The Threat of Alien, Mediocre AI

Kevin Kelly has an article in the newest issue of Wired: The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World. Thanks to Randy Sargent and David Brooks’ post in the New York Times for making me aware of this excellent piece.  Kelly spends far longer discussing where AI is headed rather than just what the three breakthroughs happen to be.  His characterization of AI is very similar to the one I espouse of robotics: the AI coming right now is not some singularity-borne hyper-conscious entity that bests us all; it is the somewhat useful, only moderately intelligent AI subsystems that will be infused in everything around us, whether in the Net or the physical world:

The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services—cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off. This common utility will serve you as much IQ as you want but no more than you need.

In a way, you can think of AI as an IQ booster- a turbocharger that will be added to all sorts of products and services swirling around us. But then, it’s not human assistance from a full-fledged NI standing next to us. It is code, with very limited capabilities. Consider how walking amongst robots in the park is simply unlike walking amongst humans, since robots are simply alien- we just don’t know as much about their provenance as we do about humans. Kelly says just the same thing about these AI’s that will commonly deal with us:

The chief virtue of AIs will be their alien intelligence.

He quotes a medical diagnostics founder saying that a child born today will rarely see a (human) doctor for diagnoses in his adult life- that the AI systems will be far better at this. I already have experienced poor human bedside manner in my life. How will our relationship to medicine change in this possible future, where bedside manner is altogether laughable?

One final quote, because I have long argued that robotics will give us a crisis of identity regarding what we consider human. This problem is not just philosophical, but a problem of power relationships: after all, if robots consistently replace ever-greater numbers of physical and cognitive labor, what is it that we will do, as humans, to earn income?  The same problem faces us with AI, as IQ supplied by non-humans constantly changes our relationship to our own sense of what makes humans special, and how we ought to be treating the humans surrounding us.

We’ll spend the next decade—indeed, perhaps the next century—in a permanent identity crisis, constantly asking ourselves what humans are for.

So, as David Brooks points out, all these trends points toward the concentration of knowledge in power in the hands of the few companies with the AI’s in tow. We continue the never-ending slide from human labor to human-invented capital that replaces that very labor. Except now the very labor we consider needs to grow broad, covering ever greater cognitive fields, from medecine and tutoring to friendship and companionship.   I think it’s time to reread Player Piano.

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