Photo by Don Pinnock on Unsplash   

I was recently debating the idea that artificial intelligence will replace humans, and heard what seemed like a solid point against it: AI won’t replace humans for the simple reason that it can’t come up with anything original. 

Everything AI creates is simply a regurgitation of things that already exist. Things that some human, somewhere, has imagined from the workings of their brains. 

Maybe it’s words or drawings. Maybe it’s a new kind of spreadsheet or a scientific breakthrough. Either way, AI never creates something truly original on its own, so it will continue to need us even as we rely on it more and more. 

But that’s looking at the question all wrong. After all, isn’t copying the same thing we humans have been doing for millennia?

Take your favourite movie or TV show, for example. If you think about it, the only true originals, the only minds that came up with artistic expressions from almost nothing, were the ones that created the earliest cave art (or sculptures or bone carvings). 

Those long-ago people, working with rough tools, created the first symbolic representations of the world. They made concrete expressions of the abstract ideas and images in their head. 

Since then, it’s all been variations on the words and pictures that those early artists created. Art students study the masters. Architects take inspiration from ancient cities. And it wouldn’t be hard to trace a direct line through history from the Lascaux cave paintings to Marvel superheroes.

The details are unique but, just like AI, it’s all based on work that others, over tens of thousands of years, have created. Copying is how we got from clay tokens to the calculator, from torch signals to smartphones. We imitated, improved on, and repeated.

And that’s where the real threat of AI lies. It’s not the concept of building on something that came before. It’s that we’ll give up knowing how to copy. Hand over that skill to AI and, in a decade or two, you won’t know many people with the ability to do it.

Will the robots and AI come for us one day? I have no idea. But if they do, I hope that someone, somewhere, still has the age-old human capacity to copy, improve on, and repeat—just like the second person that sketched a bison on a cave wall.