To many of those of a certain age, the word “android” has particular associations. In 1978, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy included the character of Marvin, the paranoid android. Marvin claimed to be fifty thousand times more intelligent than a human being; he confused the capacity to store and compute information with the extraordinary complexity of thinking and behaving that comprises human intelligence. Following Douglas Adams’ stories on the radio, in published form, and then on television – “android” will always mean a machine that tries and fails to understand what it means to be human.
Perhaps the television depiction of Marvin reinforced thoughts of robots as entities that misunderstood what it meant to be a person. Marvin bore a passing resemblance to the robot Martians in the advertisements for Cadbury’s Smash, beings that regarded humans as primitive because they took potatoes and boiled them for twenty minutes and mashed them up instead of being sufficiently sophisticated to buy powdered mashed potato in packets. Anyone eating powdered mashed potato would have known it was no more like actual mashed potato than Marvin was like a human being.
Forty years after Richard Adams introduced his paranoid android to the world, artificial intelligence is as far from being human as it was imagined to be in 1978. Having a smartphone that runs on the Android operating system shows the gulf that still exists between a human brain and a computing system designed by Google. Unlike my iPhone, which at least seems integrated and logical, the Android phone is slow, unresponsive and, at times, arbitrary in its behaviour.
At 0305 today, a message appeared on the screen to tell me that Yeovil Town had lost 1-0 to Aston Villa. Presumably, as my ticket for the match had been booked through Gmail, the phone had computed that I was interested, but had not computed that buying a ticket meant that I did not need to be made aware of the result more than five hours after the final whistle. It is Marvin-like behaviour to tell people information that they do not need to know.
Yet even if Android approximated to Marvin’s boasted capacity of being fifty thousand times more intelligent than a human being, it would still not remotely approach what it means to be a human. A robot could not fathom the logic of following a small team, or feel the excitement of a match, or comprehend why people would endure the post-match traffic gridlock, and if it could not understand what it meant to go to a football fixture, it could not begin to understand the depth and breadth of other human emotions.