Artificial intelligence is no substitute for the real thing

By Jim Bright

I recently watched a performer demonstrate a series of attention-grabbing manoeuvres that left me totally unmoved. As this performer was new to their audience, the power of novelty plus their superficially impressive tricks meant they received a warm response from a significant number present. They should have known better. They were taken in by a fake. An impersonator, not an interpreter.

As I reflected on the deficiencies of this performer, I began to see the parallels with generative artificial intelligence (AI), such as ChatGPT. Ultimately, these new AI applications are just big copy cats. They work by scraping the internet and having enough memory and processing power to be able to generate “new” material by stringing together what they’ve copied.

Artificial intelligence is no substitute for the real thing.
Artificial intelligence is no substitute for the real thing.Credit: Reuters

The American philosopher John Searle famously presented an argument that he claims demonstrates that a computer’s capacity to answer a question does not mean the computer has intelligence. Searle asked us to imagine a person who speaks only English finds themselves in a room that contains many shelves of tokens, each one bearing Chinese symbols. They also have an instruction book written in English that details rules for manipulating the symbols. Underneath the door to the room, a Chinese speaker slips some Chinese symbols. Using the manual, the English speaker locates the sequence of symbols delivered into the room, and following the rules, pushes a series of Chinese symbols back under the door to the Chinese speaker.

For the Chinese speaker outside, they know the symbols they slipped under the door was a question. The symbols sent back made complete sense as an appropriate answer. It appears that the room has intelligence. However, this is superficial, as the operator in the room has no idea what they are doing, and is blindly following the rules. The English speaker in the room is an impersonator, not an interpreter.

While there is no doubt some skill in being able to copy, ultimately impersonators leave us cold. They add nothing new, nothing of themselves. It is, in the end, a dehumanising endeavour. It should not be confused with the essentially human capacity for creativity and artistry. The artist is an interpreter not an impersonator. They shed light on reality from their own perspective. They relay reality through their perceptions, their history, the dues they have paid to their field, their story, their strengths and limitations. This is what it means for a singer to own a song. The notes and melody of the song may be familiar, but what lifts the song, is what they bring to the performance. The artist demonstrates intelligence. The impersonator blindly follows a formula.

The distinction between impersonators and interpreters holds in all kinds of work. We have all endured the upstarts who slavishly copy the boss in the hope it is the formula for rapid promotion. Perhaps, even worse, is when we become aware that someone else is copying us. In a meeting you find yourself nodding in agreement at a particularly sagacious contribution, only to come to your senses and realise the bounder is parroting precisely what you said the day before.

I would love to conclude that it always ends happily ever after with the imitator’s shallow ruse exposed. Unfortunately, it ain’t necessarily so. Because it often takes an interpreter – an artist if you will – to spot an imitator. I should probably also issue a warning, there are two types of psychologist, those who divide people into two categories, and those that do not. I am in the latter category.

Dr Jim Bright, FAPS owns Bright and Associates, a career management consultancy and is director of evidence & impact at BECOME Education an ed tech start-up, Email to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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