Five Things That Set Humans Apart From Machines

Five Things That Set Humans Apart From Machines

by Ameer Shahul - Saturday, February 24, 2018 04:13 PM IST
Five Things That Set Humans Apart From MachinesA Tanscorp UU smart robot is displayed at CES 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES is the world’s largest annual consumer technology trade show. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
  • As machines get smarter, fears arise about whether they will be able to match or surpass the abilities of humans sometime in the future.

    Truth is, machines will always have their limitations. We discuss five areas where they will fall short.

Artificial Intelligence is taking the world by storm. It is making its way into every sphere of life, as computers did three decades ago, but in relatively more intrusive ways.

Perhaps for the first time in our history, humans will be challenged on what has always been considered as the point of difference between them and the rest of the animal kingdom – the creative and processing power of the human mind.

So there is a threat. But relax. Machines will never be able to take on everything humans do with their minds. There are numerous areas of brain function that are specific to human beings. These are the areas in which humans will seek to edge ahead as machines start moving into some of the functions that humans have been traditionally engaged in.

1. Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence, or emotional quotient, is the ability of human beings to recognise emotions of theirs and others, and distinguish between different feelings and comprehend them appropriately. It is also what enables human beings to use information to direct their thinking and behaviour, besides managing and adjusting emotions to adapt to environments.

Humans with a high emotional intelligence tend to have better mental health and leadership skills. Studies have shown that it is responsible for 67 per cent of the qualities required for high performance as leaders.

Today, we have humanoids that express love and participate in intimate personals acts. Some of them are good at understanding the sentiments from a set of behavioural and verbal expressions and can respond accordingly. But they are lax in assuming the intentions of the person while engaging in romance or love beyond what is visibly expressed.

Emotional intelligence will remain a strong, non-replicable quality of human brain function and will continue to distinguish Homo sapiens from most of the other animal species – and from machines.

2. Values

Values are broad preferences of appropriate courses of action or outcome, and reflect a person’s sense of right and wrong.

‘Equal rights for all’, ‘non-discrimination based on sex, race, and religion’, and ‘respect for the elderly’ are all examples of values held by human beings. Values tend to influence attitudes and behaviour and set the ‘correct’ course of life for individuals. They are traits learnt, inherited, and practised by human society for long, and many have evolved over an extended period of time. Having values is also seen as a quality of an evolved civilisation.

Machines will not be able to have values, though they can imbibe some traits and demonstrate some of them when trained to do so. But the process to imbibe these traits or values in machines is beyond the ability of any algorithm.

This will continue to distinguish man from machine, even after designing machines that can love, make love, and get angry.

3. Curiosity or inquisitiveness

Curiosity flows from inquisitive thinking, which involves exploration, investigation, and learning through a constant observation of what is happening around. In other words, it is the process of learning and the desire to acquire knowledge and skill.

Curiosity is also an innate quality of human beings, though selectively found in many other species in the animal kingdom. It is generally found in human beings from infancy till the end of life or till certain parts of the brain stop functioning. In fact, curiosity has been driving human development so far and is responsible for the progress humans have achieved in the sciences, languages, and mechanisation.

Can machines replicate it? Can machines be trained to imitate this quality? Not really.

Machines can stack up data, analyse the stacked data, understand patterns, and predict based on the patterns as per their training. They will also be able to investigate, if trained to do it, on certain parameters. But they will not be able to observe and learn on their own, even if all human senses are replicated in a machine.

Curiosity will remain a forte of human beings and certain animals for a very long time.

4. Ethical decision-making

Ethical decision-making is arriving at the right choice based on trust, responsibility, fairness, and care for others. It involves reviewing different options, eliminating unfair ones, and choosing the best one with righteousness and justice.

This is yet another trait that developed from the animal kingdom as a highly valued evolutionary quality. Many animals do make decisions based on trust and responsibility, at least within their group and society. Humans added this quality with fairness and care for others.

Machines cannot distinguish good from bad in ordinary situations. However, when trained to differentiate between a set of good and bad qualities, machines will behave accordingly. The challenge is your ‘good’ quality can be my ‘bad’ quality. What one society rules as a good quality may be seen as bad in another.

One example is same-sex marriage. Machines cannot decide on their own whether same-sex marriages are “good” or “bad” and form an opinion on the issue.

5. Critical thinking

Critical thinking is objectively analysing facts to arrive at a fair judgment. It would mean rational and unbiased analysis of factual evidence. Can machines think critically?

Yes, to some extent. But not entirely. Machines can be trained to objectively analyse factual evidence and arrive at judgements. The type of judgement they will make will depend on what the machines are trained and directed to do.

For instance, machines that are trained on traffic violations and other similar patterns will be able to predict the number of accidents that can take place in an area during a specific period. But if you are seeking widening of the road to reduce the number of accidents, machines will have to be told the output requirement.

Machines can be taught to think critically, to the extent that you train the machines. Machines will need additional training each time they are directed to do something beyond their processing mandate.

Human brains, on the other hand, have the innate instinct to divert thinking to a different route if one route fails.

Ameer Shahul is a senior executive with IBM Corporation. Views expressed are his own.

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