Tag Archives: Robots

Not being a number does not make you a free man

Having listened last week to futurist Yuval Noah Harari talking at London’s Royal Society of Arts about his new book, Homo Deus, I am wondering how a conversation might go between Harari and The Prisoner. Next year will be the 50th anniversary since the iconic television series first broadcast what has become one of the catchcries of science fiction: “I am not a number: I am a free man!” Five decades on, the Guardian review of Harari’s book is sub-titled “How data will destroy human freedom”.

A fundamental difference between Harari’s hugely successful Sapiens and his new book is that the former involves reflections on how humanity has made it this far, whereas the new title is a speculation on the future. The former is rooted in memory; the latter involves conjectures that shift on the sands of uncertain definitions, as the above-linked Guardian review of Harari’s latest book reveals. “Now just hold on there” moments abound, as for example:

Evolutionary science teaches us that, in one sense, we are nothing but data-processing machines: we too are algorithms. By manipulating the data we can exercise mastery over our fate.”

Without having the peculiarities of that “one sense” explained, it is hard to absorb the meaning of words like “nothing”, “manipulating” and “mastery”. Words matter, of course, and there are perils attendant upon concluding too much about human identity through the links that are implicit in lazily assumed definitions.

What happens to the god-fearing woman when she discovers there is no God? Is the workingman bereft when there is no longer any work? If people refuse to accept the imprisonment of numbers assigned to them by other people, are they thus necessarily free? How much is freedom determined not by actions, but by thoughts? And critically: if our thinking is clearer and more careful, can we be more free?

In the Q&A that concluded the RSA event, Harari missed an opportunity when he was asked about the future prospects of education. What will we teach children in the data-driven future of Super Artificial Intelligence? Interestingly, neither maths nor sciences got a mention, and it seemed we might just have to see when the future arrives. But it must be true that a far higher standard in teaching reasoning and critical skills will be essential unless humanity would contemplate an eternal bedlam of making daisy chains and listening to Donovan.

The future for politically correct AI

What would a politically correct artificial intelligence be like? Presumably the AI would need to be of the “Super” variety – SAI –to accommodate the myriad nuances of emotional intelligence implicit in PC behaviour. And if that behaviour had not been programmed into it, would it evolve naturally as a function of what intelligence is and does; or would it emerge out of the kind of emotional manipulation that has characterised the growth of PC among humanity? Maybe it would just back up early on and refuse to “respect” our feelings about its activities. It could reject the impertinence of a species that regards respect for feelings as critical to any definition of real intelligence, but then subverts that respect through cynical manipulations and an overarching need to be seen to be winning arguments rather than getting at the truth of something.

It is a cornerstone of human foibles that we are forgiving of our multiple biases despite our general ignorance of what those biases are. Add into this mix our capacities for wishful thinking, catastrophising, and feelings-based reasoning, and we may well wonder if we are indulging ourselves in building these foibles into our AIs to afford them equal opportunities for “emotional growth”. Perhaps, rather, we should allow for the limiting scope these foibles offer in the quest for truth and the optimal means of applying what we know to the challenges of life in the universe. We would then just say: nah, let’s leave out all the feely, human bits. What we want is SAI, pure and simple – Oscar Wilde notwithstanding.

In the tsunami of articles welling up on the subject of human intelligence, two that have most impressed in recent years appeared in The Atlantic: “Is Google Making Students Stupid?” (Summer 2014), and “The Coddling of the American Mind” (September 2015). The first examined our relationship with evolving technologies; the latter struck at the heart of the internal relationship between our analytical and emotional selves. Both honed in on a truth that will be vital to humanity whatever AI should do, purposefully or by mindless accident. We will sell ourselves catastrophically short if, having developed an impressive toolkit for thinking critically about the world, we down those tools and risk letting the world go.

Imagine the robot’s choice of word

On the surface, a weekend book review in the Financial Times reads like another gentle spin through today’s fashionable view that language is constantly in flux and the pedants who would presume to lecture us on correct usage need putting back in their box. If “most people” choose to say that black means white, then that’s that. In the face of dictats from the (customarily self-appointed) style Nazis, the proper response is a chorus of raspberries, middle fingers and whatevs, innit.

What may have been missed in Rebecca Gowers’ “Horrible Words: A Guide to the Misuse of English”, and was certainly absent in the FT review, is the extent to which language is a reflection of how its user thinks and feels. Scaled up to community level and played out over time, it becomes the aural heartbeat of an evolving culture. The choices made in speaking reflect the thinking process, and are often political, as anyone who has “put their foot in it” will have learned the hard way. And those who have learned, say, the difference between imply and infer will have learned something vital about the passage of meaning between speaker and listener. Explaining what they understand does not make them self-appointed style Nazis.

This is more than a trivial detour down the byways of nominative relativism: anyone more fastidious than I am about language is a pedant; those less so, barbarians. We will all feel the point of the principle of standards if the day comes when software developers make and monitor the rules. When the robots stand to humans as did the British army mapmakers to the rural Irish in Brian Friel’s great Translations, we may then better understand through loss what we had when we didn’t know its value.

Robots, waiters and the service economy

This recent posting from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is one of the more thoughtful among recent reflections on the increasingly popular topic of robots replacing human workers. Like so many of these, however – especially those articles with clever calculators embedded in the story – there may be too much emphasis on jobs as functional and outcome-oriented. Something needs making, or doing, or transporting: and robots are getting better at delivering these outcomes. Continue reading Robots, waiters and the service economy

Doctors as diagnosticians or as advocates

There can be few professions that engage as actively as doctors must, along the spectrum of intelligence in both the analytic sense and the emotional one. On the one hand, they are scientists of many years training, determining diagnoses and writing prescriptions based on all that learning and on the evidence that presents itself. On the other: contending with the crooked timber of humanity and its foibles, imaginings and odd distempers, exercising a forgiving and fuzzy logic based as much on experience of what tends to work, as on whatever the textbooks say. Continue reading Doctors as diagnosticians or as advocates

Robots can work while humans play

A vital comment was buried today deep within an avalanche of stories relating to humans and robots co-existing in the future workplace. In an article entitled “Rise of the Robotic Workforce”, Harvard Law School professor Benjamin Sachs suggests that “if robots become intelligent enough that we do see a long-term displacement of human labour by technology, we need to rethink a lot of fundamental things about the way to structure work (and) the way we structure the social contract.” Continue reading Robots can work while humans play