THE AGE OF INTELLIGENT MACHINES | The Age of Intelligent People

September 24, 2001
Ray Kurzweil
The MIT Press (1992)

Margaret Litvin was born in Russia in 1974. She and her family have lived in the United States since 1979. She wrote this article while attending the seventh grade in Bedford, Massachusetts.

I am supposed to live in the age of intelligent machines. Frankly, I’d rather be living in the age of intelligent people! What can one say of an era when a computer is smarter than the scientists who use it?

The most important subject taught to school children is rapidly becoming computer science and applications: how to use machines instead of brains, programs instead of knowledge. Soon there will be crib computers for newborns-little brightly colored affairs that record Junior’s progress while entertaining him or her-and a more complex model that understands and translates baby talk, sings lullabies, and, later on, teaches reading, writing, and, of course, typing.

In the present “back to nature” craze I am surprised that nobody has thought of marketing a product with “all natural intelligence-no artificial additives or preservatives of any kind.”

It once occurred to me that there are two ways to make a computer man’s intellectual equal. First, one can make the computer smarter. This may take thousands of researchers, millions of dollars, and a period of many years. The other, simpler way to go about this rather ambitious project is to simply make the humans stupider. This would take little time and money, since we are already well on the way. What if, in fact, some genius has already put the plan into operation!

It is interesting to note how modern computer studies relate to this goal. For example, let’s say we have a computer that corrects multiple-choice tests. Scientists develop a multiple-choice achievement test for school children, and the computer happily corrects it. One can imagine a computer program that could score better than average on a multiple-choice test like this. This would be a great triumph for artificial intelligence, but not so fine for natural intelligence: multiple-choice questions are easier to answer and allow much more guesswork than essay questions or even fill-in-the-blanks. This is just one example how a computer way of thinking affects our idea of natural intelligence and shifts it toward the artificial.

For another example, let’s take a word processor. The word processor itself is so convenient that it makes people forget how to write anything but form letters. It also makes me sad to see that such elegant subjects as graphology are dying. As for spelling correctors, using such a program is, I fear, enough to take away anyone’s ability and desire to spell properly, leaving them utterly helpless should they be suddenly deprived of their computer. It seems the computer gets smarter at the expense of its owner’s brain. And when the decision-making computers become as widespread as hand-held calculators, who will decide if it is good or bad?

All right, suppose we have an artificial brain that is in all senses equivalent to ours. It can reason (or maybe we can’t!). It can learn to talk, read, write, and most important, think just like man can. Why would anyone be attracted to this repulsive idea? In his August 1985 presidential address “I Had a Dream” Woody Bledsoe discusses his dream of “seeing a machine act like a human being, at least in many ways.” Well, I too have a dream to see a human being act like a human being! Wouldn’t it be nice if all those clever, talented, and devoted scientists and all that funding and interest went into maintaining and enriching natural intelligence? Instead of trying to impersonate nature, we could be helping her along. With all that attention, perhaps, we could be more intelligent in the future generations.

The reason why I opt for people is that I want not only intellect in my smart creatures; I also want emotions, passions, instincts, in short, everything that is so distinctly human in a person. Later on in his presidential address Dr. Bledsoe says, “Oh, I am well aware that the real problems are those of the mind, getting computer programs to act as if they reason, act as if they understand, think, learn, plan, enjoy, hate, etc.” What I don’t understand is his “act as if.” Why can’t scientists enjoy people, who really do these things?

Another of my nightmares is that when I grow up, all jobs that require at least some intelligence will be taken up by computers. Although this doesn’t yet have a full basis in reality, what little there is, is rather disturbing. Many talented workers may end up in the unemployment line replaced by impersonal machines. For example, let’s take my school. I have heard many wild, and not so wild, fantasies about replacing teachers with machines. Now, I’m fully confident that no computer in the world could teach as well as my English teacher this past year-maybe more efficiently, certainly more organized, but not nearly as well. (But take my math teacher. I’m convinced, and so are my schoolmates that any computer could outdo her without even trying!) This is not to say that all lousy teachers should be replaced with machines: most kids, myself included, would not like a computerized teacher one little bit. Instead of a Robotic Teachers’ Union I suggest a screening program so that nobody lacking natural intelligence would be allowed the title of teacher.

One of the arguments used by those disapproving of artificial intelligence is that human beings shouldn’t try to play God. Oddly enough, I disagree with this point of view. I don’t see anything wrong with people trying to imitate God, particularly since they won’t succeed. After all, most people don’t criticize a five-year-old girl upon seeing her with a lifelike doll. The child sees how her mother walks around with a real baby and wants to do likewise. One certainly wouldn’t blame a five-year-old for imitating her mother. Similarly, I cannot find it in my heart to condemn humanity when it strives to imitate its Father by working on artificial intelligence.

Courtesy of Margaret Litvin

Margaret Litvin was born in Russia in 1974. She and her family have lived in the United States since 1979. She wrote this article while attending the seventh grade in Bedford, Massachusetts.