21 December 2015

Turing proposed that we test for artificial intelligence by conversing with a computer. The computer should persuade you that it is a human. Here’s a more seasonal test for you to think about. Would you trust your computer to buy your Christmas present for your partner?

Conference Trinkets

Buying presents for each other. It’s about sharing and appreciation. How does it become so difficult? Giving an impersonal present, maybe a trinket you receive for attending a conference, that’s easy. You don’t need worry too much about the specific person receiving it. Could a computer buy these presents? I think so: it could be programmed to learn which trinkets were fashionable. But I wouldn’t give that present to my wife for Christmas.

Human Complexity

My wife is probably the most complex thing I encounter during my day. Not because of who she is, but because what she is: a person. People are the most complex things we experience in our lives. Somehow we have made our lives more challenging by evolving intelligence in the context of a social group. Because I am close to her, our relationship is more complex still. It involves understanding her humanity, but also how she is distinct from other humans, her individuality. Her present needs to reflect this.

A great advantage of social media is it seems to have killed the ‘round-robin Christmas letter’. This letter, included with a card, described the happenings of a family group over the last year. The letter was personal, but targeted at a large number of people. Writing such letters is fraught particularly if written un-selfconsciously. “Of course we were all extremely pleased that little Johnnie became national chess champion”. Well received by his grandmother, but read differently by his Aunt, whose own son is less favoured and struggling. Informational offerings can be read as gloating. The letters need to be personalized to take account of the recipient. We should project ourselves differently according to who we are communicating with.

Sharing our personal lives is more difficult when we account for the circumstances of the recipient. With present giving, a well chosen present should reflect not only about what the recipient might like, but what they might expect to receive from us. When giving to our partners this is more complex: there is an immense amount of context to our relationship that needs to be taken into account.

A Complex Puzzle

My wife will have a perception of the sort of thing I might give: I have to think of something that she would like. I want to give her something that represents our relationship at a deeper level. I have to understand her well enough to know what that thing should be. I need to give something personal to me and special to her.

Because people are complex this is a complex puzzle. I sometimes wonder if the need to understand each other in this way caused a form of runaway sexual selection. As we became more intelligent we needed to become more intelligent still, causing our species to evolve our extreme intelligence.

But I shouldn’t over-think it. If instead I imagine her face on Christmas day, if I imagine for one moment, when she opens the present, that she will pause and smile. If I imagine looking down and trying to recognize what’s in her hands, then that is what I should buy her.

In such a moment of imagining I’m subconsciously combining all my experience of our relationship, all the thinking I’ve done about what she might expect me to give her, I’m assimilating past disappointments and future hopes, and generating something that is personal to me and special to her.

A computer can never do all of this, it fails at the first hurdle, the gift needs to represent me. But thinking about the challenge reveals our real intelligence: shared understanding between complex entities in a shared environment. Understanding is key to the maintenance of our relationship as partners. A relationship which has been vital to the long time survival of our species.

This challenge shows that one interpretation of the search for artificial intelligence is that it’s actually the search to understand ourselves.

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