Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ai, Ai, Ai!

The coincident appearance of two accounts recently reminded me again that Artificial Intelligence is supposedly advancing even as Ordinary Intelligence is visibly in decline. Indeed the two may be aspects of each other. The first was a New York Times piece titled “Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man,” June 26. This was on the front page yet! The other was “Droning On,” by William S. Lind, in The American Conservative.

The first story reports without commentary on a conference held by computer scientists, members of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, at Asilomar in California. Nice place, Asilomar: beachside conference center nestled in lovely pine woods, walks on the beach, a great surf, fresh, modern facilities, all wood (except for pristine plumbing) a genuinely Danish atmosphere. And here people sat about thinking about the end of the human era, an intelligence explosion, and machines that can empathize with you one moment and kill you the next. These brainy people, to quote the story, “generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet.” At the same time, however, they wondered: “What could a criminal do with a speech synthesis system that could masquerade as a human being?”

In the second story, politically incorrect William Lind dares to question the current and insane military doctrine that victory belongs to the technologist. He excoriates the military for using drone aircraft as killing machines. His article is well worth reading. Lind, wisely, puts the focus on the people behind the gadgets rather than marveling at machines. But the two stories converge. In the first scientists wring their hands; they let themselves imagine that machines have actual volition; in the second military people are depicted believing that weapons systems win military conflicts rather than people.

The mere fact that such nutty notions can gain traction is literally proof that ordinary intelligence—or, rather, its serious education—has been too long neglected. We are evidently sinking into barbarism in the midst of a vast technological expansion. Reluctantly, over the years, I’ve come to accept that math and engineering can be taught to and applied at very high levels by people who’ve managed, ultimately, to stay very stupid. So also can administration, accounting, and even law. There are hierarchies of knowledge, and the technical is nowhere near the top.

Circumstances so arranged things that I came to master the computer thing—and at a fundamental enough level so that I genuinely understand it. I was over forty when I started. Dante’s launch into the Inferno is not a bad analogy:

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
Ay me! [Inferno, Canto I]
Ai, Ai, indeed. But, like Dante, I too had a skillful inner guide, and so it all worked out. In those days I remember the wonder and amusement with which I plowed my way through Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach thinking, along the way, that we may have lost God but we’ve certainly discovered magic. We would form the body of an artificial man out of silicon—well, it is a kind of refined sort of dust—and then it would come alive. Or so Hofstadter hoped and believed. But breathing the breath of life into this artificial beast is proving a bit difficult it seems. Huff, puff, huff, puff. It’s not working yet, but faith, surely, conquers all.

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