Machine Thinking

18 May 2024

Łukasz Lamża

The adult animation Animatrix – a sequence of short films detailing the backstory to the universe from The Matrix series – features the following scene: a furious mob attacks a woman because they suspect her of secretly being a machine. We see the angry crowd strike time and again, and when her delicate skin breaks to reveal gleaming metal underneath, we breathe a collective sigh of relief…

The film explores the stark juxtaposition humankind has been contemplating for centuries: man vs. machine, flesh-and-blood horse vs. a mechanical beast… It’s all so obvious when you think about it! Humans are warm, soft, thinking, sensitive; machines are hard, cold, thoughtless, uncaring. We are perturbed by the thought of a human with mechanical traits and machines with human traits, yet we are also fascinated by any shift from one side to the other. When I was a kid, in my favourite scene in Jan Brzechwa’s novel The Academy of Mr. Kleks the young protagonist Adaś is rubbing ointment into Alojzy – a hyper-realistic puppet – to bring him to life. He starts seeing results after a few hours: “My hands were going numb from all the rubbing, but I reached the point when thin veins started appearing under Alojzy’s thin, metallic skin.”

However, scientific deconstructions of this juxtaposition have been going on for a few decades. For example, we are learning how mechanical some of our own actions are. Neuroscientists are able to conduct truly groundbreaking experiments on the human brain, allowing them to predict what decision the person being studied is going to make before they even realise it themselves. Research conducted by economists and psychologists specialising in everyday decision-making processes is equally fascinating. Think about your own day: how many activities have you actually carried out as though on autopilot? Our lives seemingly revolve around thousands of choices, yet they turn out not to be real choices at all – which sock do you put on first, the left or the right? Next time try to consciously think about your choice – you’ll be surprised how strange it feels to actually make the decision.

We are seeing a rapid growth of artificial intelligence. We know that even the most advanced algorithms are simply long lists of commands performed automatically by the computer, yet we can’t help to be surprised by the results – they even surprise creators of AIs! Even though we know how they work, we can’t actually predict how they will respond to vast collections of images and texts they are being fed. Today’s large language models generate almost-perfect illusions of consciousness, curiosity and creativity. We feel distaste when we see programs whose artistic abilities seem to vastly outstrip our own. While artists maintain that such works are derivative and they are missing that certain something, ordinary people may be tempted to be genuinely impressed by them. And, let’s be honest here, how many of us are able to create a truly innovative work of art which has this certain something?

But all this is just the beginning, and far greater challenges are waiting just around the corner. Overcoming the brain-computer interface lies just beyond our current capabilities; if and when we reach this stage, spontaneous human cognitive processes will become integrated with computerised processes. Hardware experts are working on neuromorphic computers in which it will be the physical architecture itself which will resemble the structure of the human brain, rather than the programming. I intuitively feel that I am fundamentally different from, say, a washing machine, no matter how complicated it may be; but this intuition is becoming increasingly difficult to justify. After all, this entire process – taking place before our very eyes – may end up with us searching for the true nature of humanity, whatever it turns out to be (or not be). This year’s Copernicus Festival is held under the banner “Machine”, bringing together experts and laypeople to discuss these and many related topics. Don’t miss it!

Łukasz Lamża – popularise of science, lecturer at the Jagiellonian University, author of popular science articles and books about the Universe, space and the latest scientific achievements. Founder of the Reading Nature YouTube channel of the Copernicus Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies.

Article published in 1/2024 issue of Kraków Culture quarterly.



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