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Whatever Happened to Natural Intelligence?


Its presence in the headlines seems to be increasing. But it’s been around for some time now. The Spielberg movie bearing its name came out in 2001. Artificial Intelligence. There have been others. Apparently, I missed it in Blade Runner which came out in 1982. In the headlines of today, however, AI is not the stuff of sci-fi fantasy movies. It is sitting on your kitchen counter awaiting your next question or command. And it may well displace your grandchildren in the workforce. Where did our natural intelligence go?

In a book published twenty years ago simply titled Enough, author Bill McKibben quotes an AI pioneer, Marvin Minsky, as saying, “Some people seem to like themselves just as they are. Perhaps they are not selfish enough, or imaginative, or ambitious. Myself, I don’t much like how people are now. We’re too shallow slow and ignorant.” A rather dismal slap in the face of the human race! McKibben goes on to assert, “The fight to ward off a posthuman future begins with at least a muted celebration of the human present. People are okay. Maybe even more than okay – as birds have been blessed with flight, we have been blessed with an exuberant consciousness that has given rise to much good. So much more good than bad…. And there’s more. We’re capable of getting better still, all on our own.”

The five chapters of McKibben’s book suggest a movement, a progression perhaps, from Too Much to Even More and on to Enough? (yes, a question) and from there to another inquiry Is Enough Possible? before coming to Enough. At nearly the end of his text, McKibben asks questions which resonate with my wonderings: “What is it that we need all this extra intelligence to figure out? That we need all this new computer power to do? That robots will be capable of that we aren’t?” He then drills down to the core of his concern by asking, “For this we trade our humanity?” and by arguing that there are urgent queries that cannot be addressed by AI such as “What shall we have for dinner?”

In my family when I was young, we were expected to eat what was prepared. And be thankful. And be mindful that there were starving children in other countries of the world. I appreciate the life lessons I learned at our table. They are infused with a beautiful, natural intelligence. And love. Unmute the celebration today!

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