but we need to sift and interpret, it can’t think for us. It seems to me that education hasn’t caught up with the changes it has wrought yet: they’re still filling up the little darlings with facts and information, instead of equipping them to use discrimination to decide what is relevant, and what is not. It seems to me that although the education industry has imported a few of the snazzy tools of the 21st century, they’re still caught in a 19th-century model of education, in which it is against the interests of the industry to teach people to think for themselves, question, explore.

  5. mimi muircastle says:

    Thank you, Pathfinder, for continuing to be an amazing human being! We need minds like yours to remind us all of this truth. By focusing on our humanness whether we communicate in the same room or on the same prim is the most important focus of all. And how we treat one another no matter what tool we use to connect is part of the human freedom not dictated by the technology we select to communicate.

    I love virtual worlds and all of our shiny techie toys for allowing me the freedom to communicate with some of the most fascinating people in the whole world.

  6. Myklos says:

    All’s well in the cybernetic utopia, but the rupture of an optic fiber by an obtuse malefic envious entity from the netherworlds down below the magnetic field, may put an end to our collective compassionate intelligence.
    Myklos
    (Michel Karmin inworld)

  7. In the end it might be the survival of the kindest after all, for in that is a triumph of our civilization. That of our humanity to one another. Human ver 1.0 is still very much the same and we still need the same things we have forever. Including community. Because as you pointed out it is with one another that we find something so much greater.

  8. If the internet is not becoming a collective brain- is it becoming a collective soul? The seat of our dreams, hopes and spirit?

    • Pathfinder says:

      I think the seat of our dreams, hopes and spirit will always live within human beings. But the Internet gives us a new tapestry upon which we can share these human things. So in that sense, you could argue the Internet is becoming the most global and instantaneous tapestry ever created. It is where souls are shared.

  9. johnny says:

    I think you have to look beyond the idea that “artificial intelligence” is just about trying to replicate the brain by stringing enough transistors together. Concepts like “intelligence” and “human nature” are not static, but derive from the changing dynamics of social organisation. What it means to “be human” has evolved over the centuries as the productive relations of society have developed, and at each stage the technology available has been created by the existing consciousness, and has subsequently produced the conditions for the next iteration of that consciousness. The transformative potential of the internet lies not in creating an electronic simulacrum of the current human mind, but in facilitating the development of the next level of collective human intelligence.

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  14. Elicea Igaly says:

    Ditto Ghostly Kips, above. This is the blog-mind I’ve been looking for. YES! Because I believe that beyond “self-entertainment,” and being builders, scripters, artists, educators, etc., the quintessential essence for virtual worlds and a metaverse that will Thrive are multiplied talents with the ability to “read” minds through technology–building upon a capacity and practice in “being human.” TY Pathfinder. “You Look Marvelous”!

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  16. Suzanne says:

    Making our philosophies transparent is very important seeing as hype takes up so much prime discursive real estate.

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