December 26, 2013

Multiple Pages

In a recent edition of Radio Derb I mentioned the advantages of moving to Iceland but added: “The downside is, you have to not mind living on a volcano.”

One listener—there’s always one—saw my volcano and raised me a supervolcano, attaching this news clip:

A new study by the University of Utah revealed that the hot molten rock beneath Yellowstone National Park is 2½ times larger than previously estimated, meaning the park’s supervolcano has the potential to erupt with a force about 2,000 times the size of Mount St. Helens.

This hasn’t actually happened since 637,987 BC, but the boffins reckon another eruption is overdue. When that sucker goes “pop,” you can kiss goodbye to the USA. Our land, our parks and monuments and Civil War battlefields, the fruited plain and the alabaster cities, our Constitution, all three branches of the federal government, you and me and our sweethearts and kids and pets and parasites (some overlaps there), will all be buried under ten feet of ash. The rest of the world won’t fare so well, either, with agriculture killed off for a decade or two.

“We’ve been contemplating the End Times since, I guess, the Beginning Times.”

These prognostications of doom generate surprisingly strong emotions. Persons with no faith in an afterlife dwell fondly on them, perhaps feeling that their own personal extinctions don’t seem so bad if humanity at large, or most of it, will be swept away in one big whoosh at approximately the same date. Believers, on the other hand, greet such prophecies with anger or ridicule, confident that YHWH, Allah, Odin, Vishnu, Unkulunkulu, the Great Manitou, or the White Goddess would never allow such a calamity to befall the Chosen Species.

Considering the things that s/he has allowed, I call this cockeyed optimism, but the difference of opinion here is probably just temperamental.

Doom-relishers are no fringe minority. There has hardly been a significant society without some vision of the End Times in its mythology, often lovingly described. Destruction myths have been as common as creation myths, although they generally come with appendices promising a new, better cosmos to the survivors.

(The main exception here is China, whose thinkers have produced neither creation nor destruction myths above the folk-superstition level. “This wholly undynamic conception of time which lacked any and all orientation, even toward the past, excluded the concept of a beginning as naturally as it did one of the end of the world.” —Prof. Bauer.)

So we’ve been contemplating the End Times since, I guess, the Beginning Times.

Well, if you like that kind of thing, I have a doozy for you. I’ve just been reading James Barrat’s book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. We may, says Barrat, be living in the twilight of humanity, the Menschheitsdämmerung. (There’s a book of German expressionist poetry with this title, for which dämmerung is usually translated as “dawn.” The more usual meaning is “twilight,” though.) What happens to Wotan and his pals in Act 3 of Wagner’s opera is about to happen to us.

The agent of its happening, says Barrat, will be the artificial intelligences (AI) we are beginning to create. We are, he says, a good part of the way to Artificial General Intelligence (AGI): machines competitive with ourselves in intellectual abilities, including self-awareness, intentionality, and guile—as in, the kind of guile needed to deceive us as to its abilities. Acting dumb could be an excellent AGI survival strategy.


Since the design of machines is one of [humanity’s] intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.

Like the characters in a Vernor Vinge novel, we’d be sharing spacetime with ASI, Artificial Superintelligences—strange incomprehensible “powers” who are no more interested in us than we (with a few exceptions) are in ants.

This is one of those books that anticipates and answers all the objections that come to mind when you read a synopsis of it. Since AGI will be our creation, why don’t we just design it to be friendly? Aren’t self-awareness and intentionality uniquely human? What about the Chinese Room? And Moravec’s Paradox? (In AI, the hard things are easy, the easy ones hard. A computer that plays grandmaster-level chess? Easy. One that knows a dog from a cat on sight? Hard.) This book touches all bases.

Barrat, who makes science-themed documentary films for a living, comes in for some scorn in the Amazon reviews for reporting on a field in which he has no credentials. Pshaw: Science journalists do this all the time and are often more enlightening about the specialties they report on than are the specialists.

I thought Barrat did a good job. In addition to telling us what he thinks, he takes care to tell us what the experts think. At a conference of people active in AI research:

The breakdown was this: 42 percent anticipated AGI would be achieved by 2030; 25 percent by 2050; 20 percent by 2100; 10 percent by 2200; and 2 percent never.

He adds that “I got grief for not including dates before 2030.”
I can claim some slight acquaintance with this field, having attended a discussion group on AI spawned by a course in Mathematical Logic I took during my last year at university most of a lifetime ago. One of the first things I ever published touched on the problems we might have sharing our planet with AGI. (That was in the journal of the college’s Humanist Society, which I see still exists. Possibly my undergraduate lucubrations are in their archives.)

As I said, there’s an issue of temperament here. Some will scoff at the prospect of robo-wars; some will tremble. Who’s right, the scoffers or the tremblers? We’ll soon find out.


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