Despite AI’s impressive feats at driving cars and playing games, a new book by psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer argues that our brains have plenty to offer that AI will never match
2 March 2022
IN THE 1950s, Herbert Simon – a political scientist and one of the founders of AI – declared that, once a computer could beat the best chess player in the world, machines would have reached the pinnacle of human intelligence. Just a few decades later, in 1997, the chess-playing computer Deep Blue beat world champion Garry Kasparov.
It was an impressive feat, but according to Gerd Gigerenzer, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, human minds don’t need to worry just yet. In How to Stay Smart in a Smart World, he unpacks humanity’s complicated relationship with artificial intelligence and digital technology. In an age where self-driving cars have been let loose on the roads, smart homes can anticipate and cater for our every need and websites seem to know our preferences better than we do, people tend to “assume the near-omniscience of artificial intelligence”, says Gigerenzer. But, he argues, AIs aren’t as clever as you might think.
A 2015 study, for example, showed that even the smartest object-recognition system is easily fooled, confidently classifying meaningless patterns as objects with more than 99 per cent confidence. And at the 2017 UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff, UK, a face-recognition system matched the faces of 2470 football fans at the stadium and the city’s railway station to those of known criminals. This would have been useful but for 92 per cent of the matches turning out to be false alarms, despite the system being designed to be both more efficient and more reliable than humans.
There are good reasons why even the smartest systems fail, says Gigerenzer. Unlike chess, which has rules that are rigid and unchanging, the world of humans is squishy and inconsistent. In the face of real-world uncertainty, algorithms fall apart.
Here, we get to the crux of Gigerenzer’s main argument: technology, at least as we know it today, could never replace humans because there is no algorithm for common sense. Knowing, but not truly understanding, leaves AI in the dark about what is really important.
Obviously, technology can be, and often is, useful. The voice and face-recognition software on smartphones are largely convenient and the fact that YouTube seems to know what I want to watch saves the hassle of working it out for myself. Yet even if smart technology is mostly helpful, and is showing few signs of replacing us, Gigerenzer argues that we should still be aware of the dangers it can pose to our society.
“Knowing, but not truly understanding, leaves artificial intelligence in the dark about what is really important”
Digital technology has created an economy that trades on the exchange of personal data, which can be used against our best interests. Companies and political parties can purchase targeted adverts that subtly influence our online shopping choices and, even more nefariously, how we vote. “One might call this turn to an ad-based business model the ‘original sin’ of the internet,” writes Gigerenzer.
So, what can be done? Gigerenzer says that more transparency from tech firms and advertisers is vital. But technology users also need to change our relationship with it. Rather than treating technology with unflinching awe or suspicion, we must cultivate a healthy dose of scepticism, he says. In an age where we seem to accept the rise of social media addiction, regular privacy breaches and the spread of misinformation as unavoidable downsides of internet use – even when they cause significant harm to society – it is perhaps time we took stock and reconsidered.
Using personal anecdotes, cutting-edge research and cautionary real-world tales, Gigerenzer deftly explains the limits and dangers of technology and AI. Occasionally, he uses extreme examples for the sake of making a point, and in places he blurs the lines between digital technology, smart technology, algorithms and AI, which muddies the waters. Nevertheless, the overall message of Gigerenzer’s book still stands: in a world that increasingly relies on technology to make it function, human discernment is vital “to make the digital world a world we want to live in”.
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