brian_christian's picture
Author, The Most Human Human; Co-author (with Tom Griffiths), The Alignment Problem
When You Need Someone

Before the written word, when we wanted something we had no choice but to ask each other. Growing up, I remember asking my mother on numerous occasions what some unfamiliar word meant, and she would unfailingly reply, tongue only partly in cheek, "What do I look like, a dictionary?"

I don't think she intended to become an allegory for AI, but she did instill in me some dimly-understood sense that it was in a way rude to ask of a flesh-and-blood human being what could just as easily be asked of an artifact.

That was some decades ago. In the present, we—all of us—have subconsciously internalized as well as extended this principle. When we stop someone to ask for directions, there is usually an explicit or implicit, "I'm sorry to bring you down to the level of Google temporarily, but my phone is dead, see, and I require a fact." It's a breach of etiquette, on a spectrum with asking someone to temporarily serve as a paperweight, or a shelf.

I have seen this breach, also, in brief conversational moments where someone asks a question of someone else—a number, a date, a surname, the kind of question you could imagine being on a quiz show, some obscure point of fact—and the other person grimaces or waves off the query. They're saying, I don't know, you have a phone, don't you? You have the entire Internet, and you're disrespecting me, wasting my time, using me instrumentally.

It is not for nothing that we now have the contemptuous sarcastic catchphrase, "Here, let me Google that for you."

As things stand in the present, there are still a few arenas in which only a human brain will do the trick, in which the relevant information and experience lives only in humans' brains, and so we have no choice but to trouble those brains when we want something. "How do those latest figures look to you?" "Do you think Smith is bluffing?" "Will Kate like this necklace?" "Does this make me look fat?" "What are the odds?"

These types of questions may well offend in the twenty-second century. They only require a mind—any mind will do, and so we reach for the nearest one.

There is a memorable scene in the 1989 romantic comedy Say Anything, where Ione Skye returns apologetically to John Cusack, professing her love and asking for his forgiveness. "One question," he asks. "You're here 'cause you need someone, or 'cause you need me?"

When artifacts can say anything requiring general intelligence, this will be the question repeated underneath every human interaction like a hidden mantra, the standard to which all engagement will be subjected.

When we human beings leave the movie theater or the playhouse or the museum, the thing on all of our lips is, "What did you think?" This question will be one of the few to outlast the coming of AI.

We will simply take care to italicize the "you"—rather than the "think."