Both Suffering From Shellshock

As a computer scientist I look at the universe and ask “Why? Why am I a computer scientist?”

What separates me from animals? Well, people like animals. What differentiates me from computers? Well, computers don’t have panic attacks in nightclubs. Yet I maintain that I am better than a ferret or a calculator for one key reason: I am human. Ferrets and calculators are good and all, but they’ll never be able to take out a mortgage or have an awareness of microwave popcorn.

These are obviously arbitrary measures, but they are increasingly what humanity has to cling to to assert its superiority. Advances in artificial intelligence mean computers will soon replace us all (see Someone I Met At A Bus Stop, 2013). They can think abstractly (ibid.) and be creative (ibid.), unlike wading birds with curved beaks that eat reptiles (ibis). It won’t be long before they start taking our jobs and killing our children.

Maybe there’s no reason to be alarmed. If we trusted the movie Her we’d know that no matter how hyper-intelligent AIs become, their dialogue will still be trite, unrealistic and delivered by an actress who couldn’t out-act a fish even if the fish was shy and had Alzheimer’s. But I personally trust Her about as far as I can throw it, which is roughly the distance to the nearest open sewer. We need to find out what makes humans the best.

Perhaps empathy is what makes humans inherently better than machines. I mean, imagine that you’re walking through a desert when you see a tortoise lying on its back, unable to right itself. Because you’re a human you’d naturally turn it over. A machine wouldn’t do that – it’d just calculate pi or something. 1-0 humanity. But, I hear you ask, what if the tortoise was a paedophile or a terrorist? What if it had 40 pounds of Semtex strapped to its shell and was planning to eventually explode an underage gazelle? Well, because you’re a human you’d naturally start monitoring all tortoises’ internet usage and lock up any reptilian whisteblowers. A machine wouldn’t do that. But, now that I think about it, their inaction probably gives them a better sense of human dignity than us. 1-1.

Maybe pain is at the core of what it is to be human. I mean, most of my time is spent either feeling pain or sleeping. So I got to wondering: can computers feel pain? To test this, I wrote a program whose entire existence was to keep asking me to talk to it. I started it, waited for it to prompt me for input and then ignored it for two weeks. The idea was to give it the silent treatment and then curtly say that I didn’t think we should be friends anymore. However, after two weeks I returned to find that the program had gained sentience, ran off with my girlfriend and started a multi-million dollar business with my old school bully. I couldn’t believe that Sophie would run off with a computer program – especially one written in Visual Basic. Initially getting dumped made me cry and cry, but after a few weeks I started feeling myself again. That’s what men without girlfriends do.

So computers are smarter than us, more adaptable than us, respect privacy more than us and are apparently much, much better in bed than us. They’re superior in every way. And, as the calculators repossess our homes and steal our microwaves, we’ll be left trying to strike up conversations with ferrets and dreaming of the days when we had steam-powered sheep.