Romancing the Machine: Intelligence, Myth, and the Singularity

“We choose to go to the moon,” the president said. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

I was sitting in front of our first Motorola color television set when President Kennedy spoke to us of going to the moon. After the Manhattan Project to build a nuclear bomb this was the second great project that America used to confront another great power in the race to land on the moon. As I listened to the youtube.com video (see below) I started thinking about a new race going on in our midst: the intelligence race to build the first advanced Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). As you listen to Kennedy think about how one of these days soon we might very well hear another President tell us that we must fund the greatest experiment in the history of human kind: the building of a superior intelligence.

Why? Because if we do not we face certain extinction. Oh sure, such rhetoric of doom and fear has always had a great effect on humans. I’ll imagine him/her trumping us with all the scientific validation about climate change, asteroid impacts, food and resource depletion, etc., but in the end he may pull out the obvious trump card: the idea that a rogue state – maybe North Korea, or Iran, etc. is on the verge of building such a superior machinic intelligence, an AGI. But hold on. It gets better. For the moment an AGI is finally achieved is not the end. No. That is only the beginning, the tip of the ice-berg. What comes next is AI or complete artificial intelligence: superintelligence. And, know one can tell you what that truly means for the human race. Because for the first time in our planetary history we will live alongside something that is superior and alien to our own life form, something that is both unpredictable and unknown: an X Factor.

 

Just think about it. Let it seep down into that quiet three pounds of meat you call a brain. Let it wander around the neurons for a few moments. Then listen to Kennedy’s speech on the romance of the moon, and remember the notion of some future leader who will one day come to you saying other words, promising a great and terrible vision of surpassing intelligence and with it the likely ending of the human species as we have known it:

“We choose to build an Artificial Intelligence,” the president said. “We choose to build it in this decade, not because it is easy, but because it is for our future, our security, because that goal will serve to organize our defenses and the security of the world, because that risk is one that we are willing to accept, one we are not willing to postpone, because of the consequences of rogue states gaining such AI’s, and one which we intend to win at all costs.”


Is it really so far-fetched to believe that we will eventually uncover the principles that make intelligence work and implement them in a machine, just like we have reverse engineered our own versions of the particularly useful features of natural objects, like horses and spinnerets? News flash: the human brain is a natural object.

—Michael Anissimov, MIRI Media Director

 We are all bound by certain cognitive biases. Looking them over I was struck by the conservativism bias: “The tendency to revise one’s belief insufficiently when presented with new evidence.” As we move into the 21st Century we are confronted with what many term convergence technologies: nanotechnology, biotechnology, genetechnology, and AGI. As I was looking over PewResearch’s site which does analysis of many of our most prone belief systems I spotted one on AI, robotics, et. al.:

The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing anticipate that robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance. But even as they are largely consistent in their predictions for the evolution of technology itself, they are deeply divided on how advances in AI and robotics will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade. (see AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs)

 This almost universal acceptance that robotics and AI will be a part of our inevitable future permeates the mythologies of our culture at the moment. Yet, as shows there is a deep divide as to what this means and how it will impact the daily lives of most citizens. Of course the vanguard pundits and intelligent AGI experts hype it up, telling us as Benjamin Goertzel and Steve Omohundro argue AGI, robotics, medical apps, finance, programming, etc. will improve substantially:

…robotize the AGI— put it in a robot body— and whole worlds open up. Take dangerous jobs— mining, sea and space exploration, soldiering, law enforcement, firefighting. Add service jobs— caring for the elderly and children, valets, maids, personal assistants. Robot gardeners, chauffeurs, bodyguards, and personal trainers. Science, medicine, and technology— what human enterprise couldn’t be wildly advanced with teams of tireless and ultimately expendable human-level-intelligent agents working for them around the clock?1

As I read the above I hear no hint of the human workers that will be displaced, put out of jobs, left to their own devices, lost in a world of machines, victims of technological and economic progress. In fact such pundits are only hyping to the elite, the rich, the corporations and governments that will benefit from such things because humans are lazy, inefficient, victims of time and energy, expendable. Seems most humans at this point will be of no use to the elite globalists, so will be put to pasture in some global commons or maybe fed to the machine gods.

Machines will follow a path that mirrors the evolution of humans. Ultimately, however, self-aware, self-improving machines will evolve beyond humans’ ability to control or even understand them.

—Ray Kurzweil, inventor, author, futurist

In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.

—George Dyson, historian

Kurzweil and Dyson agree that whatever these new beings become, they will not have our interests as a central motif of their ongoing script.  As Goertzel tells Barrat the arrival of human-level intelligent systems would have stunning implications for the world economy. AGI makers will receive immense investment capital to complete and commercialize the technology. The range of products and services intelligent agents of human caliber could provide is mind-boggling. Take white-collar jobs of all kinds— who wouldn’t want smart-as-human teams working around the clock doing things normal flesh-and-blood humans do, but without rest and without error. (Barrat, pp 183-184) Oh, yes, who wouldn’t… one might want to ask all those precarious intellectual laborers that will be out on the street in soup lines with the rest of us that question.

As many of the experts in the report mentioned above relate: about half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

Sounds more like dystopia for the mass, and just another nickelodeon day for the elite oligarchs around the globe. Yet, the other 52% have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Sounds a little optimistic to me. Human ingenuity versus full-blown AI? Sound more like blind-man’s bluff with the deck stacked in favor of the machines. As one researcher Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at GigaOM Research, said of the year 2025 when all this might be in place: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?’ Indeed, one wonders… we know the Romans built the great Circus, gladiatorial combat, great blood-bath entertainment for the bored and out-of-work minions of the Empire. What will the Globalists do?

A sort of half-way house of non-commitment came from Seth Finkelstein, a programmer, consultant and EFF Pioneer of the Electronic Frontier Award winner, who responded, “The technodeterminist-negative view, that automation means jobs loss, end of story, versus the technodeterminist-positive view, that more and better jobs will result, both seem to me to make the error of confusing potential outcomes with inevitability. Thus, a technological advance by itself can either be positive or negative for jobs, depending on the social structure as a whole….this is not a technological consequence; rather it’s a political choice.” 

I love it that one can cop-out by throwing it back into politics, thereby washing one’s hands of the whole problem as if magically saying: “I’m just a technologist, let the politicians worry about jobs. It’s not technology’s fault, there is no determinism on our side of the fence.” Except it is not politicians who supply jobs, its corporations: and, whether technology is determined or not, corporations are: their determined by capital, by their stockholders, by profit margins, etc. So if they decide to replace workers with more efficient players (think AI, robots, multi-agent systems, etc.) they will if it make them money and profits. Politicians can hem and haw all day about it, but will be lacking in answers. So as usual the vast plebian forces of the planet will be thrown back onto their own resources, and for the most part excluded from the enclaves and smart cities of the future. In this scenario humans will become the untouchables, the invisible, the servants of machines or pets; or, worst case scenario: pests to be eliminated.

Yet, there are others like Vernor Vinge who believe all the above may be true, but not for a long while, that we will probably go through a phase when humans are augmented by intelligence devices. He believes this is one of three sure routes to an intelligence explosion in the future, when a device can be attached to your brain that imbues it with additional speed, memory, and intelligence. (Barrat, p. 189) As Barrat tells us our intelligence is broadly enhanced by the mobilization of powerful information technology, for example, our mobile phones, many of which have roughly the computing power of personal computers circa 2000, and a billion times the power per dollar of sixties-era mainframe computers. We humans are mobile, and to be truly relevant, our intelligence enhancements must be mobile. The Internet, and other kinds of knowledge, not the least of which is navigation, gain vast new power and dimension as we are able to take them wherever we go. (Barrat, p. 192)

But even if we have all this data at our braintips it is still data that must be filtered and appraised, evaluated. Data is not information. As Luciano Floridi tells us “we need more and better technologies and techniques to see the small-data patterns, but we need more and better epistemology to sift the valuable ones”.2 As Floridi will explain it what Descartes acknowledged to be an essential sign of intelligence— the capacity to learn from different circumstances, adapt to them, and exploit them to one’s own advantage— would be a priceless feature of any appliance that sought to be more than merely smart. (Floridi, KL 2657) Floridi will put an opposite spin on all the issues around AGI and AI telling us that whatever it ultimately becomes it will not be some singular entity or self-aware being, but will instead be our very environment – what he terms, the InfoSphere: the world is becoming an infosphere increasingly well adapted to ICTs’ (Information and Communications Technologies) limited capacities. In a comparable way, we are adapting the environment to our smart technologies to make sure the latter can interact with it successfully. (Floridi, KL 2661)

For Floridi the environment around us is taking on intelligence, that it will be so ubiquitous and invisible, naturalized that it will be seamless and a part of our very onlife lives. The world itself will be intelligent:

Light AI, smart agents, artificial companions, Semantic Web, or Web 2.0 applications are part of what I have described as a fourth revolution in the long process of reassessing humanity’s fundamental nature and role in the universe. The deepest philosophical issue brought about by ICTs concerns not so much how they extend or empower us, or what they enable us to do, but more profoundly how they lead us to reinterpret who we are and how we should interact with each other. When artificial agents, including artificial companions and software-based smart systems, become commodities as ordinary as cars, we shall accept this new conceptual revolution with much less reluctance. It is humbling, but also exciting. For in view of this important evolution in our self-understanding, and given the sort of ICT-mediated interactions that humans will increasingly enjoy with other agents, whether natural or synthetic, we have the unique opportunity of developing a new ecological approach to the whole of reality. (Floridi, KL 3055-62)

That our conceptions of reality, self, and environment will suddenly take on a whole new meaning is beyond doubt. Everything we’ve been taught for two-thousand years in the humanistic traditions will go bye-bye; or, at least will be treated for the ramblings of early human children fumbling in the dark. At least so goes the neo-information philosophers such as Floridi. He tries to put a neo-liberal spin on it and sponsors an optimistic vision of economic paradises for all, etc. As he says in his conclusion we are constructing an artificial intelligent environment, an infosphere that will be inhabited for millennia of future generations. “We shall be in serious trouble, if we do not take seriously the fact that we are constructing the new physical and intellectual environments that will be inhabited by future generations (Floridi, KL 3954).”  Because of this he tells us we will need to forge a new new alliance between the natural and the artificial. It will require a serious reflection on the human project and a critical review of our current narratives, at the individual, social, and political levels. (Floridi, 3971) 

In some ways I concur with his statement that we need to take a critical view of our current narratives. To me the key is just that. Humans live by narratives, stories, tales, fictions, etc., always have. The modernists wanted grand narratives, while the postmodernists loved micro-narratives. What will our age need? What will help us to understand and to participate in this great adventure ahead in which the natural and artificial suddenly form alliances in ways never before seen from the beginning of human history. From the time of the great agricultural civilizations to the Industrial Age to our own strange fusion of science fiction and fact in a world where superhuman agents might one day walk among us what stories will we tell? What narratives do we need to help us contribute to our future, and to the future hopefully of our species? Will the narratives ultimately be told a thousand years from now by our inhuman alien AI’s to their children of a garden that once existed wherein ancient flesh and blood beings once lived: the beings that once were our creators? Or shall it be a tale of symbiotic relations in which natural and artificial kinds walk hand in hand forging together adventures in exploration of the galaxy and beyond? What tale will it be?

Romance or annihilation? Let’s go back to the bias: “The tendency to revise one’s belief insufficiently when presented with new evidence.” If we listen to the religious wing of transhumanism and the singulatarians, we are presented with a rosy future full of augmentations, wonders, and romance. On the other side we have the dystopians, the pessimists, the curmudgeons who tell us the future of AGI leads to the apocalypse of AI or superintelligence and the demise of the human race as a species. Is their a middle ground. Floridi seems to opt for that middle ground where humans and technologies do not exactly merge nor destroy each other, but instead become symbionts in an ongoing onlife project without boundaries other than those we impose by a shared vision of balance and affiliation between natural and artificial kinds. Either way we do not know for sure what that future holds, but as some propose the future is not some blank slate or mirror but is instead to be constructed. How shall we construct it? Above all: whose future is it anyway? 

As James Barrat will tell us consider DARPA. Without DARPA, computer science and all we gain from it would be at a much more primitive state. AI would lag far behind if it existed at all. But DARPA is a defense agency. Will DARPA be prepared for just how complex and inscrutable AGI will be? Will they anticipate that AGI will have its own drives, beyond the goals with which it is created? Will DARPA’s grantees weaponize advanced AI before they’ve created an ethics policy regarding its use? (Barrat, 189)

My feeling is that even if they had an ethics policy in place would it matter? Once AGI takes off and is self-aware and able to self-improve its capabilities, software, programs, etc. it will as some say become in a very few iterations a full blown AI or superintelligence with as much as a thousand, ten thousand, or beyond intelligence beyond the human. Would ethics matter when confronted with an alien intelligence that is so far beyond our simple three pound limited organic brain that it may not even care or bother to recognize us or communicate. What then?

We might be better off studying some of the posthuman science fiction authors in our future posts (from i09 Essential Posthuman Science Fiction):

  1. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
  2. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
  3. Slan, by A.E. Van Vogt
  4. Dying Earth, Jack Vance
  5. More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
  6. Slave Ship, Fredrick Pohl
  7. The Ship Who Sang, by Anne McCaffrey
  8. Dune, by Frank Herbert
  9. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree Jr.
  10. Aye, And Gomorrah, by Samuel Delany
  11. Uplift Series, by David Brin
  12. Marooned In Realtime, by Vernor Vinge
  13. Beggars In Spain, by Nancy Kress
  14. Permutation City, by Greg Egan
  15. The Bohr Maker, by Linda Nagata
  16. Nanotech Quartet series, by Kathleen Ann Goonan
  17. Patternist series, by Octavia Butler
  18. Blue Light, Walter Mosley
  19. Look to Windward, by Iain M. Banks
  20. Revelation Space series, by Alasdair Reynolds
  21. Blindsight, by Peter Watts
  22. Saturn’s Children, by Charles Stross
  23. Postsingular, by Rudy Rucker
  24. The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman
  25. Natural History, by Justina Robson
  26. Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

1. Barrat, James (2013-10-01). Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era (pp. 184-185). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Floridi, Luciano (2014-06-26). The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality (Kindle Locations 2422-2423). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.