Monday, November 17, 2014

Jason Lanier on the Myth of AI

Views from The Edge

Lanier is always thoughtful and often provocative in a constructive way. I happen to agree with him, here:
The usual sequence of thoughts you have here is something like: "so-and-so," who's a well-respected expert, is concerned that the machines will become smart, they'll take over, they'll destroy us, something terrible will happen. They're an existential threat, whatever scary language there is. My feeling about that is it's a kind of a non-optimal, silly way of expressing anxiety about where technology is going. The particular thing about it that isn't optimal is the way it talks about an end of human agency.
But it's a call for increased human agency, so in that sense maybe it's functional, but I want to go little deeper in it by proposing that the biggest threat of AI is probably the one that's due to AI not actually existing, to the idea being a fraud, or at least such a poorly constructed idea that it's phony. In other words, what I'm proposing is that if AI was a real thing, then it probably would be less of a threat to us than it is as a fake thing. 
What do I mean by AI being a fake thing? That it adds a layer of religious thinking to what otherwise should be a technical field. Now, if we talk about the particular technical challenges that AI researchers might be interested in, we end up with something that sounds a little duller and makes a lot more sense.
For instance, we can talk about pattern classification. Can you get programs that recognize faces, that sort of thing? And that's a field where I've been active. I was the chief scientist of the company Google bought that got them into that particular game some time ago. And I love that stuff. It's a wonderful field, and it's been wonderfully useful.
But when you add to it this religious narrative that's a version of the Frankenstein myth, where you say well, but these things are all leading to a creation of life, and this life will be superior to us and will be dangerous ... when you do all of that, you create a series of negative consequences that undermine engineering practice, and also undermine scientific method, and also undermine the economy.
The problem I see isn't so much with the particular techniques, which I find fascinating and useful, and am very positive about, and should be explored more and developed, but the mythology around them which is destructive. I'm going to go through a couple of layers of how the mythology does harm. 
The most obvious one, which everyone in any related field can understand, is that it creates this ripple every few years of what have sometimes been called AI winters, where there's all this overpromising that AIs will be about to do this or that. 

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