Noreen Herzfeld on “The Sorcery of Artificial Intelligence (AI)”

When I think of Artificial Intelligence (AI) the image that first comes to mind is is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.  Mickey, left with the task of filling the workshop water tank, pages through a book of magic and casts a spell on a broom, giving it the task of toting the water from well to tank.  Relieved of his chore, Mickey goes to sleep dreaming of power and glory, while the broom dutifully brings in bucket after bucket of water.  The broom, having but one instruction, brings in more and more water, flooding the workshop and waking a hapless Mickey, who does not know how to stop it from its single-minded devotion to its task.

In an article entitled “The End of the Enlightenment,” published in the June edition of The Atlantic, Henry Kissinger fears that AI might bring a similar tragic result.  Kissinger begins by noting the basic flaws we already experience in the Internet age—how computers lead us to treat people as data, overwhelm us with too much information, separate us by catering to our preferences, and provide an all too tempting diversion from deep thought and reflection.  “The digital world’s emphasis on speed inhibits reflection; its incentive empowers the radical over the thoughtful; its values are shaped by subgroup consensus, not by introspection.”  Kissinger then turns his lens more specifically on AI.  Here, he makes three key observations.  He also makes one key mistake.

First, what Kissinger gets right.  After nodding to the possibilities for “extraordinary benefits” in medical science (AI is already better at detecting cancer than many clinicians), clean-energy provision, and other environmental issues, Kissinger warns of AI’s potential for unintended consequences, especially those that may arise from the inability of an AI to contextualize.  Like Mickey’s broom, which was told nothing about the size of the water tank or the undesirability of a flooded workshop, AI may not be able to “comprehend the context that informs its instructions.”  He asks, “Can we, at an early stage, detect and correct an AI program that is acting outside our framework of expectation? Or will AI, left to its own devices, inevitably develop slight deviations that could, over time, cascade into catastrophic departures?”  The latter is, perhaps, what should worry us most.  As Sir Nigel Shadbolt, professor of computer science at Oxford, recently noted, “The danger is clearly not that robots will decide to put us away and have a robot revolution. . .  If there [are] killer robots, it will be because we’ve been stupid enough to give it the instructions or software for it to do that without having a human in the loop deciding.”

Second, Kissinger worries that AI is likely to change our own thought processes and values.  He notes that the recent champion Go-playing program, AlphaGo, does not play the way humans do and suggests that AI has changed the nature of the game in that “winning” no longer seems tethered to strategies we humans have thought of, strategies that seem also to apply to other parts of life.  Though he does not say it outright, it seems easy to surmise that AI could easily change the way we think about a number of human endeavors.  My fear is that, just as Go might be reduced to “winning”, so in other areas the single-mindedness of AI, like the single-mindedness of Mickey’s broom, might narrow the way we think of our tasks, and our world.  Mickey never thought about the exercise he was losing or the joy he might have found in going out to the well and looking at the sky.

Third, Kissinger rightly notes that machine learning programs have a certain opacity.  We start them up and evaluate them on their results, but we do not in the end know exactly how they reach the conclusions they do nor what they have learned.  The classic story from the early days of machine learning is of a program devised by the Department of Defense that was given the task of learning to locate hidden tanks.  The machine got quite proficient at identifying all the pictures with tanks in its initial set, but when given a new set of pictures, totally failed.  It turned out that the photos in the training set harboring hidden tanks were all taken on cloudy days.  The machine had learned nothing about tanks, but knew how to distinguish a cloudy from a sunny day.  Whether true or apocryphal, this story illustrates how machine learning programs may reach conclusions that we do not understand.  Explaining those conclusions is often a more challenging task than reaching them, one we may not choose to bother with.  Kissinger writes, “[AI] algorithms, being mathematical interpretations of observed data, do not explain the underlying reality that produces them. Paradoxically, as the world becomes more transparent, it will also become increasingly mysterious.”

Will all this bring an end to Enlightenment thinking?  Kissinger sees the last 200 years as a time when humans moved from reliance on faith and authority to reliance on reason.  However, in a world that has seen fascism and communism rise and fall, one busily producing leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and groups like ISIS, I suspect reason’s supremacy over faith and authority has been tenuous at best.  AI’s effect on this has, so far, been minimal.

Kissinger goes one step too far.  He ascribes computers with agency: “[AI] goes far beyond automation as we have known it. Automation deals with means; it achieves prescribed objectives by rationalizing or mechanizing instruments for reaching them. AI, by contrast, deals with ends; it establishes its own objectives.”  Really?  Not any AI I know of.  We tell AI what to do.  Without significant breakthroughs in our understanding of both consciousness and emotion, AI will not and indeed cannot have volition, for volition depends on both knowing what we are doing and wanting to do it.  AI can do neither.

To many, AI is likely to be as inscrutable as the spells in the sorcerer’s magic book.  We know it works, but we don’t know how—thus we may find it as hard to control as Mickey’s industrious broom.  The broom had no intention of causing trouble.  It did what it was told.  AI will do the same.  The problem is that we, like Mickey, are filled with dreams of power and glory while being mere beginners in casting our spells over our mechanical servants.  There will be unintended consequences, challenges to our way of thinking, and an element of mystery.  We had better stay awake.

Noreen Herzfeld on “Artificial Intelligence: An Existential Risk?”

Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk recently issued a warning regarding the future of artificial intelligence.   “AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don’t think people fully appreciate that.” Claiming access to cutting-edge AI technology, Musk called for proactive government regulation, noting that while such regulation is generally “irksome, . . . by the time we are reactive in AI regulation, it’s too late.”

Elon Musk

“I think people should be really concerned about it,” Musk said. “I keep sounding the alarm bell.”  Musk is not alone in sounding this alarm.  Several years ago physicist Stephen Hawking told the BBC: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Really?  How might this happen?  According to Hawking, AI could “take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. . .. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

This concern has been a staple of science fiction for decades (see The Terminator or 2001).  However, those with a more intimate knowledge of AI disagree.  As MIT computer scientist Rodney Brooks has wryly pointed out, Musk and Hawking “don’t work in AI themselves. For those who do work in AI, we know how hard it is to get anything to actually work through product level.”  Virtual reality pioneer and Microsoft guru Jaron Lanier says anyone with experience of modern software should know not to worry about our future robotic overlords. “Just as some newborn race of superintelligent robots is about to consume all humanity, our dear old species will likely be saved by a Windows crash. The poor robots will linger pathetically, begging us to reboot them, even though they’ll know it would do no good.”

So does AI pose an existential risk?  Not for the reasons Hawking and Musk imagine.  We are unlikely to have “strong AI,” one that thinks in ways we humans think, ways as versatile as the human brain, for many, many years, if ever.  Our brains are vastly more complex than our present technology.  However, that doesn’t mean we are out of the woods.

“Weak AI,” programs that do only one thing and do that thing very well (think Deep Blue) are progressing by leaps and bounds and stand to undermine, or at least drastically change, our economy, our politics, and our personal lives.  In fact, as several studies published in just the last few weeks and months show, they are already doing so.

First, the economy.  A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that hundreds of thousands of jobs in the US have been taken over by automation since the 1990s.  Only one new job in the computer industry is created for every three jobs lost.  It is automation, far more than governmental regulations or off-shoring, that has decimated industrial sector employment. No matter what President Trump says, jobs in coal or manufacturing are not coming back.  Moreover, automated vehicles and Amazon are poised to take over transportation and retail.

Nor are blue-collar workers the only ones who should worry.  A 2013 University of Oxford report estimated that 47 percent of American jobs will likely be threatened by automation in the coming decades, including many white-collar jobs in the legal, health, and educational sectors. A report from the World Bank estimates that this proportion is even higher in developing countries.  AI has begun to shake the foundation of Western capitalism.

Obviously, this has ramifications for our political systems, and we have seen the first of these in the election of Donald Trump in the US and the vote for Brexit in the UK.  Beyond the restiveness of the working class, AI also played a role in our last election through the spread of fake news on social media by bots..  Artificial intelligence makes the development of fake evidence remarkably easy.  A recent study published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications found that people could not identify whether or not a photo had been Photoshopped with any more accuracy than guessing.  Author Sophie Nightingale warns, “Photos are incredibly powerful. They influence how we see the world. They can even influence our memory of things. If we can’t tell the fake ones from the real ones, the fakes are going to be powerful, too.”

And it is not only Photoshop.  A recent article in Wired, entitled “AI Will Make Forging Anything Entirely Too Easy,” notes that video and audio are subject to similar falsification.  “In the future, realistic-looking and -sounding fakes will constantly confront people. Awash in audio, video, images, and documents, many real but some fake, people will struggle to know whom and what to trust.”  This has led to a new form of espionage, one the Russians pioneered in our last election.  While in the past espionage was about obtaining information, in the future it will also be about inserting information wherever one can.  AI has begun to shake the foundation of our trust in our media and our political campaigns.

Our private lives stand to be shaken as well.  Meet Roxxy.

A 2016 study from the University of Duisenberg-Essen found that 50% of men surveyed said they could imagine purchasing a sex robot within the next five years.  Sex robots are already selling well, particularly in Japan, where their use has already led to a decline in human-human sexual encounters.  While I will save an examination of the ramifications of this for a future post, here is one threat to humanity that might truly fall under the rubric of “existential.”

AI is unlikely to threaten human existence, as Hawking fears.  There will be no super-intelligent robot apocalypse.  But AI has already begun to upend our economy, our politics, and even our sex lives.  And this is only the beginning.  While no threat to “the human race,” as Hawking fears, AI does pose a threat to the structure of “human civilization” as we know it.  Perhaps Elon Musk got his terms right.

 

 

Noreen Herzfeld on “The Balkanization of the Media”

noreen-herzfeldTo those who are familiar with the wars in the Balkans, much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric sounds eerily familiar.  Trump’s promise to his base that “You will never be ignored again” brings to mind Slobodan Milošević’s promise to the Serbs on the field of Kosovo Polje: “You will never be beaten again.”  Milošević, like Trump, was an old hand at presenting “alternative facts.” Reporter Peter Maas writes, “Milošević existed in a different dimension, a twilight zone of lies, and I was mucking about in the dimension of facts.”

Sound familiar?  How are these leaders able to bring so many others into their twilight zone?  What makes neighbor turn against neighbor? Continue reading

Noreen Herzfeld on “Apocalypse, But Not Now”

noreen-herzfeldThe Syrian town of Dabiq is neither populous (having fewer than 3500 inhabitants) nor strategically located.  On October 16, after a short battle, it fell to Syrian rebel forces.

A short battle for a small town should hardly have been noticed.  But Dabiq matters, for it represents the Islamic State’s version of Armageddon.  A hadith, or saying of the prophet Muhammad to his companion Abu Hurayrah, describes a future apocalyptic battle between Muslims and an infidel coalition led by Rome to take place on a plain outside the town.  According to the prophecy, one third of the Muslim forces will flee and another third be killed, but the remaining third is destined to prevail and go on to conquer Constantinople (called Rome, for at that time it was the seat of the Roman empire, thus representing the West and Christendom).  Jesus will then return to earth to lead the Muslims in the final battle with Satan that will usher in a new era of God’s rule.  Continue reading