Technology entrepreneur and author Byron Reese on artificial intelligence and its impact on humankind
From the most basic tools of the past to the complicated machines we use today, technology has changed the course of human history. In the fundamental sense, technology augments our abilities – it helps us to solve problems, and allows us to achieve things that would never have been possible before. But there’s a clear difference between the simple tools used by our distant ancestors and the artificially intelligent computer programmes currently shaping the world: one enhances our bodies, and the other supplements the workings of our brains. This raises a whole host of philosophical questions about the nature of intelligent machines, their ethical use, and the state of humanity itself.
One man who has more than a passing interest on this subject is Byron Reese, GigaOm publisher, futurist, and author of the recent book The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity.
DISRUPTIONHUB spoke to him about humankind’s relationship with technology, why AI is so difficult to define, and how it might just solve all of the world’s problems…
The Fourth Age
In The Fourth Age Reese sets out three concrete points in history where technology has altered the trajectory of human life for good. The first was when we harnessed fire, which led to our use of language – ‘our signature ability as a species.’ The second was the development of agriculture which gave us cities and prosperity. Lastly, we came up with the wheel and writing – two technologies which we needed to create nation states, and ultimately civilisation. These are the three ages of technology which have had the most significant effect on human progress.
According to Reese, we are now entering the Fourth Age, brought about by two modern technologies. One is artificial intelligence, where humans are outsourcing thought, and the other is robotics, where we are outsourcing action. Unlike some of our previous technological advances AI and robots have deep ethical and metaphysical consequences for us as a species. They are causing us to rethink who we are, how we understand ourselves and our place in the world.
Philosophically significant devices
In his book Reese makes the distinction between the simple tools of our past and modern, artificially intelligent computers, which he labels ‘philosophically significant devices.’ The term points to the monumental implications computer intelligence has for the way we understand what it means to be human.
“What do I mean by philosophically significant?” asks Reese. “Consider the wheel. The wheel is a technology that multiplies what we’re able to do. It is what it is. But computers with artificial intelligence are different. We are where we are on this planet because we’re the smartest thing on it and if we’ve effectively made something that a) makes us smarter or b) is smarter than us, that’s a big deal.”
“We don’t even really understand how human thought works, how we encode thoughts in the brain, where creativity comes from – any of that. And if we start building machines that can duplicate what we think is our biggest, most impressive feature, that has huge importance.”
The philosophical impact of these machines is clear, then, but are we right to recreate intelligence when it is something we don’t understand?
“I don’t worry about it,” Reese says. “We use computers to effectively make us smarter, and if that’s not a good thing, then you have to make a very compelling argument in favour of ignorance. Artificial intelligence is a shockingly simple technology. It says let’s take a bunch of data about the past, let’s study it, and make projections about the future. That’s how we all live our lives, we learn from our past how to do things better. I don’t know how that can be spun to be bad.”
The human factor – minds and machines
In spite of the hype, countless influential figures have warned about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Stephen Hawking, for example, famously set out his fears that AI could spell the end of the human race when asked about an update to the software he used to communicate. This being said, whilst current iterations of AI might be steadily improving, they are far from the all powerful computer overlords that could one day threaten our existence.
At the moment, our use of AI is confined to so called narrow, or weak programmes capable of doing single tasks such as identifying faces, counting objects, or processing speech. For artificial intelligence to match or surpass human intelligence, we would need to come up with a computer that could think and act in the versatile, creative and nuanced ways that we can. This is known as broad, or general AI. But is it even possible? Many people think so, but Reese is not convinced.
“I host the podcast called Voices in AI with people in the AI world,” he says, “and if you ask them if it’s possible, 95 per cent would say yes. They wouldn’t even consider it an open question and they would base that – not because anybody knows how to do it – but on the simple idea that people are machines. So if you are a machine and your brain is a machine and your mind – whatever that is – is a machine, human consciousness is mechanistic and it stands to reason that at some point we can build a mechanical you. Then eventually we’ll be able to make a better version of that.”
“However I find it to be an unproven point in the extreme because we have these brains and we don’t know how they encode a thought. There’s a worm called the nematode worm and it’s got 302 neurons in its brain and people have been trying for twenty years to model those 302 neurons and make a digital worm. The consensus among them isn’t even that that’s possible.”
“Then we have minds. The mind is everything your brain can do that seems kind of mysterious. I mean, your liver doesn’t have a sense of humour, but somehow your brain does – so where did that come from? Similarly we have consciousness and people say we don’t know what that is. But we know exactly what it is, we just don’t know how it comes about. It is the experience of being you. It is that you can feel warmth but a computer can only measure temperature. Whatever that difference is, that’s consciousness.”
“By my way of looking at things, if we have brains we don’t understand that give rise to minds we don’t understand, and we exhibit consciousness, which is said to be the last great scientific question – but we don’t even know how to ask it scientifically nor what the answer would look like… To say we can build that? I don’t find it persuasive in the least.”
An ethical use of AI
As artificial intelligence becomes more widespread in our everyday lives, debate rages about its ethical use. From Google’s promise not to build warfare technology with AI, to questions around a possible universal code of AI ethics, these conversations are gathering steam. However, they are framed in terms which are themselves difficult to define. When Google says that AI must be accountable to people, for example, what does this mean? What is it to be ‘accountable’? To what extent does this apply, and to which people? Such ethical statements often raise as many questions as they purport to answer.
One possible interpretation of this phrase is that human beings should have ultimate authority over artificially intelligent machines. This involves being the final arbiter of our own choices and actions, and taking responsibility for them. In spite of this, as Reese notes, we do already allow machines to make decisions for us. In the modern world we are consistently placed under their influence, and as the impact of their decisions grows, we might find ourselves in uncomfortable territory.
“When your GPS says turn right, you turn right,” he says. “And sometimes – I don’t know about you – but I think, I’m not sure if it’s right here but I’m going to do it anyway, because my experience is that it is usually right. So AI does make decisions for us. It happens all day long. Every day your spam filter puts things in the spam folder for you, aeroplanes fly themselves, your thermometer changes the temperature in the room that you’re in… But in the end, I don’t think you can use that to shirk responsibility somehow. Somebody programmed it to do something and that is a human decision always. One would have to look at the programming behind the killer robot to decide who’s responsible for the robot killing.”
Frank and Sam
The other side of the ethical debate on the use of AI is the way we relate to these machines ourselves. As Reese notes, our human quality of empathy and our tendency to anthropomorphise plays havoc with the way we treat certain machines – even when we know they aren’t really intelligent beings.
“There was a man named Weizenbaum back in the sixties who wrote a chatbot called ELIZA,” he says. “You might say to the chatbot, ‘I’m sad today and it would say ‘why are you sad?’ And you would say ‘I’m sad because of my mother’ to which it would reply, ‘why did your mother make you sad?’ It was super simple and people knew it was a chatbot. But Weizenbaum saw them pouring their heart out to it. This disturbed him and he thought that we really shouldn’t use machines, that digital empathy is a bad thing. He said, when the computer says, ‘I understand’ it’s just a lie. There’s no ‘I’ and there’s nothing that understands anything.”
“The only reason this really concerns me, and it may be unwarranted, is that we’ve had a barbaric past and slowly we’ve managed to build something called human rights. The idea is there are things you just do not do to another human. And if we start making things that look and act like humans that we do treat with no regard, then I wonder if that can have a numbing effect on how we treat people. For example, I have on my desk Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant and I cut them off mid sentence all the time.”
“I think we ought to be very cautious with things that we make behave like humans. Children raised on artificial empathy would not be a particularly good thing. I mean, in Star Wars you had R2D2 and C3PO. Just think of the subtle differences there would be in the movies if their names had been Frank and Sam. Until we decide machines are sapient and sentient and can feel, I am uncomfortable giving them human like capabilities under the fear that it would numb us towards actual human suffering.”
To return to the positive implications of AI, it is no exaggeration to state that it is one of the best tools we will ever have to improve our world. Technology that allows us to collect, analyse and understand huge amounts of data gives us not only the ability to understand the reason things are the way they are, but also the means to make change. This is why AI, along with other forms of modern technology, will be instrumental in transforming the future of humanity for the better. Reese agrees.
“I think the world is full of two kinds of problems,” he states. “There is a group that is purely technical. You can look at it and say that it doesn’t have to exist, that it only exists because we don’t know how to solve it. Disease would be an example of that. There’s no reason you have to have disease. We eliminated smallpox, we almost eliminated polio. There’s another class of problems that are wrapped up in human flaws, and technology doesn’t help a lot with those. But the whole class of purely technical problems – hunger, disease, poverty, ageing… I believe technology will solve them.”
Although a world without these problems might currently seem like a pipe dream, Reese believes that we will in fact be the ones to get there.
“For several thousand years,” he says, “utopians have always dreamed that someday we would have a world of plenty. I believe very deeply that we are going to be the generation that achieves it. Technology does this amazing thing that nobody understands, but it doubles in capability on a predictable basis. So computers double in capability every two years, but it turns out all manner of technology does – not every two years perhaps, but it doubles and doubles and doubles.”
“And so, if we don’t have the capability to solve some technical problem today, just wait a couple of years. It may have taken four thousand years to build that computer on your desk, but in two years it’ll be twice as good. Not good enough? Two more years, twice as good, twice as good – ad infinitum.”
If our technological capabilities have no end, it follows that the abilities of the human race are limitless. For Reese, this is a defining principle for our future.
“Technology will only stop advancing in theory if you think we’ll ever know everything,” he states. “My first book was called Infinite Progress because I believe that we can perpetually improve technology, make ourselves more productive and end all of these problems. Some day we’ll wake up and we won’t be able to imagine a world any better than the one we have. I think that is the most compelling aspect of the rise of technology.”
Such visions for a better future are an antidote to the many fears surrounding the rise of modern technology. For all our worries about machines taking our jobs, or even taking over the world, framing the technology conversation in such optimistic terms is more than just good PR. It highlights the real, tangible benefits that our technological advances can offer us as a species. With big issues such as climate change, poverty and disease threatening our survival, it’s fortunate that we have technology to fight them with. Welcome to the Fourth Age.
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