05 September 2019

Will artificial intelligence make thinking obsolete?

Upper Sixth student Ken Houghton reflects on a visit to LSE to hear world-renowned political philsopher, Professor Michael Sandel ask ‘will artificial intelligence make thinking obsolete?’ in a broadcast for BBC Radio 4.

Implicit in the compelling question – will artificial intelligence make thinking obsolete? – from Harvard Political Philosophy teacher Professor Michael Sandel, at the event hosted by the London School of Economics and BBC Radio 4 in July, was an even broader question: is efficiency more important than morality? To put it another way, should decision-making become something entirely decided by a sophisticated algorithm?

Professor Sandel asked the audience at the event one simple question: “If you could wear an earpiece that would translate every human language, would you wear it on a holiday?” To my surprise, over a half of the audience ardently raised their hands.

Afterwards, an audience member shared a heart-breaking anecdote about their cousin who had learning disabilities to which another audience member shared a wholesome tale about their journey to communicate with their partner’s non-English speaking friends. The cousin of the child with additional learning needs thought that AI was a useful tool: a means to an end. The person with foreign-language speaking friends spoke of enjoying the difficult struggle and sense of accomplishment involved in learning.

After a heated debate between the two, the discussion was distilled down to a succinct question that captured the distinction in thoughts between the two audience members: is there an intrinsic value in the struggle to carry out an action?

Talking after the lecture fellow John Lyon student, Shaurya Garkhel, emphasised the importance of functionality: individuality and human imagination should be partially overridden by AI in the name of efficiency. On the other hand, Head of Economics Dr White and I agreed that there is a value in the struggle to complete a task, especially for actions that require a certain level of empathy or compassion, something I don’t think AI could ever fully replicate.

The answer to the question ‘will artificial intelligence will make thinking obsolete?’ turned out to overlap with whether wellbeing is about joy, some sense of achievement or the satisfaction of rational preferences.

Despite our differences in opinions, we could all agree on one thing: thinking is what makes us human and the development of intelligent machines cannot change that.

Will AI Make Thinking Obsolete? was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at the end of August and is now available to listen to on the BBC Radio 4 Website and on BBC Sounds.

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