David Brin reviews some recent books on the future of artificial intelligence. He’s more optimistic than I am. For one, I think most of the AI pundits are little better than glib con men, so any survey of the literature should consist mostly of culling all the garbage. No, really, please don’t bring up Kurzweil again. Also, any obscenely rich Silicon Valley pundit who predicts a glorious future of infinite wealth because technology can just fuck right off.
But there’s also some stuff I agree with. People who authoritatively declare that this is how the future will be, and that is how people will respond to it, are not actually being authoritative, because they won’t be there, but are being authoritarian. We set the wheel rolling, and we hope that we aren’t setting it on a path to future destruction, but we don’t get to dictate to future generations how they should deal with it. To announce that we’ve created a disaster and that our grandchildren will react by creating a dystopian nightmare world sells them short, and pretending that they’ll use the tools we have generously given them to create a glorious bright utopia is stealing all the credit. People will be people. Finger-wagging from the distant past will have zero or negative influence.
Across all of those harsh millennia, people could sense that something was wrong. Cruelty and savagery, tyranny and unfairness vastly amplified the already unsupportable misery of disease and grinding poverty. Hence, well-meaning men and women donned priestly robes and… preached!
They lectured and chided. They threatened damnation and offered heavenly rewards. Their intellectual cream concocted incantations of either faith or reason, or moral suasion. From Hindu and Buddhist sutras to polytheistic pantheons to Judeao-Christian-Muslim laws and rituals, we have been urged to behave better by sincere finger-waggers since time immemorial. Until finally, a couple of hundred years ago, some bright guys turned to all the priests and prescribers and asked a simple question:
“How’s that working out for you?”
In fact, while moralistic lecturing might sway normal people a bit toward better behavior, it never affects the worst human predators, parasites and abusers –– just as it won’t divert the most malignant machines. Indeed, moralizing often empowers them, offering ways to rationalize exploiting others.
Beyond artificial intelligence, a better example might be climate change — that’s one monstrous juggernaut we’ve set rolling into the future. The very worst thing we can do is start lecturing posterity about how they should deal with it, since we don’t really know all the consequences that are going to arise, and it’s rather presumptuous for us to create the problem, and then tell our grandchildren how they should fix it. It’s better that we set an example and address the problems that emerge now, do our best to minimize foreseeable consequences, and trust the competence of future generations to cope with their situations, as driven by necessities we have created.
They’re probably not going to thank us for any advice, no matter how well-meaning, and are more likely to curse us for our neglect and laziness and exploitation of the environment. If you really care about the welfare of future generations, you’ll do what you can now, not tell them how they’re supposed to be.
The AI literature comes across as extremely silly, too.
What will happen as we enter the era of human augmentation, artificial intelligence and government-by-algorithm? James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention, said: “Coexisting safely and ethically with intelligent machines is the central challenge of the twenty-first century.”
Jesus. We don’t have these “intelligent machines” yet, and may not — I think AI researchers always exaggerate the imminence of their breakthroughs, and the simplicity of intelligence. So this guy is declaring that the big concern of this century, which is already 1/6th over, is an ethical crisis in dealing with non-existent entities? The comparison with religious authorities is even more apt.
I tell you what. Once we figure out how to coexist safely and ethically with our fellow human beings, then you can pontificate on how to coexist safely and ethically with imaginary androids.