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Posts Tagged ‘AI’

mariaI’ve just noticed my novel “Between The Tides” popping up for sale on various strange websites, adult sites, the sites you hesitate to click on, so I refrained from further investigation. It used to happen a lot with Amazon too, my stuff getting stolen and sold by pirates. The first couple of times this misappropriation and misrepresentation bothered me deeply. It used to feel like a violation.

It’s my business if I decide to give away a novel I’ve spent years writing, quite another if some n’er-do-well cuts and pastes it and charges $5 for the download, but for all of that it concerns me less nowadays, and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. I hasten to add “Between the Tides” is not an “Adult” novel. It’s a contemporary literary romance, so anyone paying their $5 and expecting pornographic rumpy pumpy are going to be disappointed.

Technology opens up all manner of possibilities, not all of them for the better. The Internet enables many, like me, a means of self expression, changing the definition of what publishing actually is, and I count this on the plus side. But on the other there’s a million new ways of exploiting the innocent, of scamming them, hurting them, even enabling new forms of global warfare with whole nations trying to shut down each other’s essential infrastructures, like electricity or air-traffic control. And its effect on global politics is only just becoming apparent, sophisticated algorithms undermining the democratic process and swaying election results in favour of the plutocratic moneyed minority.

I’ve always been a progressive when it comes to technology, but some of the visionaries driving it now are clearly nuts, also unfortunately incredibly rich and powerful. Technology changes lives, brings about revolutions in the way we live and work. These revolutions used to take centuries to come about, then it was decades, now it’s down to a few years. The pace of change is accelerating, and some visionaries, real live CEOs of Silicon Valley companies, extrapolate a future where the time for change is compressed to zero. They call it the Singularity, and it’s at this point everything happens at once.

Really, forget religion, the techno-visionaries are quite evangelical about it. The Singularity is analogous to the Second Coming, or the End Times, or the Rapture. It’s at this point, they tell us, machines will become conscious beings in their own right, and we will have achieved immortality by virtue of the ability to “upload” our minds into vast computational matrixes, like in some hyper-realistic massive multi-player online role playing game.

But given the darker side of technology, is this something we really want? I’ve only to watch my kids playing GTA to know it’s the last place I’d want to be trapped for eternity. Or perhaps, given the inevitable commercialisation of the meta-verse, our immortality could only be guaranteed provided we obtained and maintained sufficient in-game credit, and when we ran out, we could be deleted. Thought you’d be safe from market forces when you died? No way, the visionaries are working on ways of it chasing you into the afterlife.

Certainly our machines are changing how we live at an ever accelerating pace. Meanwhile we remain essentially the same beings that walked the planet two thousand years ago. Whether or not you believe it’s possible to preserve your essential thinking being by uploading it to a computer depends on how you imagine consciousness coming about in the first place. There’s the mechanistic view, that the brain is a computer made of meat, so as soon as we can make a computer as complex as that, Bob’s your uncle. But I’ve never been of that view, so I’m able to rest a little easier that my afterlife will not be spent avoiding evil bastards in a GTA heaven or keeping up the payments on my immortality.

In the matrix, there’s nothing I can do to stop the bad guy from stealing the book I’ve written, but he cannot steal the one I’m writing nor, more crucially, my reasons for writing it. Such a thing transcends the mechanistic world view, a world view that’s a century out of date, yet still cleaved to by the technocracy with all the zealotry of an Evangelical Preacher. The technocracy long ago deconstructed heaven and transcended God with their own omnipotence, but what they’re offering in its place now makes less sense for being all the more transparently absurd, and for the simple fact that machines do not come for free, that those who own them are paid by those who do not. Bear this in mind and our relationship with machines will remain balanced, and correct. Forget it, and the machine will eat your brain long before you get the chance to upload it.

 

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mariaMy father taught me how to play chess. It was one of those rites of passage things – the master teaches the pupil, and then the pupil tries to beat the master. I think I managed it once or twice by fluke, but my father was always a better player than me in the long run. Likewise, I taught my own boys to play, but chess has a lot of competition these days, all of it computer based; games of great complexity, games that require quick thinking, fast reflexes, and which are often, sadly, very violent simulations of the game-master’s vision of the “real world”.

Occasionally, my boys will try to beat me at chess, but it’s no longer a burning priority, not as much as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and of course the ever pressing demands of social media. And does it really matter anyway, that we develop our game as human players, when computers are obviously so much better at games than us?

The code used in computer chess programs is actually quite simple, rule-based, and often vanishingly small, at least by the standards of other computer games. The strength of the computer lies in its speed and its ability to evaluate combinations of moves far in advance of the human player. If we followed the same rules as the machine, the moves we’d make would be equally good ones – it’s just that it would take us years to work them out. It took a while for computers to routinely beat the best human players, but that they do so now throws up some interesting questions, not only about chess, but games in general and, on a deeper level, the existential meaning of machines themselves, and our relationships with them.

A game between human beings is a meeting of minds. You get to know a person better and more quickly if you play with them. Since computers do not “think”, or “play”, or take pleasure in anything, there is something ultimately sterile in a person playing against a computer. As for two computers playing one another that’s only of interest to a human being comparing the effectiveness of their respective artificial intelligence programs.

Artificial intelligence is the thing, and of course much in the news these days, with both Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates cautioning us against the rise of “super intelligent machines”. This is not about whether machines will ever be capable of achieving consciousness and becoming rogue monsters, like in those scary sci-fi movies, but more the extent to which the world we are building is starting to resemble a huge interconnected machine, one that does not really serve us any more, and to which the vast majority of us risk becoming subservient to a monolithic and amoral rule-based system, a computer system that controls everything, one that no one person can ever fully understand and therefore challenge.

An illustration of how close we are to sleepwalking into this dystopian vision comes from news of a company now injecting computer-chips into the hands of its employees. Known as RFID tags, about the size of a grain of rice, these things are already used to ID our pets. Chipping humans was an inevitable next step, and only a matter of time. Chipped humans can gain access through computer controlled doors, they can use secure photocopiers and log onto their PC’s, all by merely offering up their hand. It’s a voluntary system at the moment, and one I would personally decline, robustly and with expletives, but in the near future, as machines dictate ever more efficient systems, it may become a condition of employment that we subject ourselves to it, that indeed anyone aspiring to a proper living wage in a hi-tech, super-efficient, super-intelligent economy, will need to forsake first their name in exchange for a subcutaneous number known only to the machine itself. And who can argue with the convenience of such a scheme being extended to the public transport, the banking and the retail systems? No more coppering up to pay the parking meter; you simply wave your hand over it.

So why resist? Well, the objection is of course a philosophical one, that when we begin embedding bits of the machine into our bodies, it is the first step in the invasion of human physiology by the mechanisms we have invented – invented with the purpose of serving us, and on the pretext of enabling them to serve us better. But the stage after that is to implant processors and sensors, first to monitor the body’s functions, and later, to modify them. Human beings will not dictate this step; the machines will merely point out the logical necessity, and we will offer ourselves willingly. At this stage we will have become more properly biological proxies of the machines themselves; robots with an ever more alienated psyche dragged along for the ride.

Machines, not being capable of sentience, will always operate from a rule based, mechanistic set of algorithms – complex yes, but literally inhuman. To a machine there will only ever be a two way gate: yes or no. There is never, as so often in human affairs, a “definite maybe”. To the scientistic, the materialistic, and the terminally simplistic, there is nothing more annoying than a system that cannot be modelled through the logic gates of a computer program yet much of the real world defies algorithmic analysis, and computer models of it are by necessity always simplifications. While our most powerful computers do nowadays deliver more accurate forecasts of the weather, they cannot tell us how even an ant is created from nothing. We are not therefore achieving a greater understanding of life by our mimicking of it, rather we are creating autonomous entities of great power, but which serve no existential purpose, and by plugging ourselves into them, we risk negating the existential purpose of our selves.

To a machine there is no point to anything, no point to an ant or a human being, for the point of a thing is a very human thing; it is ambiguous, and highly subjective – terms which do not compute. So you turn up for work one day and you can’t even get into the building, because the machine has calculated there is no further benefit to having you on the payrole. Thus you are deleted with an amoral efficiency, and without redress, and all you have to show for twenty five years of service is that defunct chip under your skin, and which you can still feel lurking there every time you clench your fist.

I do not play chess very well, but I do enjoy playing it. I play against machines too but only for the practice, being careful not to lose sight of the fact that victory over a machine, while an indication of my own skill and mental focus is, in other terms, meaningless. People used to play chess long distance, by letter. We might nowadays do the same by email, but the temptation to cheat by responding with a computer generated move erases trust and has eliminated the pleasure of it, so we don’t do it. Do the machines then bring us closer together, or alienate us from one another? Do they enhance our abilities, or do they merely highlight our shortcomings?

What are all our great machines for? Do they serve us, or are they already well along the road to becoming a separate, entirely self-serving and eternally unconscious species, one in which the simulation has become the reality, and in which the creators find themselves trapped, unable to escape back into the real world? Think of that next time you feed your card into an ATM, and ask the question: who is serving whom?

Can computers really play chess? No; we just allow ourselves to think they do.

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mariaThe world of artificial intelligence is in a buzz at the moment over a machine which recently passed the Turing Test. This means that during a question and answer session, a computer was able to convince a human judge, most of the time that its answers to his questions came from another human being, rather than a cleverly designed machine.

Passing the Turing test does not in any way infer a machine is sentient or conscious, or in any way “alive”, merely that its programmed responses convincingly simulate the responses a human being might give to those same questions. But that a machine has now passed the Turing Test means it’s time we sat up and took notice of what’s been happening in the world of artificial intelligence.

There are two kinds of artificial intelligence gurus. There are those who believe machines will one day become conscious, artificial life-forms. The followers of this school, tend to view the world in purely mechanistic and materialistic terms, believing that the processes going on in a human brain are ultimately machine like, something to do with molecules and electrons, and can therefore be replicated by digital processing, which is also to do with molecules and electrons. Gurus of this school are the latter day Dr Frankensteins, and we fear them releasing Armageddon by their foolish meddling.

The threat posed by a rogue, conscious mega-machine, plugged in to all the world’s digital and electronic systems is the stuff of nightmare and many a corny film plot, but I don’t think we need worry too much on this score as there are a lot of sound arguments pointing the other way, that when it comes to defining what consciousness is, it puts it well beyond what can be programmed into a machine. But a machine does not need to be conscious or self aware in order to be harmful to humans, and I don’t just mean physically harmful either.

Artificial Intelligence is an interesting field, calling into question what it means to be human and conscious. It also acts as a flash point for the soul-spirit debate – the non-materialists insisting there is more to consciousness than mere physical states, that there is also a ghost in the machine, our spiritual nature, which lights up the apparatus to produce a self-aware human being, and without that ghost, you can never have a conscious machine.

The other kind of artificial intelligence guru bypasses the argument about conscious machines altogether, and is more concerned with exploring the limits and the potential of machine based intelligence, and in particular the way machines can interface with human beings. If you flip over to the chatbot, Alice, at Pandorabot, and ask  “her” a few questions, you might find yourself getting drawn in by the answers. This machine is very good, but not perfect and with a little intelligence on the part of a human inquisitor the flaws in Alice’s “intelligence” are soon revealed, but we can see where this is going.

With most communications now going on “online”, it doesn’t take much imagination to come up with a near future scenario where our emails to corporations are answered by Alice-type machines, and we’d be unable to tell if we were corresponding with a human being, or a bot. This of extends to spoken communication as well. At present it’s easy to tell when you’ve been sucked into the black hole of a human operated call centre, but speech recognition and synthesised computer voices are becoming highly advanced and I can see a scenario within the next decade, where call centres, already largely scripted, become entirely computerised.

One of the more amusing applications of a chat-bot, like Alice is to let one loose in a chat-forum. Even more hilarious is to let more than one loose. The human participants haven’t a clue – the only give-away is that Alice has better language and grammar skills. The point is, actually, it’s pointless to have one chat-bot chatting to another, because it’s the human being – again the ghost in the machine – no matter how imperfect, that grants meaning to the whole enterprise.

The replacement of humans by machines has been going on since the industrial revolution. The losers are always the humans who have been replaced, while the winners are the owners of the machines. Since the former outnumber the latter by thousands to one, replacing a human being with a machine can never be justified in humanistic terms, unless it is to release human beings to more personally rewarding or less hazardous tasks. In practice though, the machines release human beings only to the inescapable poverty of state-welfare or those low paid tasks where the machines have yet to make inroads.

When all the world’s systems are computerised and digitised, and the vast majority of human beings are no longer required to perform any useful function in the world at all, machine logic dictates that there will have to be invented for us an artificial function in order to “earn” the carefully calculated minimum number of “credits” to be spent on keeping oneself alive. Such a synthetic function might involve say one human putting pebbles into a bag, and passing them to another human being who then takes them out. A hundred pebbles, in or out, earns a credit. Too slow with the pebbles, your credit is halved. This is the way it’s always been of course – only the rise of the machines points out its questionable moral value.

It reduces human beings to pieces of machine code, to cogs in a machine, or more literally to a pair of hands. And we are more than that. We have complex needs, complex emotions. We need compassion, a sense of purpose, and we need to aspire to something greater than we already are or we become sick, and we die before our time. These things cannot be simulated or coded, and their absence cannot be compensated for by a warm, synthetic voice with nothing at its heart.

We are constructing an artificial intelligence that serves no purpose, one that’s on a divergent course to our own basic needs. I trust we won’t simply rush after it in the belief that even though machines might never be “sentient” their simulated intelligence makes them somehow better and more trustworthy than a fellow human being.

When I gaze into the night sky, I cannot count the stars as a machine might, and come back with a figure of so many million. I cannot categorise their brightness, nor catalogue their distance from earth, but what I simply feel when I look the night sky puts a distance between me and any machine, a distance that can never be bridged. That machines should always serve us, and not the other way around seems an unnecessary note of caution, but for that to mean anything we need to know first what it is we are for and what values we ourselves hold to. Otherwise we end up as slaves to a synthetic system that’s void of compassion and at the bottom of it really, really stupid. When that happens we will have become as pointless as the machines we are already beginning to serve.

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