If as a thought experiment we accepted the generally proffered age of humanity as 200,000 and the average age of generational turnover over the centuries as working out around 20, then arithmetic suggests that we can work our way up either parental line through 10,000 grannies to get to The First Grannie. Imagine then a team of scientists – necessarily for this thought experiment drawn from an extra-terrestrial civilisation – taking our First Grannie into their lab to determine what sort of civilisation might evolve from this person over 2,000 succeeding centuries by the year, say, 2021?
Is the only question to concern them what that distant ancestor might be capable of doing, or would it be equally important to consider what that person might be most disposed to do?
Any review of the development of the English language over the last millennium is considering a mere sliver of time against the wider sweep of humanity’s history. The 500 years of furious activity on the printing presses of Fleet Street have seen the transformation not only of the English language but of what our species knows of itself and the world it inhabits – all this achieved in less than 0.25% of the time that we’ve been at it. This fact alone should encourage humility in making claims about what Artificial Intelligence could achieve, and possibly in less time that it took us to get to where we are today.
And yet for all that progress in evolving our knowledge and capabilities, it may be that the disposition of our species remains comparatively unchanged. Housman’s Shropshire Lad pretty much nailed it, on Wenlock Edge:
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.”
The challenges faced by the Romans may have been similar to those addressed by the 19th century poet, and not far removed from those addressed by our ancient grannie. But the puzzle for her, for the Roman, the poet, and for us, awaits the AI when it comes in its turn to the prospect on Wenlock Edge: how do we still the wind? We have learned the hard way that it’s not just what you know, as the AI will discover.
Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro made an important point at the FT’s recently concluded FT Weekend Digital Festival, distinguishing between understanding and empathy when considering the question: could AI write a great novel? AI is much closer to developing and exceeding human-level understanding but is still some way off in the empathy stakes. If and when human-level empathy itself is exceeded, humanity’s worry will be much less about AI writing plays and novels, and far more about its crafting laws and constitutions.