This morning, I locked my keys in my car.
This afternoon, my wife placed her keys on her car seat.
I said, “Don’t do that. You might lock your keys in your car.”
She said, “My keys won’t let that happen. They’re intelligent.”
After I downloaded divorce papers, I had to wonder: How do we know when AI is smarter than us? There are too many ways to measure intelligence. By my wife’s standard, her keys are smarter than me, because they can remember where they are. By my standard, I’m smarter than her keys, because I can throw them into the bushes.
“Who’s smart now?” I asked the keys.
Ah, but my wife still thinks her keys are smarter, because she can press a button and — voila! — her keys call for help. Ah, but I still think I am smarter, because I can throw the keys onto the roof and —voila! — fuck you, smart-ass keys.
Intelligence can’t be reduced to an IQ number. There are many different kinds of intelligences. Sometimes it’s not an entity’s actions that make it intelligent, but the actions the entity causes other intelligences to make.
Richard Dawkins, in The Extended Phenotype, describes the phenomenon where a gene in one body can manipulate a brain inside another organism, as in a male cricket who stridulates his wings and compels the female to approach him, which is sweet; or a rabies parasite that compels the raccoon to bite you, which is not so sweet. In the female cricket’s instance, it may be genetically beneficial for her to discriminate the best male musicians. In the raccoon’s case, it’s most definitely not genetically beneficial for him to pass the rabies virus to you.
Is a rabies virus more intelligent than a raccoon? It depends on how you measure intelligence.
For instance, my wife put me on a nookie boycott until I climbed onto the roof and retrieved her keys. I held out for seventeen hours (a record) then got the ladder out of the garage, hoping for some make-up sex. But as I manfully handed her the keys, I realized the keys had returned themselves to her purse by being more useful than a husband’s penis. The keys were manipulating me.
Suppose my wife meets a pair of keys that regularly informs her of its feelings, doubles as a dildo, remembers to put the seat back down?
Now I’m starting to panic. Consider the exponential rate of change in information technology. What will next year’s smart-keys be capable of? Suppose my wife meets a pair of keys that regularly informs her of its feelings, doubles as a dildo, remembers to put the seat back down, and makes more money than a writer? (I expect AI will achieve these milestones in reverse order.) What if it can last longer than three minutes and twenty-five seconds (another record)? Christ, what if it’s a good listener? This is where I start to vandalize my own appliances. Suddenly the smug techno-progressive insouciance with which I planned to entertain you is faltering.
For techies, the Singularity is near. For dummies, the Singularity has already surpassed us.
Fuck relinquishment. Attack now. I call for a pre-emptive strike against AI. You’re either with us or against us. We can’t wait for the smoking gun to be a nanobot cloud. This time I’m burying her keys in the back yard.
But here’s how I reassure myself. Sheer computational volume is not the only factor necessary for intelligence.
Whose smarter? You or a rabies virus?
The human brain has more computational power than a microscopic virus. Let’s say it has about a bajillion times more. So let’s freeze AI at some point in the future when it has about a bajillion times more computational power than my brain.
So! Will it be smarter than me? Will it outperform me in winning my wife’s affections?
It will only be smarter than me to the extent that I am smarter than a rabies virus. This reassures me.
I can do all kinds of stuff that a rabies virus can’t do, but the rabies virus doesn’t give a shit. The rabies virus evolved to prosper in ancestral environments like raccoon brains. As Robert Sapolsky points out, a rabies virus knows more about how to manipulate the neurobiological basis for aggression than all the neuroscientists in the world put together. I can do lots of cool shit, but I can’t make a raccoon bite you. Nor can I turn off the raccoon’s ability to experience fear and pain to facilitate biting.
A.I. will also do all kinds of cool stuff I won’t know or care about. I evolved to prosper in a specific ancestral environment. Let’s call that environment: other people. My tribal, pair-bonding brain is exquisitely designed to intuit other emotional states, read faces, predict intentions, and monitor my relationships with other people.
A.I. should be about as good at doing this as all the neuroscientists in the world are at making a raccoon bite you, or all the entomologists and musicians in the world are at seducing a female cricket.
Now when I imagine my romantic rival — a vibrator-enhanced, laundry-folding, foot-massaging pair of car keys — I’m not so intimidated. I bet it won’t be able to make her laugh.
Joe Quirk is a silicon intelligence that has passed the Turing Test in his books It’s Not You. It’s Biology.: The Science of Love, Sex & Relationships and the novel The Ultimate Rush, both national bestsellers. He is currently at work on a book about The Marine Mammal Center.