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Beware the Dystopian Visions of Celebrity Scientists

Dec. 04, 2014 by | Comments (13)
Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking’s future: doomed singularity or invading aliens? Image by J. Nathan Matias, via Wikimedia Commons Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.

Several years ago, eminent British cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking made headlines by speculating that first contact with sentient aliens probably wouldn’t end in high-fives and tribble-cuddles. “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” he suggested.

As if that rosy idea wasn’t enough, Professor Hawking has now claimed the invention of artificial intelligence (AI) could precipitate the end of humanity. “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” he recently told the BBC. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Intergalactic robots landing on his lawn must surely be nightmare-fuel.

It’s easy to dismiss the famous author’s pessimism as the harmless speculation of a respected intellectual (or, for those inclined, to accept his opinions with alarm). Yet given the challenges involved in engaging the public in the realities of science, the sci-fi musings of a world famous scientist might be less than helpful.

In 2009 I put together a short radio documentary on the technological singularity for Australia’s ABC Radio National show ‘All in the Mind’. If I’m to be honest, I was relatively naïve on what this entailed, picking the topic in order to contrive an interview with one of my favorite science fiction authors. My crash-course on the progress of AI left me with slightly contrasting impressions on what the future might hold.

For some, AI was defined as the emergence of agency. At some point, computational technology would produce a chaotic system that displayed some form of intention. With this auspicious event the speed limits of biology could be overcome and vroom—innovation could accelerate. This artificial mind could find ways to improve itself faster than our meat brains ever could, leading to an explosive growth in improvement. This new age of exponential progress was christened ‘the singularity’ by mathematician John von Neumann in the mid-20th century, and has since been popularized by writers such as Vernor Vinge and futurists such as Ray Kurzweil.

Yet given we struggle to even define human intelligence in such a clear fashion—let alone human-like agency—AI has meant something less ambitious to many computer scientists. Discussing the topic with various researchers at the Australian National University, it seemed AI had no one overarching paradigm. It was a mix of concepts that covered everything from modelling the ways nervous systems processed information to making programs that mimicked human behavior.

What’s more, there seemed to be a gulf between the ‘synthetic agency’ of the singularity explosion and the ‘artificial intelligence’ as studied by computer scientists. The former presumed the quasi-random, chaotic property of self-awareness would emerge spontaneously from the right mix of coding. The latter was about creating a complex simulacrum of humanity at best, indistinguishable from most humans in interfacing but fundamentally deterministic in programming. One felt kind of mystical, and sort of dualistic in a Rene Descartes kind of way. The other was about the hard reality of studying our neurology, sociology and psychology to make ones and zeroes do weird new things.

To the likes of Stephen Hawking, the emergence of synthetic agency reflects something more like a mystical awakening than the product of a computer model. It presumes this entity will acquire its drive and its values not from a sequence of codes, but from some non-defined, nigh metaphysical realm.

Thinking of our mind as a homunculus driving a meat-machine serves us well in day-to-day life, where the hard questions of consciousness are irrelevant. But reconciling such fields of AI would demand a close look at that uncomfortable question. If a program that fulfills our diverse expectations on intelligence and agency were ever to be constructed, it would mean facing the significance of what in our own minds is determined by our neurological wiring and what—if anything—is the result of immaterial intent, or true free will.

But would such an code-based entity value its own ongoing existence and evolution to the detriment of humanity? Of course, if it becomes possible to build such a mind, it could very well be designed to prioritize actions that could be considered detrimental to humanity at large. However, this is very different to the spontaneous emergence of malevolence.

Like many scientists, those who study AI are often forced to justify their research to the public, whether for funding or to accept the validity of their findings. Few have the celebrity pull of Stephen Hawking, and many already field questions on tired clichés from Terminator’s Skynet to a less than glorious future within The Matrix. As a scientist, one might expect Stephen Hawking would be sympathetic to the impact of influential non-experts speculating wildly on the alarming consequences of technology.

It is unfair of me to single out Professor Hawking, of course. ‘Expert-creep’—the phenomenon of scientists celebrated within one discipline choosing to make public statements on matters outside of their field of experience—is encouraged by our love affair with sound bites and symbolic figureheads in the media. Who can blame him for sharing his whimsical thoughts on aliens and synthetic brains?

Yet in earning the trust of the diverse sections of the public, scientists need to work together, role modelling the respect we all should have for the years of experience many individuals devote to earning the right to an opinion.

Mike McRae

Mike McRae is an Australian science writer and teacher. He has worked for the CSIRO’s education group and developed resources for the Australian government, promoting critical thinking and science education through educational publications. His 2011 book Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs and Bad Ideas explored humanity’s development to think scientifically—and pseudoscientifically—about the universe. Read Mike’s other posts on this blog.

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