"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, June 6, 2016

Following Your Gut–How Sentient Technology Will Make Human Sensibility Irrelevant

Never discredit your gut instinct. You are not paranoid. Your body can pick up on bad vibrations. if something deep inside you says something is not right about a person or situation, trust it
This post (Lessons Taught By Life) is currently circulating on the Internet. There is nothing new in the idea – The Sixties were all about good vibrations:
I love the colorful clothes she wears
And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair
I hear the sound of a gentle word

On the wind that lifts her perfume through the air
I'm picking up good vibrations
She's giving me excitations
Good bop bop, good vibrations
Bop bop, excitations
… (Good Vibrations, The Beach Boys)

Whereas the Sixties were all about inner light, spirituality, individual expression and the defiance of bourgeois, antiquated norms and institutions, the 2000’s are more about the anxiety of losing one’s humanity in the face of overwhelming complexity and advances in technology.  Big data, artificial intelligence, and robotics are not simply ways of improving performance and increasing productivity, but potential replacements for human intellectual activity.

Perhaps the most unsettling of all the advances in artificial intelligence is the evolution of sentient technology – the ability of machines to feel like a human being, not just think like one.  Although most of us are by now used to the computer and the almost incomprehensible way it organizes, stores, manages, and uses data and makes our intellectual tasks easier than ever before; we are more reticent when it comes to what really makes us human – the ability to feel emotion and as importantly to understand it in others.  This ability underlies empathy, sympathy, and community.  It is one thing to understand the parameters of a problem, its variables, and consequences; another entirely to empathize with those who stand to gain or lose.

Sentience – the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively – is the foundation of religion.  No matter how intellectual and logical the debates of  the Early Church fathers, were; no matter how Aquinas and Augustine stressed the importance of reason for knowing God; and no matter how many centuries of Biblical exegesis, learned commentary, and interpretation have passed, we believe because we feel the need to believe.

AI technology has already made significant advances in the development of sentient software.  Hotel chains, for example, rely on consumer input to maintain quality and desirability in a highly competitive industry.  Post-stay surveys have been notoriously unreliable and inadequate.  Most customers ignore them or fill them out – many days or weeks later – on the basis of dim recollections.  All Holiday Inns are very much the same, so what more is there to say?

Thanks to the ability to mine vast amounts of data and to exploit it through the application of analytical algorithms, hotels do not have to rely on surveys for consumer reactions.  The social media, if nothing else, are forums for sharing personal experiences.  A picture of a happy family beside a hotel pool conveys important information.  While it is not conclusive, it suggests that the guests were satisfied if not happy with the facility.  “Great food….the beds were so comfy…they even parked my car….” and the choice of emoticons all provide a hotel with indirect but valuable data on how a customer feels about his or her experience. 

While more practical criticisms (noisy wall unit, small bathtub, poorly-stocked mini-bar) are always useful, they never compensate for the overall positive or negative feelings about a stay.

Thanks to data sharing and liberal privacy policies, a hotel can purchase pre-sifted and –analyzed data from emails, Facebook, Instagram, and hundred other electronically mediated sources.  Once a hotel knows about how a particular customer  feels about her stay thanks to her casual but telling references and suggestions online, it can target her directly, offering discounts, special travel packages, and free services.

In other words, the hotel has learned how you feel about its accommodations.

Hotels, of course, are not alone.  Every big company with the resources to purchase data or to gather and analyze it themselves are listening in.  They can determine what we feel, not just what we think.
As interesting is the application of sentient software to airport security. Such software can help security personnel analyze a person’s face, comportment, body language, gait, posture, gestures, discomfort, and a hundred other non-logical indicators of intent and purpose.   In other words except in rare and unusual cases, a terrorist will give himself away despite every attempt to appear calm, collected, and normal.

Security personnel are trained to personally observe those who pass through checkpoints, but their ability to do so is nothing compared to the sentient software based on the hundreds if not thousands of subtle clues identified through the collection and analysis of billions of bits of data.


Robotics is proceeding at a geometric pace.  Companies in Japan have already deployed intelligent, sentient robots to deal with the public.  Not only do they look, act, and speak like a human being, they are programmed to pick up on visual and aural clues given by the customer.  The robots can change their tone, be more conciliatory or more definite based on what the sense from the customer.

Rudimentary sentient analysis has been a feature of modern medicine for years.  Cardiologists, for example, are trained to ask simple questions about feeling after the insertion of a pacemaker.  Data and experience have shown that in a significant number of cases, patients fitted with a pacemaker experience depression.  Tinkering with the heart is very different from a dental implant, and perhaps for the first time individuals begin to think of their own mortality.

Computer-mediated medical consultations will soon replace doctors.  While cognitive software will record blood pressure, blood chemistry, and all other indicators of health or recovery, sentient software will analyze the more subtle but no less important state of mind or feelings of a patient.

In short, we are well on the way to developing a computer/robot which is indistinguishable from a human being.  A robot which can compete at chess, decode the most mystifying array of seemingly random numbers, perform sophisticated geometrical constructions, and talk to you like your favorite uncle.

All this is inevitable.  There is no turning back.  The rule of technology is that once it is out of the bag, it is impossible to put it back in.  Intelligent, sentient machines are not only on the horizon, they are here.

Yet what must be realized is that the advances being made in genetic modification, virtual reality, and mind-computer interface are making human beings even more intelligent and more sentient.
Once the human genome was completely sequenced; once efforts to recombine DNA had become a reality; and once a mind-computer interface had been realized, there was never any doubt that a post-human era was coming.

Post-human’ is the term scientists have chosen to describe the life form that will result thanks to scientific modification.  The term, however, is not quite accurate.   Although as genetically-modified beings, part-organic and part-non-organic, we will certainly not resemble the creatures we now are, we will have simply evolved, albeit it through a more deliberate, focused an efficient means than Darwin ever imagined, into a more modern, capable, resilient, and powerful life form. 

What currently defines human beings – cognitive, intelligent, sentient, imaginative, spiritual, and creative – will still be appropriate and meaningful.  We simply will have become more intelligent, imaginative, and creative than ever before. 

At the same time we will co-exist with intelligent, sentient, and creative machines which/who will complement our existence.  We may give up aspects of our sentience, but that will only free us for far more advanced, even spiritual, sentiments.

The development of artificially intelligent, sentient machines; and the restructuring of the human being are happening at the same time; but AI is now far more advanced than the genetic engineering and mind-machine symbiosis which will transform human perception and behavior.  It is natural, therefore, for some to fear the rise of the machines, the dehumanizing of life, and the theft of personality, feeling, and empathy.   Yet soon enough the developmental curves will meet and and human-machine complementarity will be realized.

Until then, ‘Trust Your Gut’ will have to do.

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