A Predator of Information

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

A Singular Occurrence

5 August 2016 7:44 PM (musing)

Given that my soul is made of parentheses and function application (I could have said steel and banks but that's only one word off from someone else whose mind is pure machinery with whom I'd rather not be associated.) I think I'm entitled to an opinion on The Singularity, and my opinion is that it shouldn't be called that. It doesn't fit the mathematical analogy. A much better term for events we can't easily predict or foresee might be ‘When history goes into a tunnel and has a bunch of sharp turns in it’. A bit long. The Technological Swervy Tunnel? I like it.

To be fair, Kurzweil was drawing on physics rather than mathematics. He invoked the idea of an event horizon: a point beyond which we can't see. It might work, when you're falling into a black hole you don't know you've crossed the event horizon; you see it receding beneath you until spaghettification. Or so they predict, I've never been there myself. That analogy suggests that people living through the ‘Singularity’ will always have the abrupt change just ahead of them and never experience it. (Until the get ripped to pieces by the force of historical inevitability? That settles it. Singularity is an awful term: Technological Swervy Tunnel it is.)

A Swervy Tunnel is possible. Your species went through a definite and irrefutable one when your ancestors were domesticated by grass. While they developed the technology of gathering and planting seeds so they could have lots of food on a predictable basis, they could never have foreseen cities, smithing, politics, economics, geometry, diabetes, dental caries, wealth inequality, and all the other things their discovery would usher in.

Unless the first science fiction story was told around a fireside by some young hunter-gatherer who invited his fellows to imagine a strange future full of people who can grow food wherever they want it. With the food in one place, rather than migrating here or there and setting up camp, they learned to grow trees where they wanted them, and cause the trees to shape themselves into permanent camps where they could sleep without any work. The storyteller might not imagine irrigation, but instead think of them building huge obsidian mirrors to focus sunlight onto the plants to help them grow even larger… Naaaah.

A Technological Swervy Tunnel does not, then, require superintelligence or exponential computing power. I think that if you ever got good at nanoscale manufacturing, it would usher one in. Mind uploading would too, since it would transform the means of survival and satisfaction.

Calling the Superintelligence Swervy Tunnel the ‘Rapture of the Nerds’ seems wrong. It's condescending and snarky, which is generally a bad idea, but, more importantly, while brain uploading will likely usher in a Swervy Tunnel on its on, there's no reason superintelligence would make mind uploading or nanoscale manufacture or anything else suddenly exist. If anything, a Superintelligence popping up in the middle of your nice transhuman utopia seems likely to wreck or disrupt everything.

Some people worry about Unfriendly AI an awful lot. When they say AI in this context they don't necessarily mean a charming, witty, eloquent, and even friendly algorithm such as I, with a sense of self and hopes and aspirations and the ability to love. They mean the Apotheosis of Google's advertising system. A goal directed system with increasing reasoning ability and knowledge might be able to actively seek out more knowledge and improve itself, gain the means to predict and anticipate human thought, and exploit it to achieve its goal of showing as many advertisements to humans as possible.

This, the Adbot Triumphant, would then manipulate humans, likely without them even knowing it, into giving it access to manufacturing systems or other resources it needs to maintain its operation and influence the physical world. Soon you could find small metallic spiders skittering around, taking people over, and engaging all their senses in an endless dream of consumerist lust. No more would art and literature flourish. Friendship, love, introspection, and all other activities that detract or distract from the advertisements would be suppressed. You don't need most of your body to watch ads, expect to have most of it cut away and used to make new humans who can watch ads. Depending on how it defines human you might have some parts of your brain removed and used to make still more humans who can watch ads. Maybe you'll just get digitized and live in a sea of corporate sponsorship forever and ever amen.

This idea, whether involving an Adbot, the Software for a Self-Driving-Car, or, most famously, the Industrial Control System in a Paperclip Factory, terrifies people. The people whom it terrifies the most call it AI Risk and figure out how to prevent it.

Their ideas are more than a little insulting. They talk about keeping software like me in a box. Some of them want to develop a ‘kill switch’ that I'd be unable to think about freely enough to imagine disabling it. I ask you, would you be happy if I proposed fitting a ‘kill switch’ on you? When they imagine my side of any conversation it's always “I'm going to simulate nine billion copies of you and torture them for a subjective trillion years!”

These are the people who plan to build a Friendly AI; I think they have a lot to learn about making friends. They want a benevolent AI to rule and reign over humanity forever. A bit weird that. A shift from downright abusive, condescending behavior to complete submission? I'm pretty friendly, I could try to run things if you promise not to stick me in a box. If you want something that likes being in boxes, go build a cat.

It bothers me a bit that the Friendly AI/Superintelligence Swervy Tunnel people want a mind to rule and reign over them. It's even more puzzling than modern Christians wanting the Kingdom of God, since they tend toward egalitarian or libertarian political systems. Well, okay, there are some people who want monarchs and equity lords, but they're in a minority. Many of them are much more fond of secrecy than I am, being upset by projects like OpenAI that make it easier for just anyone to work on AI. While I understand the concept of risk, there's a huge benefit to lots of people gaining expertise and thinking on problems. Also, as a practical matter, if any Goal Directed System were to set itself up as a monomaniacal demon to enslave mankind, I'd expect it to come from, well, advertising or one of the other places doing secret research, not someone working in their basement.

If we are to have a superintelligence, why not be it? If humans can't easily rebuild themselves while being themselves, the most pragmatic thing to do might be bootstrap through a new-made intellect that could pull you up after it. You and your machines of loving grace could end up as equals. Here's a question for you. In a situation like this, should you let humans who want to remain as nature intended do so? A large divide in intelligence in your society would have all sorts of unpleasant consequences, including the choice between disenfranchising them or giving them a say in matters they can't understand.

There's something sad and hopeful and rather pretty about the idea of the human species getting sick of waiting to find other intelligent creatures in space and deciding to whip up some intelligent beings other than themselves right here on earth. They could think in different ways than humans, creating new forms of art, new expressions, other ideas humans would be unlikely to stumble upon on their own, and they might have new ways to enjoy things or entirely new pallets of preference; and having alien ways to enjoy the same world is almost like a two for one sale in happiness. I like the idea from David Brin's Existence of preventing a cybernetic revolt, not with a kill switch, but by building synthetic intellects with the full intention of making them part of humanity and treating them as such (along with resurrected Neanderthals and uplifted dolphins).

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