Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Singularity—an Urban Legend?

Clips from an interesting essay by Daniel Dennett:
The Singularity—the fateful moment when AI surpasses its creators in intelligence and takes over the world—is a meme worth pondering. It has the earmarks of an urban legend: a certain scientific plausibility ("Well, in principle I guess it's possible!") coupled with a deliciously shudder-inducing punch line ("We'd be ruled by robots!")
...these alarm calls distract us from a more pressing problem...we are on the verge of abdicating control to artificial agents that can't think, prematurely putting civilization on auto-pilot. The process is insidious because each step of it makes good local sense, is an offer you can't refuse. You'd be a fool today to do large arithmetical calculations with pencil and paper when a hand calculator is much faster and almost perfectly reliable...and why memorize train timetables when they are instantly available on your smart phone? Leave the map-reading and navigation to your GPS system; it isn't conscious; it can't think in any meaningful sense, but it's much better than you are at keeping track of where you are and where you want to go.
What's wrong with turning over the drudgery of thought to such high-tech marvels? Nothing, so long as (1) we don't delude ourselves, and (2) we somehow manage to keep our own cognitive skills from atrophying.
(1) It is very, very hard to imagine (and keep in mind) the limitations of entities that can be such valued assistants, and the human tendency is always to over-endow them with understanding—as we have known since Joe Weizenbaum's notorious Eliza program of the early 1970s. This is a huge risk, since we will always be tempted to ask more of them than they were designed to accomplish, and to trust the results when we shouldn't.
(2) Use it or lose it. As we become ever more dependent on these cognitive prostheses, we risk becoming helpless if they ever shut down. The Internet is not an intelligent agent (well, in some ways it is) but we have nevertheless become so dependent on it that were it to crash, panic would set in and we could destroy society in a few days. That's an event we should bend our efforts to averting now, because it could happen any day.
The real danger, then, is not machines that are more intelligent than we are usurping our role as captains of our destinies. The real danger is basically clueless machines being ceded authority far beyond their competence.

1 comment:

  1. These worries always seem overstated to me. I think if the internet were somehow to crash (though all at once and unrepairable seems weird) that most people would say what the hell and find other ways for doing what they were doing. Businesses that could, would work around it. Now, maybe if some superbug stopped the internet from reappearing there would be a massive economic crash. But that may be true for the total collapse of any major industry. Its like saying, “Wouldn't it be weird if for some unknown reason no automobile would work tomorrow or for the next two years. Our country surely would collapse.” That may be true, its an empty thought.

    On the cognitive side, I hope our cognitive science (etc.) is expanding at least at some pace. That is, that just by recognizing that we need to exercise these cognitive skills, that they are things that need to be sharpened, that we would then do so. The technology and information boom should be a boon to a great deal of the world's population, to allow many more people to exercise cognitive skills and to develop skills that they were unable to in the past.