10/12/2008

Link of Questionable Value

Some Luddite propaganda from the NYT:

We are living, we have long been told, in the Information Age. Yet now we are faced with the sickening suspicion that technology has run ahead of us. Man is a fire-stealing animal, and we can’t help building machines and machine intelligences, even if, from time to time, we use them not only to outsmart ourselves but to bring us right up to the doorstep of Doom.

We are still fearful, superstitious and all-too-human creatures. At times, we forget the magnitude of the havoc we can wreak by off-loading our minds onto super-intelligent machines, that is, until they run away from us, like mad sorcerers’ apprentices, and drag us up to the precipice for a look down into the abyss.

As the financial experts all over the world use machines to unwind Gordian knots of financial arrangements so complex that only machines can make — “derive” — and trade them, we have to wonder: Are we living in a bad sci-fi movie? Is the Matrix made of credit default swaps?


Seriously, dude, you're going to blame the financial crisis on the machines? Why do some people hate robots so much? Why is that form of prejudice so socially acceptable in this country?

I'd be more inclined to blame the human beings who used these tools, not the tools themselves. But what do I know? I'm a crazy, radical techno-apologist after all, a Gaius Baltar wannabe.

3 comments:

Tech said...

"Why is that form of prejudice so socially acceptable in this country?"

Because it's not a prejudice for so many people. Many view it as a matter of taste. There is a conception that if an object does not possess its own rational agency, one cannot be prejudiced against it. For these people, it's kind of like saying "Why are people so prejudiced against gasoline?" You could give a lot of answers that seem correct, but at the end of the day, everyone seems capable of recognizing that people are prejudiced against the human uses of gasoline rather than the gasoline itself.

It's curious that you indeed refer to these machines as tools right after you imply their personhood with the previous statement. I mean, I suppose there is a sense to which all humans use each other as tools to further their interests, but I get the impression that is not what you meant (or is it?).

Or maybe it was just a tongue in cheek joke and I'm spending too much time replying to it. :P

specter_of_spinoza said...

Since I didn't take the piece all that seriously, my response wasn't entirely serious either, as you figured.

However, you're also right that there's something of a contradiction in what I wrote. So let me try to offer a more coherent response.

At the present, there are no human-made machines that even approximate personhood. We do, however, have a lot of science fiction stories in which there are arguably robotic persons who are, more often than not (in the West at least), portrayed as unfriendly to humans, or even as bent on human destruction.

Thus, if and when actual human-level artificial intelligence emerges, its bearers (robots, software agents, or whatever) will face a public that is largely skeptical, even hostile toward them. It's a peculiar sort of prejudice, I'll admit, a bias against something that preexists that something in the first place.

What we're seeing now, in this article, is an extension of that prejudice to artificial entities which are sophisticated but a far cry from autonomous persons. They are complex tools, and as such, they can be used for good or ill, as their human users so decide. As such, blaming them for the financial crisis is like blaming a firearm for a homicide, rather than the person who fired it.

Now, granted, some people want to ban firearms entirely, because they are tools primarily used to inflict harm. But AI is much more analogous to a technology like atomic energy, which has both negative (nuclear weapons) and positive (nuclear power plants) applications.

In any case, as our creations, they are still primarily our responsibility. We need to do what we can to ensure that AI act in ways that serve humanity's interests. This task becomes increasingly difficult as their level of autonomy increases.

In the long run, however, I think the good that advanced artificial intelligence can do for us is substantial, and worth the risks, which I think have been overstated. (For instance, here's a major problematic assumption to any sort of "robot uprising" scenario: why should robots have any special loyalty to their own kind? That kind of tribalism is a tendency deeply embedded in human beings, perhaps, but we have no reason to make it a part of their psychology.) We just need to be cautious and as forward-looking as possible.

The prejudice of this particular author is an impediment to looking at the situation clearly, a refusal to use our faculties of discrimination to judge each case on its own particular merits.

Gesetzliche Rente said...

I speak for myself but total awareness of what we're doing and taking general precaution would prevent unprecedented doom. It's fun to fantasize in idealism but it's better to dwell in reality. Nice post by the way.