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Will killer robots be capable of cracking each other up?

I was planning to address whether the human species is doomed when a hummingbird crossed my path. I’ll explain the connection momentarily. I’d always believed that Homo sapiens was perfectible. Not today or tomorrow. Perhaps not for another hundred thousand years. But eventually we’d get it right. We’d work out the kinks. We’ll ferret out a way to live in harmony.

I’m beginning to wonder. If the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice it’s bending awfully slow, perhaps even in the opposite direction. So the question arises – are we a fatally flawed species? I occasionally remind my children, not that that they need reminding, especially now that one of them has children of her own, that humanity is an experiment. There’s no guarantee it’s going to succeed.

I’m often reminded of something the astronomer Carl Sagan said. I’m paraphrasing, possibly to the point of mischaracterizing. When asked whether he believed in UFOs he said that any planetary civilization technologically sophisticated enough to travel millions of miles through space wouldn’t have much interest in a primitive, warlike species such as ours. They’d delay contact until we proved worthy.

Our species life expectancy has been as on my mind lately as the conversation around artificial intelligence has accelerated along with breakthroughs in the technology. You may have heard or read the story about Geoffrey Hinton, the so-called “Godfather of A.I.” Mr. Hinton recently quit Google to sound the alarm about the threat of artificial intelligence.

He believes it’s not long until it eclipses human intelligence. And once it does all bets are off. Few, if any, examples come to mind of more evolutionarily advanced creatures treating their inferiors with care. How’s this for a quote from a story about Hinton in the New York Times: “And he fears a day when truly autonomous weapons – those killer robots – become reality.”

I don’t know about you but I’m not looking forward to the day when killer robots are calling the shots. Right-wing Republicans are bad enough. Part of my problem may be provincialism. For all its warts I remain partial to my own species. I find it hard to believe that machines will be able to come up with Beethoven’s Ninth or “A Hundred Years of Solitude.”

Now about those hummingbirds. I was debating whether it’s time to hang my sugar water feeders when I heard a hummingbird chirping overhead. There are apparently several reasons why hummingbirds chirp: to warn away other hummers from their territory; just because they’re happy; or because they’re looking for a mate.

I’d like to propose another reason – as preposterous and presumptuous as it may sound. That the bird in question recognized me as his supplier from last season and was informing me that he, or perhaps she, was back and that I better get moving to fill the feeder. I realize that probably sounds a little too Dr. Doolittle.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt I had a personal relationship with a hummingbird. Last spring one buzzed me upon arrival; at least he buzzed the area where his feeder had been located the previous summer. I contacted Rich Guthrie, a birding expert, the regional reviewer for the birding site, e-Bird, and a frequent guest on WAMC’s Vox Pop.

I had two questions: do hummingbirds return to the same feeders year after year? And is it possible the birds are trying to send me a signal that they’re famished after traveling thousands of miles from Central America on their spring migration and they’d appreciate a sports drink to replenish their depleted carbohydrates?

Mr. Guthrie had several options. He could have ignored my email, directed me to an online therapist, or taken my question seriously. Fortunately, he chose the latter. “You are reading them right,” Rich informed me. “At least that’s what I like to believe. They do the same for me and go straight to their favorite feeder.”

What, you may be asking yourself, does any of this have to do with artificial intelligence? Only that hummingbirds are enchanting creatures. Whether or not you believe they return thousands of miles to the same feeder, or that they recognize their patron homeowners, you’ve got to respect a bird not much larger than an insect that not only knows how to fly forwards but also sideways and backwards and can hover in place for long periods of time.

As sophisticated as A.I. is apparently destined to become will be it be capable of being enchanted by a hummer, of being startled if it already possesses the entire breath of human knowledge? Will it be available to the miraculous? Most of all will it be capable of humility? Part of what makes us human, at least some of us, is the acknowledgement of how little we still know. From there it’s a short leap into the realm of the sacred. I’d like to see a machine do that.

After I wrote this column I went out to dinner with a friend. Seated at the next table were two men who fit the same general description as my friend and me, if a couple of decades younger. They seemed to know each other well, enjoyed each other’s company, could almost complete each other’s sentences. Cross-pollination is another thing that makes us human, cracking each other up with humor. Until machines learn how to amuse their peers I suspect humanity is safe.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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