Friday, June 27, 2008

The Singularity isn't near

One day we'll all be enslaved/liberated by superintelligent machines and/or uploaded/downloaded into vast computer matrices and freed from the evils of death. At least, that's according to proponents of the coming Singularity.

If you believe the Singularity is near or not, there's a wealth of fascinating material to read over at the IEEE Spectrum Online. For the faithful, it's a wellspring of hope that the rapture might be near. But for sceptics (like myself), it's still full of meaty chunks that should be considered, if only to spark articulations of why it's all fantasy.

Some highlights include Signs of the Singularity by Vernor Vinge, mathematician, computer scientist and sci-fi author. He helpfully signposts the way to the Singularity to ensure we don't miss it when it comes. Wouldn't that be embarrassing?

And Vinge is boundlessly optimistic about the whole project
I think it's likely that with technology we can in the fairly near future create or become creatures of more than human intelligence. Such a technological singularity would revolutionize our world, ushering in a posthuman epoch.
Now, I don't doubt our ability to expand human capacity, but it seems a bit of a leap to start talking about post-humans already. Especially when we don't really know what post-humans will be.

It all smacks to me of runaway utopianism based around the unexamined (and I think fallacious) assumption that progress = good. There's even swathes of text written by Singularitists that overtly suggest that evolution is a progression towards something better. From Vinge's essay:
there are a couple of trends that at least raise the possibility of the technological singularity. The first is a very long-term trend, namely Life's tendency, across aeons, toward greater complexity. Some people see this as unstoppable progress toward betterment.
This explicitly equates complexity with betterment. Yet wouldn't we be coy when a supervirus - one of the most simple of all organisms - wipes us out? Or should I say 'betters' us?

Another notion raised willy nilly by Singularitists is that intelligence is the answer to all our problems. Take this example from Robin Hanson, author of The Economics of the Singularity.

One of the pillars of the modern singularity hypothesis in its many forms is that intelligence is a general elixir, able to cure many if not all economic ailments. Typically, this belief is expressed in the form of an argument that the arrival of very intelligent machines will produce the next singularity.
I wonder what seemingly intractable problems we are faced with today that could be trivially solved by the brute force application of more intelligence? Take the Israel/Palestine conflict. Would a superintelligence yield some startling insight into the conflict that will cause both sides to sit back, shake their heads at their decades of folly, kicking themselves that they hadn't seen the solution before, then shake hands and make up?

I find that unlikely.

In fact, I suspect there is already more than sufficient intelligence to suggest an answer to even as intractable a conundrum as the Israel/Palestine conflict: both sides need to make concessions and sacrifices, both materially and symbolically, to the other side. But that ain't gonna happen, even if Deep Thought thinks it should. That's because there's more than intelligence at stake - there's emotion, pride, greed, ideology, outrage etc. And intelligence is a drop in ocean compared to their potency.

That is, of course, assuming the superintelligence doesn't just damn it all to hell and take over:
A few even imagine innovations so unprecedentedly potent that a single machine embodying the first innovation could go through the entire innovation series by itself, unnoticed, within a week, and then take over the world.
Sounds suspiciously like the old benevolent dictator argument to me. And sure a benevolent dictator would be great, but the problem is not the calibre of the leader, it's that there are no checks and balances, which are arguably more important that a good leader.

Thankfully the Singularity essays are not all by the faithful. In fact a fascinating one is written by American science journalist John Horgan about the challenges in producing a conscious machine - at least one based on our vast ignorance of the human brain.
Specialists in real rather than artificial brains find such bionic convergence scenarios naive, often laughably so.

Indeed, the more you learn about brains, the more you may wonder how the damn things work. And in fact, sometimes they don't. They succumb to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, Alzheimer's disease, and many other disorders that resist explanation and treatment.
The second point here is especially pertinent. If we're trying to emulate human intelligence, we're more likely to produce a nimrod like Corey Worthington than an Einstein. Would we really want an AI that would rather watch Big Brother and wonders whether its cooling units look fat in this colour?

And, more seriously, are we prepared for an AI that suffers from some psychopathology?

Just another reason I think the Singularitists are pushing a bridge too far with their AI speculations. We have a long way to go before marginal intelligence is possible in an AI, let alone superintelligence.

Hardware capable of superintelligence is not a sufficient condition for superintelligent AI, despite what Kurzweil might think.

Horgan sums up my sentiments towards the whole thing nicely:
Let's face it. The singularity is a religious rather than a scientific vision. The science-fiction writer Ken MacLeod has dubbed it “the rapture for nerds,” an allusion to the end-time, when Jesus whisks the faithful to heaven and leaves us sinners behind.
The escape from death seems such a powerful motivator for Singularity thinking, that I'm inclined to agree it's something to fill the void for the superintelligencia.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A tale of two liberties

Last night I was lucky enough to attend a talk by American Historian, Eric Foner, on The Idea of Freedom in the US. Foner has written a huge number of very influential books on American history, notably Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, and more recently The Story of American Freedom, and Give Me Liberty!: An American History (see a pattern here?). In his talk he looked at the history of freedom in the US from 1779 to today.

His main theme was that, unsurprisingly, freedom has been a driving force in American discourse and politics to an extent not seen in any other democratic nation. Yet the notion of freedom is far from transparent and is envisaged in different ways by different individuals and ideologies.

And furthermore, freedom is often a very contradictory notion in American history, especially when one considers the role of slavery and race relations. Both sides of American politics invoke freedom as one of the primary imperatives, yet they do so in different ways.

Foner talked of the dual notions of freedom: one as freedom to...; and the other freedom from.... These two forces are far from identical. The former is more about an individual's rights to do what they damn well want. Or the "it's a free country" defence for shenanigans. The latter is more about fundamental conditions of living, which is more closely pegged to things like the labour movement.

Consider Roosevelt's Four Freedoms:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of religion
  • Freedom from want
  • Freedom from fear
Note the first two are freedoms to...; they're positive affirmations of something you can do. The last two are freedoms from...; they're negative affirmations about what can't be done to you. So, in some sense, the latter freedoms could impinge upon the freedoms of other individuals, particularly freedoms pertaining to economic practice.

How to mediate between the two? Arguably the muddied discourse in American politics makes it impossible, particularly because the axioms of libertarianism are in dispute. And it's a bummer when your assumptions are up for debate. Means you often get people talking across each other rather than being on the same track. Sound like political debates to you?

Another fascinating notion raised during the talk was why the US is fixated on liberty with little emphasis on the other two notions that accompanied it in the French Revolution: egalité and fraternité. Foner suggested it's because the US never really had a fully blown 'revolution'. Instead it had a war of independence, but it never experienced an uprising of the lower classes against a privileged elite. In fact, arguably, the wealthy landowners were more instrumental in the struggle than the labour classes. For this reason, liberty represented throwing off the yoke of Continental influence rather than individual liberty from oppression. The very lack of gross class-based inequality perhaps meant equality was less of a concern than liberty to pursue one's own ends. Perhaps another reason that socialism was never seriously considered in the US.

I find discussions of freedom fascinating. It's one of those concepts that is today uncritically considered a 'good thing'. It's even critically perceived such - Rawls is an example. He considers some things to be just plain good, in the sense that we naturally desire more rather than less of them. Freedom is one of the biggies. (Why? I ask...) But I digress.

Yet I'm entirely comfortably (some say too comfortable) with the notion that freedom is an illusion. Determinism is wearing the pants, and that leaves no room for a 'hard' free will, which would, IMO, amount to breaking causation. But, critically, it doesn't make one monkey of difference. If free will exists or it's just an illusion, nothing changes (except for a few spurious theories of moral responsibility - spurious because basing moral responsibility on uncaused or random actions isn't much better than basing it on deterministic actions, so it's psychological free will that counts, not physical determinism).

So, determinism aside, freedom is still a complicated notion. And we also have other values, such as equality, and they're not always in accordance.

Where my own research crosses over with this discussion is in the suggestion that we are born with a faculty for appreciating things like freedom/oppression and equality/inequality (read Jost, Haidt for more on this). Yet some feel them in different ways. Some individuals tilt more towards freedom, others towards equality. Certainly the feelings can be influenced by experience and imbibed ideology, but there is an innate tendency in many of us to sway more to one side than the other. (And evolution could be the reason for this variation - that's yet to be convincingly demonstrated, but I have a hunch it's correct.)

Yet freedom - perhaps because it's a difficult idea to pin down - can be adopted by both sides as a virtue, at least to some extent. This makes me pessimistic about a reconciliation between the Left and the Right, particularly in the US. But it makes me optimistic about taking a more nuanced centrist notion that acknowledges that neither side will ever be able to claim ideological dominance over the other.

Still, I'm pleased to live in a country where I'm free to blog about such things. Foner mentioned a lecture he gave in China about American freedom. The lecture title had to be changed to A Central Idea in American Politics (or something very similar). Funny, because it shows the Chinese organisers get the idea of freedom - but they just don't get it, at least, not yet...

P.S., Foner also has the honour of appearing on a very prestigious list. Not a list of prize winners for exception academic writing (although he does appear on those lists), but a list of the 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America - at least according to Bernard Goldberg.

It's possibly one of the funniest lists I've ever seen. It's like a frontal assault on intelligence, nuanced thinking and those who might think things other than freedom and God might also be important in the world.

I hope to appear on such a list one day. I probably need to be more outrageous (or vastly more talented) though...