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The Ghost, The Machine and What Lies Between

The Ghost, The Machine and What Lies Between

  • Dualism is a Philosophical subject which has a lot to do with the impact of Artificial Intelligence on human future.
  • Take a little dive into a magnificent world with some of the world's best philosophers, and hopefully by the end of the article you will understand why there is no reason to be worried about AI takeover.

Dualism in Metaphysics is the belief that there are two kinds of reality: material (physical) and immaterial (spiritual). In the Philosophy of Mind, Mind-Body Dualism is the position that mind and body are categorically in some way separate from each other and that mental phenomena are, in many respects, non-physical in nature.

The mind and body problem concerns the extent to which the mind and the body are separate or are the same thing and the relationship between thought and consciousness in the human mind. Many theories have been put forward to explain the relationship between what we call the mind (defined as the conscious) and the brain (defined as part of the physical body), some of which I would like to discuss in this article, but first let us look at the long and varied history of this argument.

The Ghost: “Cogito Ergo Sum” (i think, therefore I am)

“Am I so tied to a body and senses that I am incapable of existing without them?”

Dualism can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Plato first formulated the ‘Theory of Forms’, which proposes that the objects and other phenomena that we perceive in the world are nothing more than mere shadows. He argued that for the intellect to have access to concepts or ideas, the mind must be a non-physical entity. Aristotle argued that since the intellect is capable of receiving and reflecting on all forms of data, then it must not be a physical organ and so must be immaterial.

However, Dualism was most precisely formulated during the 1600s’ by the French philosopher René Descartes, who laid the foundations for the beginnings of ‘Cartesian Dualism’, specifically his argument is that the body and the mind are completely separate substances, each independent of each other, what we call Dualism.

The Machine

“All-natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature, and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)

In contrast, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were English philosophers who disagreed with the concept of Dualism in favour of Materialism.

They argued, that all human experiences are physical processes occurring within the brain and nervous system. As this view holds that the mind and body are one and the same, it later became known as Monism.

Hobbes did not believe in the soul, or in the mind as distinct from the body, or in any of the other incorporeal and metaphysical entities. Instead, he saw human beings essentially as machines, with even their thoughts and emotions operating according to physical laws and chains of cause and effect, action and reaction. As machines, human beings pursue their own self-interest relentlessly, mechanically avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure.

Hobbes believed that in man’s natural state, moral ideas do not exist. Thus, in speaking of human nature, he defines good simply as that which people desire and evil as that which they avoid, at least in the state of nature. Hobbes uses these definitions as bases for explaining a variety of emotions and behaviours. For example, hope is the prospect of attaining some apparent good, whereas fear is the recognition that some apparent good may not be attainable.

The Ghost in The Machine

The British philosopher Gilbert Ryle who also lectured at Oxford, made important contributions to ‘The Philosophy Of The Mind’ by introducing the phrase “The Ghost In The Machine” as a criticism of the view of Descartes and others, that mental and physical activity occur simultaneously, but separately.

‘The Ghost In The Machine’, means the consciousness or mind carried in a physical entity. Ryle believed that human consciousness and the mind are very dependent on the human brain. The term ‘Ghost In The Machine’, has come to also describe the supposed consciousness in a device, that behaves as if it has a will that is independent of what the human operator wants the device to do.
Computer programmers have appropriated the term ‘Ghost In The Machine’, to explain when programs run contrary to their expectations.

In 1967 Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian British author and journalist wrote the “The Ghost in the Machine”. The title used the phrase coined by Ryle.
Koestler’s book is essentially a critique of the hypothesis that the human mind could be viewed as a machine, a sort of chemical computer. He went on to consider that if it were a computer, then what of the metaphysical? Fifty years later, the inverse is the question, with many questioning whether Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an initial step on the path to machines gaining a consciousness.

But it is very important to acknowledge two things about AI: First of all, that the success of modern AI is less due to a breakthrough in new techniques and more due to the vast amount of data and computational power available. Importantly though, even an infinite amount of data won’t give AI human-like intelligence – we need to make significant progress on developing artificial ‘General Intelligence’ techniques first. Some approaches to doing this involve building a computer model of the human brain – which we are not even close to achieving. The second thing to acknowledge is that AI cannot function without human input. Humans ARE the Artificial Intelligence, and before you think about some evil comments, let me explain: Mary L. Gray, a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center and a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research let AI’s secret out in her new book, ‘Ghost Work’: “Human workers don’t just label the data that makes AI work. Sometimes humans workers are the artificial intelligence.”

AI systems are not some alien brain evolving in our midst, soon to be our overlords and masters. They are machines we build and train by embedding our humanity into their programming.

Machine learning algorithms are often thought of as black boxes, and less effort is made in pinpointing the specifics of the solution our algorithms have found. This is an important and frequently neglected aspect, as we are often obsessed with performance and less with understanding. Understanding the solutions that these systems have discovered is important because we can also evaluate if they are the correct or desirable solutions.

The Philosophical Zombie

One might argue that AI is a ‘Philosophical Zombie’, a term associated with David Chalmers, and the philosopher Robert Kirk, to describe an exact physical clone of a human being that walks and talks just like one. But, that nonetheless lacks any inner mental experience, thoughts or emotions. It simply replicates human behaviour for the sake of replication. A machine might be capable of some sort of consciousness, but not human consciousness.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel argues in his article, ‘What Is It Like To Be A Bat?’ – that consciousness has a subjective aspect and that understanding other mental states, is difficult or impossible for those not able to experience those mental states. He chose bats because they are mammals that are relatively closely related to humans, (one might say that this is how we got the COVID-19 spread? – let’s just leave it for now!) – but, even if we know all the objective facts about them, we can never actually know what it would really be like to be a bat. We might be able to imagine what it would be like to hang upside down, fly through the night, or use echolocation to track prey, but Nagel also argues, that we really couldn’t know what a bat’s experience is really like, just as we cannot know what it is like to be a bat.
We cannot know what it may be like to be a computer or some sort of Artificial Intelligence. All we can say is that unless some AI is given an actual human brain only a human can know what it is like to be a human. But on the flip side, the question left to answer is: we might not know what is it like to be a machine, and a machine cannot have a human consciousness but are we the ghost within the machine?
In order to answer that question, we first have to understand some fundamental ideas in human decision making.

The Ghost or The Machine?

The story of the ‘Two Wolves’ is one of my favourites. It is always a good reminder even if you have heard it. It goes something like this:

An old Cherokee grandfather is teaching his grandson about life: “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”  
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person too.”
The grandson thought about it and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

This story can be interpreted in many different purposes, but for me, it serves as an important reminder of the dual powers every (human) has inside. The good and the bad, or the ‘Shoulder Angel’ – a plot device commonly used in fiction, animation books and movies.
Let’s talk about the angel or the devil on our shoulder. As you can obviously imagine, the roots of this idea go back in time to the philosopher, Sigmund Freud, the founder of Psychoanalysis, who formulated the idea of ‘The Ego and the Id’ (pronounced like ‘stupid’ without the ‘stup’), as an analytical study of the human psyche.

The concept of an angel or a devil on your shoulder is basically Freud’s theory dealing with the id, the ego, and the super-ego.

The id is the imaginary devil, Freud described it as a “striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs…” The id is a pleasure-seeking part of the mind, it ignores the possible consequences. It lacks morals and is self-serving.
While the imaginary angel on the shoulder is the super-ego. It is also known as the  conscious. It represents our ideals, our sense of right and wrong. It is trying to keep the id under control.
The last piece is the ego, which is represented by our head stuck between the angel and the devil on our shoulder. The ego is basically the judge, it mediates between the id and the super-ego, in order to come up with the proper action to take. It pretty much weighs the pros and cons between what the id and the super-ego want.

The problem with Freud’s theory is that there is no way to support it. We cannot prove the existence of an id or a super-ego. All we are aware of is that when we have to make a decision, there is an inner conflict that we listen to.

In fact, if we are going to look to psychology for an explanation for decision making we might find a remedy.

Following our earlier discussion about the conscious, and the underlying conclusion about the inability of machines to have them, can we say that only humans have the ability to behave in an angelic way and that machines are devils by definition? I think it is a way more complicated question, maybe on the borderline between philosophy, science and the progression of humankind. But one thing I can assure, decision making in human being is a far more complex process than a Deep Neural Network or Decision Tree.

Making decisions can be tough, and our self-talk can potentially lead us to a number of outcomes. Some of these decisions lead to outcomes that are in our favour and some decisions really work against us. But what guides our decision making? Well, we all have a conscience – that inner voice instructing us on ‘Right and Wrong’, when we are making a decision.

For breakfast this morning, I had to choose between a croissant (pain au chocolate, to be precise), versus a bowl of oatmeal (The croissant was delicious). Throughout the day, I will have to fight off urges to check Twitter, skip the gym, and watch “Altered Carbon” late into the night. At every moment, temptation beckons. Psychologists have used this conflict to explain self-control: the push and pull between our short term impulsive, emotional system and our long term deliberative, logical system.
But, psychologists argue that these two systems do not necessarily act simultaneously. The consensus has been that when we see a croissant, our impulsive system acts first, quickly giving rise to automatic urges. From this standpoint, the devil arrives as soon as there is trouble, and the angel arrives late to the game and tries to conquer the devil.
This implies that self-control depends heavily on our conscious, the angel. In fact, modern society champions the power of the will – the idea of controlling and overriding the animal urges so that rationality can prevail. This suggests very clear remedies for personal failings: greater willpower and a tougher psyche.

You might see that as two wolves, angel and devil perched on your shoulder, ego and id or how I prefer to see it – as a ghost inside and a machine. I will leave you to decide who is winning, the ghost or the machine?

The Ghost and The Machine?

“We have to love our technology enough to describe it accurately. And we have to love ourselves enough to confront technology’s true effects on us”. (Turkle)

An AI takeover is a hypothetical scenario in which Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes the dominant form of intelligence on Earth, with computers or robots effectively taking the control of the planet away from the human species. People are talking about AI taking over and surpassing human intelligence.

Personally, I am more concerned with how humans use AI. Machine Learning algorithms are often thought of as black boxes, and less effort is made in examining the specifics of the solutions algorithms have found. This is an important and frequently neglected aspect, as we are often overly obsessed with performance and less with understanding. Understanding the solutions that these systems have discovered is important because we can also evaluate if they are correct or desirable solutions.

Just like humans, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence are tools. They can be used in a right or a wrong way, like everything else. It is the way that they are used that should concern us, not the methods themselves. Human greed and human complacency scare me far more than Artificial Intelligence. 

Will robots replace humans in some jobs? The answer is unequivocal, yes. However, with every job taken over by machines, there will be an equal number of opportunities for new jobs to be done by people. Some of these will be of the creative type, others will require humans to hone their superhuman reasoning skills. But will AI replace humans completely? I assume that the answer is no. AI systems are not some alien brain evolving in our midst, soon to be our overlords and masters. They are machines we build and train by embedding our humanity into their programming.

There are fears of AI taking over the world, nightmares of a jobless, machine-controlled future. For that to occur, we first have to understand how likely it is for an AI to develop a ‘Super Intelligence’, an intelligent behaviour that will surpass that of humans.

Humans tend to be afraid of what they don’t understand. So, it is without wonder this also applies to new technologies – which are often surrounded by a certain mystery. Some technological achievements seem almost surreal, clearly surpassing expectations of them and in some cases,  human performance.

People and machines can and will work together in the future, they will find themselves in symbiotic relationships, helping each other do what they do best. It is not a question of OR, but AND. So, let’s stop, or at least ignore, the hollow drumbeat of AI superiority. Humans are amazing and AI would be lost without them, but one thing AI can do for sure – it might help us focus on what we are irreplaceable at, and make humanity become Human again.

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