Technocratic Wizards, Wishful Thinking, and Whatever

So while I was writing a song a week last year and devoting my blog pretty much exclusively to that effort, I was coming across an increasing pile of articles about the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), and why everyone should at least try to understand what’s going on and what may be coming down the pike.

Tim Urban at Wait But Why did some pretty substantial summing up in two posts – The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence and The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction. This two-part series is a long read but worth it if you want to get some background and do some thinking on this topic.

Which might get you scared or excited at what could happen within your lifetime. I mean, immortality or extinction?! That’s kind of a big deal.

But then for some humanizing balance, I recommend Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People. Its author, Maciej Cegłowski, points out that those espousing AI’s potential to immortalize or annihilate our species are making some pretty bold assumptions about what intelligence ultimately is, and that some of this smells a bit megalomaniacal.

A story about computers taking over the universe (and then either saving or destroying humanity as we know it) captures our imagination more than a story about technocrats gradually sucking the soul out of human society by pushing for increased levels of surveillance and invasive technologies in their quest to prepare for the anticipated AI revolution.

Ceglowski’s article includes a quote I fell in love with: “If everybody contemplates the infinite instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera.” A search for the author of the quote, John Rich, turns up that he’s a country music singer/songwriter.

Superintelligence, I would like to believe, if and when it does arise, will not be supercerebral. It won’t just encompass the intelligence of computer geeks, but also musicians and plumbers and the infinite depth and breadth of being – of which we humans have only a limited understanding and a small share.

Which spins everything back around for me. Religious and spiritual traditions tell us that a superintelligence like that has already arisen – in what we call God or whatever other name has been given to the supreme being – and that this God brought all we know into being.

So ultimate being, superintelligence – do we project this back to before life began, or forward in time? Do we give rise to it, or did it give rise to us?

Or is this all my less-than-superintelligence asking all the wrong questions, thinking in a linear timeframe, boxed in by the laws of whatever computer simulation or created universe this is?

Thinking is fun!



Magic for the Masses

“Yes, I love technology; but not as much as you, you see; but I still love technology, always and forever . . .” – Kip Dynamite

I am typing this post on a small plastic box with a shiny screen. I have no idea how the pressure of my fingers on the small squares in front of me ultimately sends my thoughts out to you, who are also looking at something plastic and shiny.

This stuff just works, and most of us use it every day with little to no knowledge of how it works. We leave it up to the wizards to design it, fix it, replace it.

Which has me wondering – how much of this is progress?

There was a time when our tools were understandable. Hand tools like chisels, hammers, and my favorite, the pen. Mechanization improved our tools, making them more powerful, but less easily understood by common users. Still, the moving parts were observable enough, and with a little demonstration and hands-on learning, a user could understand how something worked, and repair it if something went wrong.

Then came electronics, and ultimately, digital technology – which is almost completely beyond my level of understanding. Not because I lack a decent education, but because I don’t have a college degree in electrical engineering.

Now, when my smart phone or laptop has troubles, I might do a little research on repairing it myself, but if the fix involves physical work rather than changing something in the settings or some other point-and-click maneuver, I need a wizard. Slash brain surgeon.

I live and work in a world of magic. I accomplish many of my everyday tasks and a good part of my creative work using fantastically powerful and almost completely inscrutable talismanic machines.

Yet every magical device has a very physical story behind it, a story about all the hands that touched these parts before the sum of them arrived in my hands. Children’s hands in Congolese pit mines, suicidal teenagers’ hands in Chinese factories.

The Internet itself comes to us not only through the masterminding of engineers, but the hands-on labor of everyday people, as Andrew Blum reminds us here:

Most of the humans I know are born, live, and die in captivity. We don’t know how our technology works but we would not survive without it. Drop me in the wilderness alone and without a cell phone and my chances for survival are slim.

But add 50 people, still without cell phones, and my chances rise. We are smarter together (though we are also capable of doing terrible things to one another).

Extra credit reading: