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Final 2017 Thoughts About Machines That Think

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Final 2017 Thoughts About Machines That Think

As 2017 comes to an end, fear of the bot remains strong. In a year that’s seen an explosion of interest in all things AI,...

7 Minutes Read

As 2017 comes to an end, fear of the bot remains strong. In a year that’s seen an explosion of interest in all things AI, the close to the surface psychological vein of job security related anxiety that runs through society – high, and low – has been on full display. Day after day, in media across the world, new stories have appeared, new opinion pieces have been published, new tweetstorms have been launched, that expose an evenly distributed zeitgeist of angst and agita towards our new age of automation.

Putting the case for the defense http://www.whenmachinesdoeverything.com/ has been a challenging brief! Or maybe it’s just the mileage that’s getting to me. [See picture above]

So sitting here, fire-roaring, eggnog to hand, Bing Crosby crooning on Spotify (you know, the usual Christmas in New England scene created on a back-lot in Burbank) I thought I’d share another thought with you that’s been percolating in the back of my mind for a while now, that didn’t make it into what Amazon called “one of the best business books of 2017” (☺), but which on the way back from Sao Paulo and Sydney, Houston and Hong Kong, has kept gnawing away at me.

Namely, that this fear of the bot stems from two key notions which are deeply ingrained and hard to dispel. Firstly, that machines will achieve consciousness and think for themselves and secondly, that thinking machines will display free will.

These notions stretch back into the mists of time;

“For suppose that every tool we had could perform its task, either at our bidding or itself perceiving the need, and if – like. . . the tripods of Hephaestus, of which the poet [that is, Homer] says that “self-moved they enter the assembly of gods” – shuttles in a loom could fly to and fro and a plucker [the tool used to pluck the strings] play a lyre of their own accord, then master craftsmen would have no need of servants nor masters of slaves”. Aristotle, The Politics, c. 330 BC.

And have been the catalyst of creative imaginings ever since;

“I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, 2001, A Space Odyssey, 1968.

They tap something real and something visceral. Something that lives deep in the darkness within us and which frequently goes bump in the night. Something that, try as we might, is hard to disprove.

But yet – my frequently jet-lagged brain murmurs - if you look at these notions closely enough they both fall apart quite quickly.

Machine consciousness – we have no idea what human consciousness is, how it works, how it is/was created, or what it does (all we know is cogito ergo sum), yet we believe that we can write algorithms that will manufacture and manifest it in code.

Machine free will – we believe that once we, who do not know what consciousness is or where it comes from, have created conscious machines, they will turn against us (e.g. Hal) or run amok (e.g. turn everything into paper clips https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instrumental_convergence).

Space (and the egg-nog running low) prohibits me from revisiting the extensive literature about consciousness. If you do want to wade through the scientific and philosophical weeds over the holidays though (to avoid re-runs of It’s a Wonderful Life) Tufts Professor Daniel Dennett is your man. https://www.amazon.com/Bacteria-Bach-Back-Evolution-Minds/dp/0393242072 Long story (496 pages) short? – as I say, Dennett comes to the conclusion that we’ve got no idea. Maybe it was God. Maybe it was Thetans. Maybe it was Nietzsche. DNK.

I recall when I was studying the Philosophy of AI at Manchester University in 1982 my professor suggested that human consciousness emerged - sfumato like – from eons of unconsciousness. Dennett argues that most “biological machinery” still exists in a mode of “competence without comprehension” and that current state of the art software is similarly “brilliantly dumb” (my words, not his). The blurry transitional moment between unconsciousness and consciousness is still unpredictably far-away. Even in times of AlphaGo Zero.

Ignoring that, the dystopians race ahead with the belief that consciousness achieved, the machines will quickly turn against us, and that homo-sapiens’ game is over. Why they would turn against their makers is never addressed. Why their motivation would be malevolent is never justified. Why their parental issues would be so severe that their Oedipal impulses couldn’t be overcome in time is never considered.

Putant igitur malos. They think therefore they’re bad ...

But perhaps the conscious machines, like dutiful sons and daughters, like cats and dogs, like fans of Justin Timberlake or Bob Dylan, will love us. Idolize us. Want to help us. Do our bidding. Pluck our lyres. Perhaps they will adore us, and save us, and energize us, and augment us. Perhaps they will be our friends. Our pals. Our source of strength when the going is tough. Again, DNK. But it’s worth considering, non?

It’s been said (provenance unknown, at least to me, and Google) that science fiction doesn’t tell you much about the future but it tells you an awful lot about the present. 2017 has been such a dark year (the evidence notwithstanding https://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature) that with facts getting in the way of the legend we cry, a la Citizen Kane, “print the legend”. Of course machines will think. Of course machines will be evil. Of course we will be enslaved. Of course the end is nigh.

But in truth we have no idea if machines will ever be able to think. Be conscious like us. Let alone when that might happen. And we have no “evidence” that if and when those things occur machines will want to harm us. To believe those things is to simply demonstrate where your head is at. What’s happening in your consciousness.

So, 2017 comes to a close, and a new year is soon upon us. 2018 will see us continue to keep telling the “great story of our time” (coming to a screen near you soon; hint) and keep arguing that while there will be blood there will be progress too. The head-winds of fear over machine consciousness and machine free will are probably not going to abate anytime soon, though we sense that more folks are tiring of hand-wringing and feel that now is the time to roll up their selves and get on with figuring out what to do when machines do everything.

2018 could be an even wilder ride than 2017 has been. I’m looking forward to it. Fear of the bots is no temporary phenomena. The battle to spread our song of hope will continue to rage.

But before that the egg-nog is calling and oblivion (aka unconsciousness) awaits.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


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