This is not a book review, although How the Mind Works is a book. This is merely an escape hatch for all who are made uneasy by the likelihood of a planetary takeover by robots.
I know; I wasn’t concerned about it either. If the incessant failures of our tv’s “record” system is any indication, it will be fifty years before any technological Artificial Intelligence will be able to boil an egg without incinerating four city blocks in every direction. Or else freezing the egg and then sending a coded message blaming an unnamed “illegal error” for which there is no remedy. Artificial Intelligence, I thought, is annoyingly stupid. We’re more likely to be taken over by wolverines.
But then I went to a play about Artificial Intelligence. It was a bad play, but beforehand the theater had arranged one of those “panels of experts” to talk about the play’s theme. I tend to enjoy articulate academics to the point of reverence, and one of the experts was an articulate academic, a professor of some esoteric hard science involving computers. And she said yes, it’s going to happen. It’s inevitable. Computer-generated Artificial Intelligence will replicate and quickly surpass human intelligence, probably within ten to fifteen years. We are doomed.
Having a lifelong aversion to mathematics as the visible face of something vast and horrible, I found the idea of being supplanted by machines that are nothing but mathematics deeply repugnant. A robot brain can’t “feel” music, wonder if we are alone in the universe or even experience the meaning of “alone.” No robot brain will ever stand in awe at a tree. I felt sick. There was nothing to do but find an opposing articulate academic who would refute the expert at the play.
Enter Steven Pinker, now my favorite science guy since Carl Sagan. How the Mind Works was published in 1997, isn’t new and is riddled with that fallacy common to all science writing. The fallacy that says, “The awareness of a person standing slightly behind you on the left is registered in the (whatever) area of the brain.” Okay, but if you have one of those not-uncommon moments in which you sense somebody standing slightly behind you on the left, but when you turn to look there’s nobody there, what was registered on the (whatever) area of your brain? Science fallacy says it could only have been some meaningless, misfiring synapse in an otherwise normal, orderly brain. I say who knows what it was, but it was something.
A tolerance for the fallacy must be cultivated if one is to read science writers, but it’s worth it. Thanks to Pinker I am no longer nauseated at the prospect of robots obliterating the essence(s) of all sentient life. In over 600 agonizingly detailed pages, Pinker has convinced me that there is not the slightest chance that Artificial Intelligence will or even can replicate the incredibly messy and complicated interacting systems that have evolved into the human brain. As an unforeseen side effect, however, he has also convinced me that maybe being supplanted isn’t such a bad idea after all.
It’s common knowledge that most men are at base pathetic, sex-driven idiots. But after the mind-boggling success of 50 Shades of Gray and its sequels (my reference, not Pinker’s), there’s no longer any way to pretend that most women aren’t also pathetic, sex-driven idiots. Per Pinker, the goals and practices of male and female idiotic behavior are very different, but the results are tediously the same – endless, mindless reproduction. Gack. One wishes it were not so.
Still, How the Mind Works is fun to read. Pinker’s wit is droll and omnipresent, rescuing every potential slide into pedantry with impeccably timed one-liners that both make the reader laugh and solidify the concept being analyzed. And an unexpected spin from discovering Pinker is the discovery of Rebecca Goldstein, an intriguing (articulate academic) author who married Pinker in 2007. I’ve just ordered two of her novels – The Mind-Body Problem and The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind.
It’s summer and the movies are all dreck, so check out Pinker and Goldstein and settle in to read until October. Especially How the Mind Works if you’ve been worried about, you know – AI. It’s not gonna happen!