Human machines, mechanical humans
We seem to have this fascination with combining machines, our mechanical and arguably innately unhumanlike inventions, with our own sense of humanness, and visa versa - creating machines that act, think, and interact like us. Why? Is it the human need to develop something that they deem greater than themselves, or the human desire to make their own lives easier, or the human need for infallible companionship that it seems AI could provide? Maybe it’s simply the continuation of ideas that have slowly developed for centuries, or the individual fascination like my own? We can only guess until the future becomes the present and we see exactly how the rise of AI has changed the world.
We seem to have this fascination with combining machines, our mechanical and arguably innately unhumanlike inventions, with our own sense of humanness, and visa versa - creating machines that act, think, and interact like us. We see this in media, movies like The Terminator, or books about cyborgs in dystopian lands, like one of my childhood favorites, Cinder. With the rise of AI (whatever that hype-word means), we’re now starting to get machines that can talk and appear to think similarly to us. We, I believe, have a fascination with creating humans to be more machine, and machines to be more human.
I’ve personally been fascinated with this since childhood. As I mentioned, one of my favorite books from childhood is about a cyborg, and the rest of my favorite books line up in one of two categories - childhood geniuses, who seem to lack the better parts of human emotion (e.g. Artemis Fowl), and dystopian words where machines play a big part in determining human happiness and function. For a large part of my life, longer than I’ve been programming, I wanted to work as a biomedical engineer, and I was fascinated with combining machine parts with humans to make our lives better and more efficient. My dream company was called Ekso, they create bionic counterparts for people who are disabled, or people who work in jobs like construction. I found this fascinating, mainly the question, how can we leverage the strengths of machines and the strengths of humans together, to create better lives?
I ended up switching my major a year into university after hating a physics class, and found linguistics. At first, I thought my interest and passion for linguistics was a completely different interest that my fascination with the ability to combine machines with biology. Somewhere along the road, when I discovered NLP and the world of creating machines that can talk and appear to think like humans, I realized the two interests were not so different after all. While combining biology with mechanics was a very physical interpretation of making humans more like machines, combining linguistics with computation was a more theoretical abstraction of making machines more human. In both, people seek to combine something very specifically human with something very specifically synthetic.
In one of my linguistics classes, we had a guest lecture from another professor who specialized in computational linguistics. I was fascinated, enthralled, entranced, and left at the end of the lecture with newfound passion and interest. At that time, in the very start of my NLP career, DALL-E 1 was just announced. He showed us material from the blog post from OpenAI, the inputted text “A radish wearing a tutu walking a dog”, and the outputted image, of a radish, wearing a tutu, and walking a dog. I was hooked. I remember the professor being amazed that we were at the point of progress already, announcing that he hadn’t expected to see this in another few years. I’m not sure anyone could have guessed how fast the world of AI has moved forward, how fast it’s moving forward.
Fields like AI and bioengineering constantly live right on the ethics line. At what point do we stop? If we succeed in creating a human machine, or a mechanical human, where does that lead our world? Do we have the power to control our drive to create this, or control our creations?
My own interest in these fields scares me. I know, that given the knowledge and resources, if I was able to create a synthetic human, I probably would. The pull of the discovery, of the unknown, drives me to learn more, to continue being involved in this field, despite the warning bells that we may not be able to stop once we set the ball rolling. Our actions in the coming years, as we continue to explore the bounds of making computers think and react like humans, will shape the society of the future, undoubtedly, for better, or for worse.
I’ve always been curious about what makes humans as a whole pull towards creating a human-like machine. Is it our drive for progress, our need for companionship, our desire to make things easier for ourselves, or our own self-destructive habits? It seems that machines are very simply not designed to be human.
One of my friends (👋 Andy) told me about this theory, that machines will become good at things in backwards timeline order that humans have become good at things. In the span of human existence, we went from walking, to talking, to creating. Machines, at least the progress so far, seems to be going backwards. Creating art and playing games were one of the first progressions in the world of AI. We’re slowly working towards the language, and with the recent rise in GPT, I’d say we’re well on our way to have a talking machine. Of course, spoken language is a bit more difficult, as is any physical biology. Creating machines that can walk like humans, make facial expressions like humans, can grab things, laugh, or anything else we do with our meat sacks, has been relatively difficult and seemingly slower-progressing. Evolution has had a lot longer of a time to help us perfect our biology, and a relatively short time where we’ve been able to play games and create art.
So, my question, if it is so difficult, and at least for my relatively inexperienced self, seems like machines are not quite designed to be so human, why would we try? Would it make more sense to leverage the strengths that machines have and apply them to the world to make our human lives better? This already is being successfully done in a lot of practices, such as surgery or military robots. Why try to create this human-like, or superior to human, machine?
I don’t have very many answers to this question that keeps me up so many nights. I have theories, theories about human need to develop something that they deem greater than themselves, or the human desire to make their own lives easier, or the human need for infallible companionship that it seems AI could provide. Maybe it’s simply the continuation of ideas that have slowly developed for centuries, or the individual fascination like my own. We can only guess until the future becomes the present and we see exactly how the rise of AI has changed the world.