Empty Days

Friday, July 09, 2004



Science and paranoia.

There is a wide-spread paranoia about computer becoming autonomous sometime in a rather near future. Science-fiction is suffused with it (P.K.Dick, Kubrick's Odyssey 2001, etc etc etc). I once corresponded with a suicidal individual who was rationalizing his death-wish as based on this particular futuristic fear - he was generally paranoid yet persisted in arguing coming doom and gloom derived from his supposedly superior comprehension of developments in the AI sector. Now I encounter the same exact obsession in Kaczinski's 1971 essay:
Marvin Minsky of MIT (one of the foremost computer experts in the country) and other computer scientists predict that within fifteen years or possibly much less there will be superhuman computers with intellectual capacities far beyond anything of which humans are capable. It is to be emphasized that these computers will not merely perform so-called "mechanical" operations; they will be capable of creative thought. Many people are incredulous at the idea of a creative computer, but let it be remembered that (unless one resorts to supernatural explanations of human thought) the human brain itself is an electro-chemical computer, operating according to the laws of physics and chemistry. Furthermore, the men who have predicted these computers are not crackpots but first-class scientists.
Somehow this sort of discourse resembles the UFO galore - a certain myth wrapped in science-like apparel. Terrifyingly superior cyborgs or/and extra-terrestrials seem to embody today man's sense of powerlessness and a deep fear of an immensely complex world. In the age of science, man is very far from feeling god-like and in control of the inner and outer world - the unknown is bound to produce the terrifying. In the myth of machines taking a life of their own the world is represented as ruled by terrifyingly incomprehensible technology - the whole of Unabomber's Manifesto is centered around the idea of a society far too immense and complex to be under any sort of merely human control. In the UFO myths the same idea is extended to the universe as deep-space - the outer unknown from which unimaginably superior, tyrannical forces are bound to arise. Man is not God, and when such forces finally surge from the depths of the unknown, there will be no Creator and Ruler of the Universe to appeal to. I suppose this is the underlying theme of most latter-day science-fiction - which is the most paranoid sort of literature you could think of.

In other words, we are dealing with the fears of a child locked in a big dark room - it may be empty, or it may be full of monsters. In either case, it is not a good place to be in.

***

I have personally met a chinese specialist (probably quite brilliant but it's hard for me to judge - we simply happened to share a table in a chinese diner) who was researching possible integration of human brain (neuro-science) and AI (artificial intelligence). From what she told me the concept was not experimental but already perceived as a project that only demanded further research into material application.

I had the hardest time understanding what she was talking about.

She was only a Ph.D. student in that field. Here's an article by Bill Joy dealing with the same subject. The man is no novice. Doomsday-sayer or not, it's quite a read - Why the future doesn't need us:
In the book, you don't discover until you turn the page that the author of this passage is Theodore Kaczynski - the Unabomber. I am no apologist for Kaczynski. His bombs killed three people during a 17-year terror campaign and wounded many others. One of his bombs gravely injured my friend David Gelernter, one of the most brilliant and visionary computer scientists of our time. Like many of my colleagues, I felt that I could easily have been the Unabomber's next target.

Kaczynski's actions were murderous and, in my view, criminally insane. He is clearly a Luddite, but simply saying this does not dismiss his argument; as difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, I saw some merit in the reasoning in this single passage. I felt compelled to confront it.
What we regard as paranoia today might turn out true tomorrow - but it will come about in a banal, gradual, non-threatening way. A sheep was cloned fairly recently - nobody died or had a heart-attack.

And so on.

(That's exactly what Houellebecq says too... "but he's French and not a hi-tech wiz". And?)

***

And here's confirmation from Bill Joy himself:
I went through my now-familiar routine, trotting out the ideas and passages that I found so disturbing. Danny's answer - directed specifically at Kurzweil's scenario of humans merging with robots - came swiftly, and quite surprised me. He said, simply, that the changes would come gradually, and that we would get used to them.
People get used to everything, as Blaise Pascal said in his french XVII century - one may wonder what's the exact use of prophets under such conditions. Perhaps prophets are those who can still find something disturbing enough - but only because it hasn't occured yet. Heh.





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