Editor’s Note: This excerpt is the fourth in a four-part series from Pamela McCorduck’s 2019 book, This Could Be Important: My Life and Times with the Artificial Intelligentsia. All excerpts are shared with permission from the author.
Pamela McCorduck may be one of the few people qualified to make a prediction about where the development of artificial intelligence will lead. But, as a true humanist, she avoids an invitation to hubris. Instead, in the excerpt below from the end of her 2019 book, This Could Be Important: My Life and Times with the Artificial Intelligentsia, she reminds us that humans have always quested into the unknown, that it’s part of being human. She says, “The search for AI parallels our innate wish to fly, to roam over and beneath the seas, to see beyond our natural eyesight. The quest takes us out of the commonplace, along a dark and perilous way, beset with tasks and trials, a collective hero’s journey that all humans must undertake.”
When it comes to the future of AI, McCorduck does not have answers, only questions. Perhaps her principled refusal to land on either the side of salvation or destruction, and to maintain a clear view and an open mind, is a reminder of what the best of human intelligence has to offer.
We can’t now say what living beside other, in some ways superior, intelligences will mean to us. Will it widen and raise our own individual and collective intelligence? In significant ways, it already has. Find solutions to problems we could never solve? Probably. Find solutions to problems we lack the wit even to propose? Maybe. Cause problems? Surely. AI has already shattered some of our fondest myths about ourselves and has shone unwelcome light on others. This will continue.
The future. It’s been easy to resist writing breathless scenarios. Nothing ages faster nor makes the prophet seem so time-bound. As Jack Ma, the co-founder of the Chinese online service, AliBaba says, “There are no experts for the future. Only experts for yesterday.”
When people ask me my greatest worry about AI, I say: what we aren’t smart enough even to imagine.
You might also recognize in all this ferment the two customary opposing views about AI—a catastrophe or a welcome blessing—an early theme from my own "Machines Who Think": what I’ve called the Hebraic and the Hellenistic views of intelligence outside the human cranium. The Hebraic tradition is encoded in the Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”1 We fear entertaining god-like aspirations, of calling down divine wrath for our overweening, illicit ambition. The Hellenistic view, on the contrary, welcomes (with cheer and optimism) outside help, the creations of our own hands—not that the dwellers in Olympus and their progeny didn’t have problems.2
We already have a bitter taste of the dark side of AI. Russian bots and other software simulated human influencers and interfered with the U.S. national elections in 2016; our telecommunications and social media apps know our lives in granular, even embarrassing detail. The Chinese government, along with the Chinese army, runs deep learning algorithms over the search engine data collected about the users of Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of Google. Every Chinese citizen receives a Citizen Score, to determine whether they can get loans, jobs, or travel abroad (Helbing et al., 2017).3 China is selling these systems to other countries. With all of us under surveillance, whether by our government or by firms, whether by manipulative individuals or scheming terrorists, how the economy and society are organized must change fundamentally. Kai-Fu Lee says we need to rewrite the social contract (2018). We do. Certainly we need to talk.
Let us talk too about the grand ideas in the Western tradition. What is thought? What is memory? What is self? What is beauty? What is love? What are ethics? Answers to these questions have up to now been assertions or hand-waving. With AI, the questions must be specified precisely, realized in executable computer code. Thus eternal questions are being examined and tested anew.
From the beginning, pioneering researchers in the field expected the machines would eventually be smarter than humans (whatever that meant), but they saw this as a great benefit. More intelligence was like more virtue. These early researchers were firmly in the Hellenistic tradition. They believed—and I do too, if you haven’t guessed—that if we’re lucky and diligent, we can create a civilization bright with the best of human qualities: enhanced intelligence, which is wisdom; with dignity, compassion, generosity, abundance for all, creativity, and joy, an opportunity for a great synthesis of the humanities and the sciences, by the people who specialize in each. Herb Simon liked to say that we aren’t spectators of the future; we create it. A better culture, generously life-centered, ethically based yet accommodating infinite human variety, is a synthesizing project worthy of the best minds, human and machine.
We long to save ourselves as a species. For all the imaginary deities throughout history who’ve failed to save and protect us from nature, from each other, from ourselves, we’re finally ready to substitute the work of our own enhanced, augmented minds. Some worry it will all end in catastrophe. “We are as gods,” Stewart Brand famously said, “and might as well get good at it (1968).” We’re trying. We could fail.
Win or lose, we’re impelled to pursue this altogether human quest. Some mysterious but profound yearning has led us here from the beginning. This is the deep truth of our legends, our myths, our stories. (It wants some explanation. This isn’t exactly the joy of sex.) The search for AI parallels our innate wish to fly, to roam over and beneath the seas, to see beyond our natural eyesight. The quest takes us out of the commonplace, along a dark and perilous way, beset with tasks and trials, a collective hero’s journey that all humans must undertake.
The tasks and trials we already see include the destruction of whole business models, the transformation of work (and thus for many, life’s meaning), and faster-than-thought applications with unforeseen consequences. We face a possible, if unlikely, subjugation to the machines; a possible, if unlikely, destruction of the human race by AI. These seem to me remote, but trials we can’t yet foresee will surely emerge. We hardly know how to meet the trials we can see. I quoted Herb Simon above: “We aren’t spectators of the future; we create it.” But often he also slightly misquoted Proverbs: “If the leaders have no vision, the people will perish.”
For years I had these calligraphed words framed above my desk, a gift from my husband: “And wherefore was it glorious?”
I knew the rest of the passage by heart:
Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror, because at every new incident your fortitude was to be called forth and your courage exhibited, because danger and death surrounded it, and these you were to brave and overcome. For this was it a glorious, for this was it an honourable undertaking. You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species, your names adored as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind.
These are the words of the dying Dr. Victor Frankenstein, near the end of Mary Shelley’s essential novel, "Frankenstein." He cries out to a ship’s crew that, during a hunt for the Northwest Passage, has been paralyzed with terror by the menacing ice. Yes, the words reflect ironically on his repudiation of his own creation of an extra-human intelligence. The deeper urgency, I believe, is his, and our, struggle to be brave, as we go where we must.
Pamela McCorduck was present at the creation. As a student working her way through college at Berkeley, she was pulled into a project to type a textbook manuscript for two faculty members in 1960, shortly before she was set to graduate. The authors, Edward Feigenbaum and Julian Feldman, happened to be two of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence. For McCorduck, it was the start of a life-long quest to understand—and document for the rest of us—the key players, underlying ideas, and critical breakthroughs in this transformative technology.
Part memoir, part social history, and part biography, McCorduck’s 2019 book, This Could Be Important: My Life and Times with the Artificial Intelligentsia, shares both personal anecdotes of the giants of AI and insightful observations from the perspective of a humanities scholar. Brought to readers by Carnegie Mellon University Press, CHM is thrilled to provide a series of four telling excerpts from the book.
Pamela McCorduck is the author of eleven published books, four of them novels, seven of them non-fiction, mainly about aspects of artificial intelligence. She lived for forty years in New York City until family called her back to California where she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.