Facetious blueprint

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An AI researcher (Kai-Fu Lee) has written an article (“A Blueprint for Coexistence with Artificial Intelligence“) that fails at its own goal, spectacularly.  He assures us we need not end up in the dystopias so common in movies and literature.  And I wanted to his assurances to be convincing, because I happen to feel the same way.  But they aren’t, because he (deliberately, I say) pulls a bait-and-switch, and so doesn’t attend to the actual matter of interest.

Lee dwells on narrow AI, good for using deep learning to achieve one task (say, winning at Go).   He is breezily dismissive of general AI, machine learning that can learn new tasks.  It’s not here (he says, correctly) and it’s not close (he asserts, with little basis).  I have to assume that, as a research in AI, he is aware of the history of the field, with its fits and starts and sudden, unexpected breath-taking leaps of innovation.  Is it guaranteed that we will get generalized AI within a century?  Of course not — but I don’t think the smart money bets against.

Restricting himself to narrow AI, Lee obviates the import of his article.  No one is worried that AlphaGo is going to take over the world.  And it was the MCP‘s chess-playing origins that made it a threat.  The AI people fear — the AI we have to worry about coexisting with — is the AI that can think as well as and as broadly as a human … or better.

To be fair, Lee correctly notes the actual threats that narrow AI poses for our economy.  Lots of people are going to find themselves replaced by machines that perform their jobs more quickly, more surely, and more cheaply.  It’s not in any way obvious that those jobs will be replaced, the way that jobs lost in the Industrial Revolution were replaced.  We’re not swapping out muscles; we’re swapping out minds.  For the past two centuries, industry has paid an increasing premium on renting the supercomputer in your skull.  If actual supercomputers can outperform your brain, it’s not clear what economic asset of value you’ll have left.

Lee’s “blueprint” revolves on that.  He calls for an economy that recognizes the (so-far) unique capacity of the human mind for love.  And he might be right.  Surely we will need to find some other asset, and our computational capacity will not be it.  Narrow AI, tailored to narrow goals, will never threaten human dominance in that arena.

But general AI is coming, probably sooner than Lee thinks, and there is no good reason to assume that emotions will remain forever outside its ken.  After all, emotions served some evolutionary purpose for us.

Looking for hive mind help on a course

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Actually, on two courses.  The school I’m at (Newark Academy) ends the year with a nine-day “June Term”, wherein students take one class for six hours a day.  June Term classes are supposed to be experiential and rigorous, and maybe a bit weird.  All teachers are supposed to suggest courses; I made three idea proposals and the committee liked two of them.

Now I have to formalize my thinking and write an actual proposal for each.  I’m still (as of 2017 July) in the spitballing stage and thought I could benefit from some outside input.  If you have the time and interest, please follow this link to a Google doc where you can share your thoughts.  (NB: It’s an open edit document so please be civil to one another!)  I am particularly interested in ideas for field trips and for how to organize six-hour days when it can’t be lecture-and-response.

The two courses, by the way, are The End of the World as We Know It: A scientific approach to catastrophe and Seven Days Plus Two: The Art and Science of World Building in Fiction.  The first will be a modified form of a course I ran at Hun, but I think it will need a fair bit of work.

Unintended ironies

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A GOP Congressman (Clay Higgins, LA) decided to film a selfie movie in the gas chamber at Auschwitz (no, really), in which he tells constituents that the horrors really spoke to him:

“A great sense of dread comes over you in this place,” Higgins says, leading the viewer on a five-minute, nine-second tour of the site, with a dirge-like solo violin playing in the background. “Man’s inhumanity to man can be quite shocking.”

So far, so good.  It’s hard to argue with that.  I watched the entire five minutes and am glad I did, because I was ready to ridicule him for glibly appropriating the Holocaust to make a political point.  That was unfair.  He is appropriately somber, even horrified, and he makes no attempt to make light of or dismiss the enormity of what happened there.

But the lesson he takes away is not that we all have an obligation to each other, that evil arises anywhere and must be resisted everywhere, or that the world must not stand silent and willfully blinded while horrors unfold.  No, he thinks somehow that Auschwitz reinforces his own jingoistic isolationist slant on things.  He thinks that we must wall ourselves off, lock ourselves away, and fear outsiders (all outsiders) as morally equivalent and morally suspect, even dangerous:

“This is why homeland security must be squared away, why our military must be invincible,” says Higgins, a former law enforcement officer who serves on the House Homeland Security Committee. “The world’s a smaller place now than it was in World War II. The United States is more accessible to terror like this, horror like this.

Somehow, in five minutes, he can’t quite bring himself to say that the victims were Jews, and that they were victims because they were Jews — that they were the targets of unreasoned, dehumanizing, state-sponsored fear and hate.  That they had been painted by a broad brush as dangerous, subversive, and threatening, blamed for all the woes of a drifting nation in the throes of economic and demographic change … and that many of them were not snatched from abroad but were victimized by the country of which they were citizens.

The lesson of Auschwitz, or at least one of them, must be this: It’s not about “keep that evil out”.  It’s about “It must never happen here”.  We mustn’t fool ourselves that we, or anyone, are intrinsically immune to the cancer of spirit that led here.  The camps were not built by disenfranchised, diffuse foreign hordes but by one of the preeminent powers and cultures of Europe.  It’s likely that many of the victims he laments found their way to safety barred by an America too focused on its “homeland security” to allow anyone past the golden lamp.

So, unexpectedly, I respect the emotion that this man clearly felt, the horror and even perhaps empathy for the victims of the Holocaust.  But I think these chambers stand as a stark challenge to his philosophy, not as an endorsement of it.