As the power and capability of our AI systems increase by the day, the essential question we now face is what constitutes peak human. If we stay where we are while the AI systems we are unleashing continually get better, they will meet and then exceed our capabilities in an ever-growing number of domains. But while some technology visionaries like Elon Musk call for us to slow down the development of AI systems to buy time, this approach alone will simply not work in our hyper-competitive world, particularly when the potential benefits of AI are so great and our frameworks for global governance are so weak. In order to build the future we want, we must also become ever better humans.
The list of activities we once saw as uniquely human where AIs have now surpassed us is long and growing. First, AI systems could beat our best chess players, then our best Go players, then our best champions of multi-player poker. They can see patterns far better than we can, generate medical and other hypotheses most human specialists miss, predict and map out new cellular structures, and even generate beautiful, and, yes, creative, art.
A recent paper by Microsoft researchers analyzing the significant leap in capabilities in OpenAI’s latest AI bot, ChatGPT-4, asserted that the algorithm can “solve novel and difficult tasks that span mathematics, coding, vision, medicine, law, psychology and more, without needing any special prompting.” Calling this functionality “strikingly close to human-level performance,” the authors conclude it “could reasonably be viewed as an early (yet still incomplete) version of an artificial general intelligence (AGI) system.”
The concept of AGI has been around for decades. In its common use, the term suggests a time when individual machines can do many different things at a human level, not just one thing like playing Go or analyzing radiological images. Debating when AGI might arrive, a favorite pastime of computer scientists for years, now has become outdated.
We already have AI algorithms and chatbots that can do lots of different things. Based on the generalist definition, in other words, AGI is essentially already here.
Unfettered by the evolved capacity and storage constraints of our brains, AI algorithms can access nearly all of the digitized cultural inheritance of humanity since the dawn of recorded history and have increasing access to growing pools of digitized biological data from across the spectrum of life.
Once we recognize that both AI systems and humans have unique superpowers, the essential question becomes what each of us can do better than the other and what humans and AIs can best do in active collaboration. The future of our species will depend upon our ability to safely, dynamically, and continually figure that out.
With these ever-larger datasets, rapidly increasing computing and memory power, and new and better algorithms, our AI systems will keep getting better faster than most of us can today imagine. These capabilities have the potential to help us radically improve our healthcare, agriculture, and manufacturing, make our economies more productive and our development more sustainable, and do many important things better.
Soon, they will learn how to write their own code. Like human children, in other words, AI systems will grow up. But even that doesn’t mean our human goose is cooked.
Just like dolphins and dogs, these alternate forms of intelligence will be uniquely theirs, not a lesser or greater version of ours. There are lots of things AI systems can't do and will never be able to do because our AI algorithms, for better and for worse, will never be human. Our embodied human intelligence is its own thing.
Our human intelligence is uniquely ours based on the capacities we have developed in our 3.8-billion-year journey from single cell organisms to us. Our brains and bodies represent continuous adaptations on earlier models, which is why our skeletal systems look like those of lizards and our brains like most other mammals with some extra cerebral cortex mixed in. Human intelligence isn’t just some type of disembodied function but the inextricable manifestation of our evolved physical reality. It includes our sensory analytical skills and all of our animal instincts, intuitions, drives, and perceptions. Disembodied machine intelligence is something different than what we have evolved and possess.
Because of this, some linguists including Noam Chomsky have recently argued that AI systems will never be intelligent as long as they are just manipulating symbols and mathematical tokens without any inherent understanding. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone interacting with even first-generation AI chatbots quickly realizes that while these systems are far from perfect or omniscient and can sometimes be stupendously oblivious, they are surprisingly smart and versatile and will get more so… forever. We have little idea even how our own minds work, so judging AI systems based on their output is relatively close to how we evaluate ourselves.
Anyone not awed by the potential of these AI systems is missing the point. AI’s newfound capacities demand that we work urgently to establish norms, standards, and regulations at all levels from local to global to manage the very real risks. Pausing our development of AI systems now doesn’t make sense, however, even if it were possible, because we have no sufficient ways of uniformly enacting such a pause, no plan for how we would use the time, and no common framework for addressing global collective challenges like this.
But if all we feel is a passive awe for these new capabilities, we will also be missing the point.
Human evolution, biology, and cultural history are not just some kind of accidental legacy, disability, or parlor trick, but our inherent superpower. Our ancestors outcompeted rivals for billions of years to make us so well suited to the world we inhabit and helped build. Our social organization at scale has made it possible for us to forge civilizations of immense complexity, engineer biology and novel intelligence, and extend our reach to the stars. Our messy, embodied, intuitive, social human intelligence is roughly mimicable by AI systems but, by definition, never fully replicable by them.
Once we recognize that both AI systems and humans have unique superpowers, the essential question becomes what each of us can do better than the other and what humans and AIs can best do in active collaboration. We still don't know. The future of our species will depend upon our ability to safely, dynamically, and continually figure that out.
As we do, we'll learn that many of our ideas and actions are made up of parts, some of which will prove essentially human and some of which can be better achieved by AI systems. Those in every walk of work and life who most successfully identify the optimal contributions of humans, AIs, and the two together, and who build systems and workflows empowering humans to do human things, machines to do machine things, and humans and machines to work together in ways maximizing the respective strengths of each, will be the champions of the 21st century across all fields.
The dawn of the age of machine intelligence is upon us. It’s a quantum leap equivalent to the domestication of plants and animals, industrialization, electrification, and computing. Each of these revolutions forced us to rethink what it means to be human, how we live, and how we organize ourselves. The AI revolution will happen more suddenly than these earlier transformations but will follow the same general trajectory. Now is the time to aggressively prepare for what is fast heading our way, including by active public engagement, governance, and regulation.
AI systems will not replace us, but, like these earlier technology-driven revolutions, they will force us to become different humans as we co-evolve with our technology. We will never reach peak human in our ongoing evolutionary journey, but we’ve got to manage this transition wisely to build the type of future we’d like to inhabit.
Alongside our ascending AIs, we humans still have a lot of climbing to do.
Story by Big Think
We live in strange times, when the technology we depend on the most is also that which we fear the most. We celebrate cutting-edge achievements even as we recoil in fear at how they could be used to hurt us. From genetic engineering and AI to nuclear technology and nanobots, the list of awe-inspiring, fast-developing technologies is long.
However, this fear of the machine is not as new as it may seem. Technology has a longstanding alliance with power and the state. The dark side of human history can be told as a series of wars whose victors are often those with the most advanced technology. (There are exceptions, of course.) Science, and its technological offspring, follows the money.
This fear of the machine seems to be misplaced. The machine has no intent: only its maker does. The fear of the machine is, in essence, the fear we have of each other — of what we are capable of doing to one another.
How AI changes things
Sure, you would reply, but AI changes everything. With artificial intelligence, the machine itself will develop some sort of autonomy, however ill-defined. It will have a will of its own. And this will, if it reflects anything that seems human, will not be benevolent. With AI, the claim goes, the machine will somehow know what it must do to get rid of us. It will threaten us as a species.
Well, this fear is also not new. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818 to warn us of what science could do if it served the wrong calling. In the case of her novel, Dr. Frankenstein’s call was to win the battle against death — to reverse the course of nature. Granted, any cure of an illness interferes with the normal workings of nature, yet we are justly proud of having developed cures for our ailments, prolonging life and increasing its quality. Science can achieve nothing more noble. What messes things up is when the pursuit of good is confused with that of power. In this distorted scale, the more powerful the better. The ultimate goal is to be as powerful as gods — masters of time, of life and death.
Should countries create a World Mind Organization that controls the technologies that develop AI?
Back to AI, there is no doubt the technology will help us tremendously. We will have better medical diagnostics, better traffic control, better bridge designs, and better pedagogical animations to teach in the classroom and virtually. But we will also have better winnings in the stock market, better war strategies, and better soldiers and remote ways of killing. This grants real power to those who control the best technologies. It increases the take of the winners of wars — those fought with weapons, and those fought with money.
A story as old as civilization
The question is how to move forward. This is where things get interesting and complicated. We hear over and over again that there is an urgent need for safeguards, for controls and legislation to deal with the AI revolution. Great. But if these machines are essentially functioning in a semi-black box of self-teaching neural nets, how exactly are we going to make safeguards that are sure to remain effective? How are we to ensure that the AI, with its unlimited ability to gather data, will not come up with new ways to bypass our safeguards, the same way that people break into safes?
The second question is that of global control. As I wrote before, overseeing new technology is complex. Should countries create a World Mind Organization that controls the technologies that develop AI? If so, how do we organize this planet-wide governing board? Who should be a part of its governing structure? What mechanisms will ensure that governments and private companies do not secretly break the rules, especially when to do so would put the most advanced weapons in the hands of the rule breakers? They will need those, after all, if other actors break the rules as well.
As before, the countries with the best scientists and engineers will have a great advantage. A new international détente will emerge in the molds of the nuclear détente of the Cold War. Again, we will fear destructive technology falling into the wrong hands. This can happen easily. AI machines will not need to be built at an industrial scale, as nuclear capabilities were, and AI-based terrorism will be a force to reckon with.
So here we are, afraid of our own technology all over again.
What is missing from this picture? It continues to illustrate the same destructive pattern of greed and power that has defined so much of our civilization. The failure it shows is moral, and only we can change it. We define civilization by the accumulation of wealth, and this worldview is killing us. The project of civilization we invented has become self-cannibalizing. As long as we do not see this, and we keep on following the same route we have trodden for the past 10,000 years, it will be very hard to legislate the technology to come and to ensure such legislation is followed. Unless, of course, AI helps us become better humans, perhaps by teaching us how stupid we have been for so long. This sounds far-fetched, given who this AI will be serving. But one can always hope.
Telehealth offers a vast improvement in access and convenience to all sorts of medical services, and online therapy for mental health is one of the most promising case studies for telehealth. With many online therapy options available, you can choose whatever works best for you. Yet many people are hesitant about using online therapy. Even if they do give it a try, they often don’t know how to make the most effective use of this treatment modality.
Why do so many feel uncertain about online therapy? A major reason stems from its novelty. Humans are creatures of habit, prone to falling for what behavioral scientists like myself call the status quo bias, a predisposition to stick to traditional practices and behaviors. Many people reject innovative solutions even when they would be helpful. Thus, while teletherapy was available long before the pandemic, and might have fit the needs of many potential clients, relatively few took advantage of this option.
Even when we do try new methodologies, we often don’t do so effectively, because we cling to the same approaches that worked in previous situations. Scientists call this behavior functional fixedness. It’s kind of like the saying about the hammer-nail syndrome: “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
These two mental blindspots, the status quo bias and functional fixedness, impact decision making in many areas of life. Fortunately, recent research has shown effective and pragmatic strategies to defeat these dangerous errors in judgment. The nine tips below will help you make the best decisions to get effective online therapy, based on the latest research.
For instance, a 2014 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders reported that online treatment proved just as effective as face-to-face treatment for depression. A 2018 study, published in Journal of Psychological Disorders, found that online cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, was just as effective as face-to-face treatment for major depression, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. And a 2014 study in Behaviour Research and Therapy discovered that online CBT proved effective in treating anxiety disorders, and helped lower costs of treatment.
During the forced teletherapy of COVID, therapists worried that those with serious mental health conditions would be less likely to convert to teletherapy. Yet research published in Counselling Psychology Quarterly has helped to alleviate that concern. It found that those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression, PTSD, and even suicidality converted to teletherapy at about the same rate as those with less severe mental health challenges.
Yet teletherapy may not be for everyone. For example, adolescents had the most varied response to teletherapy, according to a 2020 study in Family Process. Some adapted quickly and easily, while others found it awkward and anxiety-inducing. On the whole, children with trauma respond worse to online therapy, per a 2020 study in Child Abuse & Neglect. The treatment of mental health issues can sometimes require in-person interactions, such as the use of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. And according to a 2020 study from the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, online therapy may not be as effective for those suffering from loneliness.
Online therapy is much more accessible than in-person therapy for those with a decent internet connection, webcam, mic, and digital skills. You don’t have to commute to your therapist’s office, wasting money and time. You can take much less medical leave from work, saving you money and hassle with your boss. If you live in a sparsely populated area, online therapy could allow you to access many specialized kinds of therapy that isn’t accessible locally.
Online options are much quicker compared to the long waiting lines for in-person therapy. You also have much more convenient scheduling options. And you won’t have to worry about running into someone you know in the waiting room. Online therapy is easier to conceal from others and reduces stigma. Many patients may feel more comfortable and open to sharing in the privacy and comfort of their own home.
You can use a variety of communication tools suited to your needs at any given time. Video can be used to start a relationship with a therapist and have more intense and nuanced discussions, but can be draining, especially for those with social anxiety. Voice-only may work well for less intense discussions. Email offers a useful option for long-form, well-thought-out messages. Texting is useful for quick, real-time questions, answers, and reinforcement.
Plus, online therapy is often cheaper than in-person therapy. In the midst of COVID, many insurance providers have decided to cover online therapy.
One weakness is the requirement for appropriate technology and skills to engage in online therapy. Another is the difficulty of forming a close therapeutic relationship with your therapist. You won’t be able to communicate non-verbals as fully and the therapist will not be able to read you as well, requiring you to be more deliberate in how you express yourself.
Another important issue is that online therapy is subject to less government oversight compared to the in-person approach, which is regulated in each state, providing a baseline of quality control. As a result, you have to do more research on the providers that offer online therapy to make sure they’re reputable, use only licensed therapists, and have a clear and transparent pay structure.
Figure out what kind of goals you want to achieve. Consider how, within the context of your goals, you can leverage the benefits of online therapy while addressing the weaknesses. Write down and commit to achieving your goals. Remember, you need to be your own advocate, especially in the less regulated space of online therapy, so focus on being proactive in achieving your goals.
Because online therapy can occur at various times of day through videos calls, emails and text, it might feel more open-ended and less organized, which can have advantages and disadvantages. One way you can give it more structure is to ground these interactions in the story of your self-improvement. Our minds perceive the world through narratives. Create a story of how you’ll get from where you are to where you want to go, meaning your goals.
A good template to use is the Hero’s Journey. Start the narrative with where you are, and what caused you to seek therapy. Write about the obstacles you will need to overcome, and the kind of help from a therapist that you’ll need in the process. Then, describe the final end state: how will you be better off after this journey, including what you will have learned.
Especially in online therapy, you need to be on top of things. Too many people let the therapist manage the treatment plan. As you pursue your hero’s journey, another way to organize for success is to take notes on your progress, and reevaluate how you’re doing every month with your therapist.
Since it’s more difficult to be confident about the quality of service providers in an online setting, you should identify in advance the traits of your desired therapist. Every Hero’s Journey involves a mentor figure who guides the protagonist through this journey. So who’s your ideal mentor? Write out their top 10 characteristics, from most to least important.
For example, you might want someone who is:
- Good listener
That’s my list. Depending on what challenge you’re facing and your personality and preferences, you should make your own. Then, when you are matched with a therapist, evaluate how well they fit your ideal list.
When you first match with a therapist, try to fail fast. That means, instead of focusing on getting treatment, focus on figuring out if the therapist is a good match based on the traits you identified above. That will enable you to move on quickly if they’re not, and it’s very much worth it to figure that out early.
Tell them your goals, your story, and your vision of your ideal mentor. Ask them whether they think they are a match, and what kind of a treatment plan they would suggest based on the information you provided. And observe them yourself in your initial interactions, focusing on whether they’re a good match. Often, you’ll find that your initial vision of your ideal mentor is incomplete, and you’ll learn through doing therapy what kind of a therapist is the best fit for you.
This small subgoal should be sufficient to be meaningful and impactful for improving your mental health, but not a big stretch for you to achieve. This subgoal should be a tool for you to use to evaluate whether the therapist is indeed a good fit for you. It will also help you evaluate whether the treatment plan makes sense, or whether it needs to be revised.
As you approach the end of your planned work and you see you’re reaching your goals, talk to the therapist about how to wrap up rather than letting things drag on for too long. You don’t want to become dependent on therapy: it’s meant to be a temporary intervention. Some less scrupulous therapists will insist that therapy should never end and we should all stay in therapy forever, and you want to avoid falling for this line. When you reach your goals, end your therapy, unless you discover a serious new reason to continue it. Still, it may be wise to set up occasional check-ins once every three to six months to make sure you’re staying on the right track.