An Experience and Some Thoughts

The days are short.

This morning it was dark when the Beloved Spouse and I arose; we had eaten our breakfasts in artificial light before we could tell that the sky was clear. The sun didn’t come over the ridge to our east until about 7:20.

It was unseasonably warm – nearly 60 – so I decided to go out in my kayak for what I’m fairly sure was the last paddle of the season. When I got down to the water, I was greeted by a sight that looked remarkably like the photograph atop this page*. The air over the cove was clear and still, but there was a wall of fog over the river just past Goose Island. I could barely make out a bluff on the far side of the river.

After I paddled out into the river and fog I found that visibility was only a few hundred yards; I couldn’t see the town of Essex until I was practically in it.

I listened for motor boats, keeping myself in the shallow water by the reedy shore for safety. Only one boat roared by – and it was at a safe distance, out in the middle of the river.

Slowly, slowly, a wind arose and began to push away the fog. Fall colors began to appear – reds, golds and yellow-greens, complementing the fog, the green-gray water, the brown-green reeds and the blues around the edges of the sky.

The air smelled delicious – a warm mixture of autumn’s richness and salty water.

Except for the brief interruption by the power boat, it was quiet. While I paddled, I watched the shoreline, birds and the occasional fish, and reveled in the majesty of my surroundings. I also thought about many things – the post I wrote yesterday, an old friend who recently lost his mother, a business I’m thinking about starting, the illness of somebody I hold dear and an essay I had just read in the Wall Street Journal about artificial intelligence (


The article echoed many of the facts presented in a fascinating five part PBS series on the brain that I had watched on Amazon last week. It cited computers’ now-complete mastery over mankind in games of logic like Go, chess and even poker, and detailed the machines’ capacity for teaching themselves how to master such games once they have been programmed with the rules; it talked about rapid advances in self-driving cars and speech recognition. It speculated a bit about where this will all lead – to a world, perhaps, where machines are better than humans at performing virtually every task – including, of course, war. Not exactly a comforting thought.

The essayist – Dr. Koch, chief scientist at the Allen Institute of Brain Science – advocates for using computational power to enhance human brains – pointing out, as did the scientist in the PBS series – Dr. Eagleman of Stanford University – that this is already being done: computers plugged into the brains of damaged people are giving them back the capabilities that the rest of us take for granted. Dr. Eagleman goes further – he notes that there’s no reason that computers couldn’t enhance human characteristics – by doing things like giving our brains the ability to see or hear more of the visual or audio spectrums than is currently possible without (detached) machinery.

Both the essay and the TV series acknowledge that – as Elon Musk and others have warned – ai may prove to be a threat to humanity. We may create levels of intelligence so great that – as foreseen decades ago in the Terminator movies – the machines no longer see us as useful.

FWIW, I am more inclined to believe that quantum computer -level intelligence will eventually help us avoid extinction by figuring out how we can beat one or more of the heartless tricks that the universe occasionally plays on Planet Earth – like an asteroid strike or the every-700,000-years-or-so explosion of the supervolcano under Yellowstone.


Advances in understanding about the mechanics of the electrical impulses in our brains – also known as thoughts – and in computers lead me to wonder: what does it mean to be human?

A big question, to be sure, and not one that can be answered either succinctly or definitively.

For me, though, the answer begins with the fact that our experiences – like this morning’s two hour paddle – are gloriously multilayered.

Another part of what it means to be human is that, well, we humans think about meaning. We have eaten of the forbidden fruit: we have self-awareness. We know that we are mortal – and that knowledge gives our days urgency. We may no longer be able to claim supreme computational power as to a narrowly defined, multi-variable task, but we are capable of experiencing beauty – and ugliness – and of thinking of everything and nothing simultaneously.

Finally, did you notice that I wrote that computers may help us avoid extinction? What did I mean by that? In all likelihood, you and I will be long dead by the time one of these extinction-level events comes along.

A remarkable thing about humans (well, most of us, anyway) is that we can see past our own mortality to the collective fates of our species and world; we care about each other, extending even to those who will come much, much later.

And as far as I know, that’s unique.


M.H. Johnston


*Incidentally, the photo doesn’t come through on my mobile devices, and may not on yours.

3 comments to An Experience and Some Thoughts

  • Samuel Finney  says:

    The books I have read recently all suggest that limitations of our brains put us in far more danger of self-destruction than of destruction from other causes. Generally speaking we do not logically think our way out of problems, we react automatically and then our brains create a story to explain our reactions–this is demonstrable in many experiments. Therefore, the hope in AI or augmented intelligence is in overcoming our failures in processing automatically and emotionally, not really in better logic. Our actions often arise because we think we know better, rather than because we DO know better, and I don’t think logic power will overcome this shortcoming in human perception–though we might be able to design a super-human that would do so (another way to end humanity as we know it, but far more pleasant than war, or asteroids!)

    • M Johnston  says:

      Agreed that we demonstrably and unintentionally behave illogically in many circumstances; I would even go further than you have here by noting that we actually like our biases as, in our minds, they spring from our personal experiences and define our individualities – our senses of self. Self-consciousness may regularly lead us astray; but it is also true, in my view anyway, that it allows us to worry about right and wrong and to ascribe broader meanings to our lives and those of others. Given that, I’ll take the downside of the regular mistakes of logic that come with self-consciousness over the mathematical purity of how computers “think” any day.

  • Dennis Paine  says:

    What an enjoyable read!
    After plowing through a 32-page indictment, your post was a fortuitous find.

    Thank you, Mark.

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>