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Psych Geeks: Are We Too Human For Artificial Intelligence?

Ed Harris
Richard Shotwell and Invision/AP
Actor Ed Harris portrays The Man in Black, an AI character from the HBO series, "Westworld." The day when we regularly interact with AI is fast approaching. Are we ready for it?

Artificial intelligence scares the heck out of some people. Others are excited about the rise of the new technology.

Either way, AI will be a greater part of our lives in the future as the line between science fiction and science fact dissolves. Are we ready for a new kind of relationship with technology? A new book that explores the popular HBO series “Westworld” might give us an idea. 

Eric and Scott
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
Eric Wesselmann, left, and Scott Jordan examine when and why we see human in the face of AI.

Scott Jordan and Eric Wesselmann are Illinois State University professors of psychology and GLT’s Psych Geeks. Both chipped in with their take on AI and our potential relationship with it in “Westworld Psychology: Violent Delights” (Sterling Publishing). In their contribution to the collection of essays, the Psych Geeks examine when and why we see human in the face of AI, and anthropomorphism comes heavily into play. 

“From a very early age, we learn to simulate other people’s mind states,” Wesselmann said. “To recognize that you have thoughts, I have thoughts. As you’re talking, I’m also looking at your nonverbals as I try to imagine your perspective. One of the reasons is that I’m trying to predict your behavior. I want to know if you’re honest or trustworthy. That’s important for me to know if I’m going to build a coalition with you.” 

“We spend most of our time thinking about other people’s thoughts. Researchers who do work on anthropomorphism argue that this is a spill over onto non-human objects. Research suggests we can anthropomorphize just about anything, but it’s just easier the more similar it is to us.” 

“The more something makes movements like we do, the easier it is to resonate to us,” Jordan explained. “Even the more something speaks a language like we do, the easier it is to resonate to us. There are data to indicate if you hear a group speaking in a language you can’t speak, you feel out-grouped.” 

In “Westworld Psychology: Violent Delights” Wesselmann and Jordan address the question of why humans would enact social fantasies with machines rather than with humans. The answer isn’t pretty, as it takes us past anthropomorphism and into dehumanization. And our old friend Freud can help us understand, said Wesselmann. 

“The fantasies that are enacted in 'Westworld' are extreme. Freud argued that the two primal motives that we have ingrained in us as a species are to destroy and to love. And that is what you see the patrons of Westworld enacting with these robots. Why might they do that? Probably the same reason why Freud argued we want to do it but don’t: society tells us that we shouldn’t. Maybe our own internalized moral codes tell us that we shouldn’t. But in this adult theme park that is Westworld, there are no laws or rules.  So, they are there to enact these fantasies without any repercussion.” 

“If they don’t see these robots as human or worthy of moral consideration, then they can do as they please.  The robots are just tools.” 

“American slavery was exactly that,” Jordan added. “We took human beings and treated them like nonhumans. What you’re doing when you dehumanize someone is to create a cognitive border, so we don’t resonate with their pain. That allows us to reframe their pain in a way so that we don’t experience it.” 

Fifty to one hundred years from now, the idea of what is human could chance drastically, Jordan said. “As new species emerge, no matter what they’re made of, in order to survive as a species, they’re going to have to generate borders. They’re going to have to generate things that will allow them to persist as a species. And that’s a central premise of the “Westworld” series. The show is a context in which the androids learn what it takes to survive in a world full of sociopathic humans.” 

How we interact with AI is an extension of how we treat each other, said Jordan. Who do we keep in? Who do we keep out? Those rules that humans apply to each other could well extend to AI.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.