Humanity’s USP

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a prof at the Oxford Internet Institute, wonders what mankind’s unique selling proposition will be in a world of artificial intelligence. Understandably, he finds it a bit hard to identify.

It can’t be skills like arithmetic or typing, which machines already excel in. Nor can it be rationality, because with all our biases and emotions we humans are lacking.

So perhaps we might want to consider qualities at a different end of the spectrum: radical creativity, irrational originality, even a dose of plain illogical craziness, instead of hard-nosed logic. A bit of Kirk instead of Spock.


So we must aim our human contribution to this division of labour to complement the rationality of the machines, rather than to compete with it. Because that will sustainably differentiate us from them, and it is differentiation that creates value.

If I am right, we should foster a creative spirit, irreverent takes, even irrational ideas as we educate our children. Not because irrationality is bliss, but because a dose of illogical creativity will complement the rationality of the machine. It’ll keep guaranteeing us a place on the table of evolution.

But it seems a hopeless strategy to identify an area or type of activity that will remain as our own. To name some facet of our life is to mark it out as a target for machine emulation. If it has a market value, we have to assume the machines can do it better. It would be obscurantist to think that there might be some type of human cognitive activity whose workings cannot be captured in an algorithm. Suppose human beings at first excel in, say, “wacky” (ugh!) humour, to take an example of “creative spirit, irreverent takes, irrational ideas”. Here too the machines will come to excel us by studying our behaviour. And then why would we want to listen to second-rate human wacky comedians when there are stellar artificial-intelligence wacky comedians to distract us from our uselessness?

I think this diminishes the importance of the claims of Tim Worstall in a typically Pollyanna-ish posting to the Adam Smith Institute blog of 31 March. Concerning the argument that new technology will create jobs to replace those that are lost, he writes:

The claim isn’t that technology creates jobs at all. It’s that technology frees up labour. Which then applies itself to sating some other human want or desire. It’s not the technology creating jobs, it’s those unmet human wants which do. And as long as we don’t run out of them then there will be jobs – and if we do run out of unmet needs then that’s not a problem.

But those unmet human wants might be better met by AGIs (artificial general intelligence systems) than by human beings. Then Worstall’s picture of people continuing to be of value to each other has to be revised. Apparently even service to human beings will be better done by machines. That will be just fine as far as material well-being is concerned, provided that all the human possessors of those wants can be matched with the machine suppliers of wants. But it doesn’t touch the question of how human beings who lack economic value will find self-respect.

The “caring professions” are often cited as the last bastions of specifically human endeavour. But it’s not clear that we wouldn’t prefer to be cared for by skilful algorithmic systems rather than by lovable human bunglers. The caring profession I most frequently come in contact with is hairdressing. It’s a bit of an effort to make conversation with whichever barber I get, and I’ve never heard or said anything memorable there. I don’t think I could resist the temptation to go to an AI barber that would do the job better, faster and cheaper, while keeping up a steady flow of enlightening and well-informed conversation free of any reference to holiday plans.

And yet, I suppose I would come away from that encounter feeling … lonely. Not more lonely than when I went in, but without any loneliness being assuaged.

I can think of only one thing that makes a human being irreplaceable: namely, the quality of being human itself. Only another human being can speak to me with authority and authenticity about … I’m not sure what – just life, as it is for human beings, I suppose.

What can give an entity that authority?

Having a human form. Being of woman born. Having gone from birth through the same exigencies of human life that the community of human beings go through. Being like me.

I keep thinking of this analogy: of the value of an authentic Vermeer as compared with that of a van Meegeren fake. If you name any feature of a Vermeer, aesthetic or physical, you can imagine van Meegeren equalling it or excelling it. If van Meegeren happens to copy an existing Vermeer exactly, I don’t know how you can say his replica has any less value than the original, save that physically it hasn’t actually been touched by Vermeer’s hand. And that’s not something that I value much at all – though many people do, and that accounts for much of the market value of the original over the copy.

Now suppose that van Meegeren creates a new composition of his own in the style of Vermeer. Once again we can suppose that every definable quality found in Vermeer’s paintings is imparted to the new painting. Perhaps van Meegeren includes some item never actually used by Vermeer, although it’s just the sort of thing that Vermeer would have used; or every item in the new painting might be something found in some Vermeer or other, but never in this particular combination.

This creation lacks one thing that a Vermeer has: the quality of being an authentic communication from the 17th century. “Communication ” is the best word I can think of for what we look for in an original. This creation of van Meegeren is a communication from him. And it’s not him but Vermeer I’m interested in.

And the creations of the super-capable AI systems of the future will be communications from them – if we come to view them as communications at all, which will depend on how we come to view their creators.

So just as original Vermeers will continue to hold their value at auction, for so long as we can distinguish between originals and copies, so we’ll continue to value human beings, just for being like us. (I think we’ll be able to distinguish between human beings and AI systems, because it seems futile to create humanoid robots.) So perhaps we will continue to value human bunglers over skilful algorithms, in some small areas.

It’s a thin straw to clutch at. Is this the long-term fate of the human race: to sit in our luxury AI-serviced reservations, with our imperfect haircuts, saying to each other Tell me about it and I know how you feel, while all the worthwhile work is done elsewhere?


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