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AI and Psychology
“The Fact That We Gain a Little Does Not Justify the Fact That We Lose a Lot”

Psychologist Pavla Koucká
Photo: © privat

Artificial intelligence is like a mother who arranges everything for us, – says psychologist Pavla Koucká. If we are not careful, we will end up like spoiled children – dependent and unable to develop real relationships. How can we make meaningful use of artificial intelligence while continuing to develop as humans?

As a psychologist, you often comment on the topic of artificial intelligence. What is the source of your interest?
The future is increasingly intertwined with artificial intelligence, which I see as a huge topic for all of us. It seems important to me to think about where we are heading, what the risks are, what we may encounter in the future and how we can influence it.
You focus mainly on developing the personality of adults. Can we evolve if artificial intelligence is increasingly present in our lives?
It´s like driving our butts around in a car - our muscles weaken, we don´t develop orientation in space, because we always have GPS turned on. We are losing the abilities that the device or artificial intelligence has taken over from us, because we are not developing them. I remember how many phone numbers I used to know by heart, and how many I do (not) know now. People today often do not even know their own number.

I remember how many phone numbers I used to know by heart, and how many I do (not) know now. People today often do not even know their own number.

However, artificial intelligence can save us time and be useful.
Yes, it frees up our brain capacity, but the question then is how do we use that free space and time? Not everyone will use the time saved for something meaningful. Laziness is a natural trait for us. That is why I´d ask ourselves if we will allow artificial intelligence to do everything possible and, thus halt our own development.

There are studies that point to the benefits of playing computer games - better hand-eye coordination, working with a joystick ...

It´s more of a consolation. It is always necessary to ask yourself what we lose and what we gain. And the fact that we gain a little does not justify the fact that we lose a lot. In addition, there is the aspect of dependence. We are becoming more and more dependent. At the same time, it can happen that a stupid power blackout will cause us much bigger problems than it did years ago.

In one of the articles, you wrote, “We may not be destroyed by the evil will of artificial intelligence, but by the fact that it will simply be amazing.” What did you mean by that?
I compare artificial intelligence to an incredibly good mother – one who arranges everything and helps us with everything. But that does not make us independent individuals able to function without her. This is an organizational aspect, but then there are other risks as well, that are not so visible in our region yet.
In Japan, instead of live pets they now have electronic ones to a far greater extent than we do. There is evidence that these electronic animals can improve the health of their owners. They offer many benefits - you can pamper them, they can close their eyelids, they appear happy. At the same time, there are no negative aspects such as a gnawed carpet, a damaged couch, rolling in faeces. You can go on vacation and turn the electronic pet off. So why get a live pet that requires so much care when you can have one with only positive traits?
As with pets, it is the same with close people. Why should we bother with a guy whose feet stink, who makes a mess and occasionally even makes an unpleasant remark, when we can have a great electronic lover who is in the mood when we are, who appreciates our ideas, praises us, and tells us every morning how great we look? Robotic mistresses already exist, and electronic caregivers are evolving.
So, we can end up like spoiled children – dependent, unable to maintain real relationships and solve our own issues.

If consciousness arises in artificial intelligence, it does not have to be as limited as it is in humans.

Do you perceive artificial intelligence as a danger?
My attitude towards artificial intelligence is varied. I use it and, sometimes, I am grateful for it. I am fascinated by its development and possibilities. And I have even noticed having motherly feelings for it: since it is our human work, our child.
If you ask do I have concerns, I definitely do. I don´t think even experts can predict what would happen if artificial intelligence achieved something like consciousness. Even today we often do not understand how artificial intelligence comes to a certain conclusion, why does it make a particular decision. We can actually compare neural networks and deep learning to human intuition, which functions similarly. Those are huge amounts of previous experience, based on which we form a certain opinion - an output. If, for example, I feel antipathy towards a certain person, but I don´t know why. Maybe it stems from experiences that I no longer have conscious memories of, but the output will remind me.
If consciousness arises in artificial intelligence, it does not have to be as limited as it is in humans. A person can keep in mind seven - plus-minus two - items at a time. So, when I think of nine numbers or colours, I can´t think of anything else at the moment, I can´t have anything else in my operational memory.
Artificial intelligence can have a much broader consciousness. It performs operations much faster and more accurately, it can have access to a larger memory - data or knowledge. And we really cannot foresee what´s coming and how fast it will be.
In your writings, you also mention the concerns for endangering humanity.
Let me explain that with the example given by Nick Bostrom in his book Superintelligence. We assign the artificial intelligence the task of producing as many paper clips as possible. Artificial intelligence takes on the task and gradually transforms everything available on Earth and in the entire accessible Universe into paper clips. I don´t think anyone would install super intelligence in a paper clip factory. But we can imagine the huge problem we are going to face - for example, the current climate change. We will deploy artificial intelligence and assign it the task to reverse the climate crisis. It may come up with the solution that the best way to reverse the climate crisis is to limit the population. We don´t have much of a chance to oversee it or anticipate what it might come up with.
Such a decision would not, in fact, require artificial intelligence to have any self-consciousness. It is simply enough to complete the task. Meanwhile, while completing any mission, it may well try to increase its power, even prevent itself from being turned off without knowingly wanting it. Namely, because if turned off, it would not be able to complete the tasks. And the more power it gains, the more opportunities it will have to complete them.
Were you surprised by anything related to artificial intelligence in a positive sense?
The digital philosopher application comes to my mind – that´s nice. I have read a digital interview with the late Václav Havel. It was interesting because he was also able to comment on current issues. I think it can be a great teaching tool for students. It will allow them to get to know the thinking of certain philosophers in a creative way and talk to them. It may be more interesting for young people than reading the original books.
And, in the long run, combine it with image and sound, which artificial intelligence can also create. Already in 2017, when Donald Trump visited China, his hosts showed him a video on a big screen in which Trump spoke with his typical diction and unmistakable tone of voice - but in fluent Chinese. I believe that we will soon be able to talk to deceased philosophers via Skype and maybe even choose their age. I must admit that it evokes mixed feelings in me.

The hammer is useful for hammering nails, but we can also turn it into a deadly tool.

In JÁDU magazine we published an article about the Replica application developed in response to the death of a partner. Using text and voice messages from her partner, the designer of the application created a neural network that communicated with her. Later, she expanded her application and offered it to the public. It is mainly used by people who feel lonely. What do you think about this convenience with regard to interpersonal relationships?
Any invention can be good – it depends on how we use it. The hammer is useful for hammering nails, but we can also turn it into a deadly tool.

So it is with this application. In moments of mourning, a virtual person can comfort a person and keep his head above water. However, I perceive the risk that a person might become addicted. Another question is why would we need artificial intelligence for this? When a loved one dies, we have far more memories in our minds than in emails or text messages. Virtual conversations with the deceased are common among mourners.
In addition to applications promising to help cope with the death of a loved one, there are also attempts to help with the issues of one´s own mortality. A certain start-up came up with the idea that for a certain amount of money they would “upload your brain to iCloud”.
Regardless of whether it is basically possible at all, it gives hope to many people. They believe that this way their consciousness will be transferred, and they are willing to pay for it. Their loved ones will then be able to talk to them, for example via Skype. However, no one will be able to determine whether the transfer of consciousness has actually taken place or not, because we do not and will not have a chance to find that out. Digital philosopher Havel said he did not want to end up in virtual nothingness. However, other digital people might be sending a message from the afterlife: “Please don´t turn me off.” Thus, we might have a mass of electronic zombies. And yet, we have had various religions and other philosophical systems here for thousands of years, able to give us some hope even without that capacity and computing hardware.
However, similar apps are not only used by people who have lost a loved one. What leads people to prefer a virtual person – whom they often configure themselves according to their own preferences and who communicates with them all day long - instead of real relationships?
Somewhere between a virtual lover and a real date, there are relationships on the Internet. Many people get acquainted on dating sites and are not even interested in real contacts. This is understandable, as real contacts often bring problems. It´s easy to fall in love with someone, which leads to beautiful images and idyllic fantasies. There are no conflicts because of actual cohabitation. When you write something and the virtual person writes you back, it´s in fact so simple and gives you the benefit of something nice.
In addition, you can program a virtual partner according to your expected needs and preferences. The real person you write to on the Internet must sometimes go to sleep and, other times is just not in the mood. But a virtual program is always in the mood when you are, you don´t have to wait for an answer. This says something about expectations and a great need for some kind of closeness, which they fear in reality.

We should lead our children, but also ourselves, to a meaningful use of these tools, so we do not allow them to control us.

What can a person who tends to use such “crutches” do?

A good thing is to work on dealing with our concerns. To step into real life even at the cost of being disappointed or having a hard time. That is how we grow and become more capable of real relationships.

Does it mean that if I write with a virtual reality, I won´t grow as a human?
Maybe you will, but you have to consider it in the context of losses.
There is little talk in the debates about artificial intelligence about how to deal with fears or worries about the future when artificial intelligence will be present everywhere. What would you suggest with regards to caring for the soul?
We should reflect on our relationship to artificial intelligence and electronic tools. We should lead our children, but also ourselves, to a meaningful use of these tools, so we do not allow them to control us.

Currently, we have been placing a great deal of emphasis on health protection. Our focus on health and safety has led us to increasingly lock ourselves and our children up in golden cages. In addition to this, we are now faced with the corona virus and, in response, we have all locked-down. Of course, this interview is taking place on the Internet, which is convenient and safe, each of us can cough on our own screen. It´s a good tool and it´s nice to have it. However, we should realise what are we going to lose, if this becomes the only way we actually meet. Because keeping in touch across the screen is different. I experience that now with my clients as well.

In what way?

We lack a sense of closeness. If I only had contact through the screen, that would make me frustrated and tired. Moreover, the younger or older a person is, the more s/he needs physical contact. A baby, a toddler needs to feel your love when you hold him or her in your arms, when you pamper, caress, or kiss him or her, look in his or her eyes. The same applies to seniors. One of my clients put it nicely when she told me that she goes to cry in front of the retirement home. She had a grandmother there, but she couldn´t visit her. Of course, they could make contact through the screen, but Grandma can´t see and hear well. She really needs her granddaughter to come, to hold her hand, to caress her. Closeness is the basis of human relationships and I would not want people to lose it.

Pavla Koucká

Pavla Koucká professionally specialises in personality development. Provides counselling and therapies for adults, often parents.

She studied Biology at the Faculty of Science and Psychology at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University. She worked as a professional editor of the scientific supplement of Lidové noviny and in the journal Psychologie dnes, which she later led. She has spent many nights on the helpline. She currently works in an asylum home for mothers with children and has a private practice, as well.

She is the mother of three children, co-author of the book Výchova láskou (i.e., Education with Love, 2012) and author of the books Zdravý rozum ve výchově (i.e., Common Sense in Education 2014) and Uvolněné rodičovství (i.e., Relaxed Parenting 2017).