What Does It Mean To Be Human In The Age Of AI?

Video What Does It Mean to Be Human in the Age of AI?

Artificial intelligence has made stunning leaps in the past year. Algorithms are now doing things — like designing drugs, writing wedding vows, negotiating deals, creating illustrations, composing music — that have always been the sole prerogative of humans.

There’s been plenty of giddy speculation about the economic implications of all this. (AI will make us wildly productive! AI will steal our jobs!) Yet the advent of sophisticated AI raises another big question that’s received far less attention: How does this change our sense of what it means to be human? In the face of ever more intelligent machines, are we still… well, special?

“Humanity has always seen itself as unique in the universe,” says Benoît Monin, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “When the contrast was to animals, we pointed to our use of language, reason, and logic as defining traits. So what happens when the phone in your pocket is suddenly better than you at these things?”

Monin and Erik Santoro, then a PhD candidate in social psychology at Stanford, began talking about this a few years ago, when a program called AlphaGo was trouncing the world’s top players in the complex strategy game Go. What intrigued them was how people reacted to the news.

“We noticed that when they discussed these milestones, people often seemed defensive,” says Santoro, who earned his PhD this spring and will soon begin a postdoc at Columbia University. “The talk would gravitate to what the AI couldn’t yet do, as if we wanted to reassure ourselves that nothing had really changed.”

And with each new advance, Monin adds, came the refrain, “Oh, that’s not real intelligence, it’s just mimicry and pattern matching” — ignoring the fact that humans also learn by imitation, and we have our own share of faulty heuristics, biases, and shortcuts that fall well short of objective reasoning.

This suggested that if humans felt threatened by the new technologies, it was about more than the security of their paychecks. Perhaps people were anxious about something more deeply personal: their sense of identity and their relevance in the grand scheme of things.

Table of Contents

The Rise of the Machines

There’s a well-established model in psychology called social identity theory. The idea is that humans identify with a chosen in-group and define themselves in contrast to out-groups. It’s that deep-rooted us-versus-them instinct that drives so much social conflict.

“We thought, maybe AI is a new reference group,” Monin says, “especially since it’s presented as having human-like traits.” He and Santoro wondered: If people’s sense of uniqueness is threatened, will they try to distinguish themselves from their new rivals by changing their criteria for what it means to be human — in effect, by moving the goalposts?

To find out, Santoro and Monin drew up a list of 20 human attributes, 10 of which we currently share with AI. The other 10 were traits they felt are distinctive to humans.