Tag Archives: Information Technology

How Advanced AI Will Create Figurative (And Literal) Magic

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If you went back 50 years and showed someone your smartphone, chances are they would be amazed. To them, such technology would seem downright alien. However, they probably wouldn’t think it was magic. Go back 500 years, though, and chances are they will think a smartphone is magic, miraculous, or a tool of the devil.

Just look at what a smartphone does and compare it to the magic of old. You can ask it a question and, depending on how well-worded it is, it’ll give you an answer. If you ask it to make food, clothes, or tools appear, it’ll make that happen too. Thanks to services like Amazon and Grubhub, this isn’t magic to most people. In fact, it’s downright mundane.

Granted, these things won’t appear instantly out of thin air, but depending on your willingness to pay for quicker shipping, it will get there. By medieval standards, that’s basically sorcery.

You don’t have too far back in time to appreciate the magic of modern technology. Most of us don’t understand how it works. We don’t know what makes the screens on our phones light up when we push a button or how our car moves when we press the accelerator. We understand that there’s science behind it and it’s not magic. It just feels like it from a certain perspective.

Famed science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, once said that magic is just science we don’t understand. It was one of the three laws he used in contemplating the future. Time and a host of amazing advances have proven the validity of this sentiment. We’ve created materials once thought to be impossible. We’ve uncovered phenomenon that seem to undermine our understanding of physics.

This is to be expected because our understanding of the universe is incomplete. We have some pretty solid theories so far, but there’s still a lot we don’t understand. As we learn more, some of the things we discover may seem magical. Even in a world that is more educated than it has been at any point in human history, there may still be forces that our primate brains just can’t make sense of.

To some extent, it helps that humanity is making these discoveries through their collective effort. It helps us accept a seemingly-impossible idea if it comes from a member of the same species. What happens, though, when we gain knowledge from something that is both not human and many times smarter than the entire human race? Will it seem like magic to us?

I argue that it would. I would also argue that we’ll be seeing this kind of magic sooner than you think. It won’t come from some enigmatic sorcerer with a thick beard, a white robe, and an uncanny resemblance to Ian McKellen. It’ll likely come from the world of advanced artificial intelligence.

In the past, whenever I’ve talked about advanced artificial intelligence, I’ve focused on its potential to fundamentally change our civilization and what it means to be human. I haven’t touched on how it might work, mostly because I’m not nearly smart enough to make sense of it. However, that gives me more in common with the experts than you think.

In the emerging, but rapidly growing field, of artificial intelligence, there’s a strange phenomenon known as black box AI. Simply put, this when we understand the data that goes in and comes out of an AI system. We just don’t know how it went about processing that data. It’s like putting a slab of meat in an oven, pressing a button, and getting a Big Mac without knowing how it was made.

It’s not quite magic, but it’s a manifestation of Arthur C. Clarke’s ideas on science and magic. AI systems today are advancing at a pace that we can’t hope to keep up with. We already have systems that can surpass any human in terms of Jeopardy, chess, and Go. We don’t yet have a system that has the same intellectual capacity of an adult human, but most experts believe we’re well on our way to achieving that.

When that day comes, we may very well have an AI that does more than just process data in ways we don’t understand. Once an AI is capable of matching or exceeding the intellectual capacity of an average human, then it’s likely the black box phenomenon will become more pronounced.

Imagine, for a moment, we had an AI that was smarter than even the smartest human beings on the planet. We go to that AI, we feed it every gigabyte of data we have on human biology, and ask it to surmise a cure for cancer. It takes only a few seconds to process all that data. Then, it spits out the formula for something that has eluded generations of doctors with ease.

We don’t know what form it may take. We may not even fully understand the components of it. However, it still works. From our perspective, it’s akin to a magical healing elixir straight from the world of Tolkein. We assume there’s some sort of science behind it, but we’re utterly baffled by the specifics. We just know it works.

It goes beyond medicine, as well. With an even more advanced AI, we could feed it every one of our most advanced theories about physics, biology, chemistry, and cosmology. We could then ask it to fill in all the gaps. Again, it gives us an answer and suddenly, we have a Theory of Everything.

We probably won’t understand the details. We may find out that we were dead wrong about particle physics, cosmology, or why our cell phone can’t hold a decent charge anymore. The knowledge such a system gives us could end up being so advanced that we literally do not have the intellectual capacity to understand it. It would be like an ant trying to do calculus.

In the same way a magnifying glass must seem like magic to an ant, the knowledge an advanced AI gives us may seem just as extraordinary. That’s especially true if we give that AI access to a 3D printer, a molecular assembler, or anything it could use to actually craft something.

That could be especially dangerous. For all we know, a sufficiently advanced AI could take a stack of dirty dishes and turn it into a nuclear bomb. We would have no idea how it would work. It would, for all intents and purposes, seem like magic to us. This thing would be doing something that our brains and senses tell us is impossible.

As the AI gets more advanced, it’s abilities and feats become more magical. At that point, it’ll be harder to accept that what it does counts as science. These advances are no longer coming from the efforts of people. They’re coming from a machine that’s millions, if not billions, of times smarter than any ordinary human could ever hope to be. How could it not magical from that perspective?

Throughout human history, sane and competent people have believed in magical things. Not long ago, people believed they could talk to the dead. Sir Isaac Newton believed in alchemy. Alfred Russel Wallace believed in literal spirits. Despite these beliefs, there was an important context to all these perspectives.

They emerged out of our collective ignorance of the world around us. We had nothing but our brains and our senses to make sense of it all. Since both can be easily fooled, as any competent street magician will attest, it doesn’t take much to get people to assume magic. An artificial intelligence would circumvent that context because it has something better than magic.

An advanced AI is not bound by the same senses that constantly fool ordinary humans. It doesn’t even have to misdirect or trick us. It only has to show us ideas and concepts that are completely real, but totally incomprehensible. The entire human race could spend a million years trying to understand it and it still wouldn’t be enough. It would still seem like magic to us.

That notion seems scary on paper and more than a few people have voiced concerns about this. However, all that magical thinking will only occur if our human brains remain unchanged and unenhanced. That’s not likely to be the case. Between the emergence of neural implants and the ongoing development of brain/machine interface, we’ll find a way to keep up with AI. If we want to survive as a species, we’ll have to.

Even if we do somehow keep up, there may still be aspects of advanced AI that seem like magic to us. That may always be the case, so long as we retain part of our caveman brains. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. No matter how smart or advanced we get, it helps to see a little magic in the world. With advanced AI, though, the rules for magic are bound to change, among many other things.

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How Artificial Intelligence Will Destroy Democracy (In A Good Way)

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Picture the perfect candidate for an election. I know the bar for politicians these days is laughably low, but try to stretch your imagination a bit. Try to envision the kind of candidate that embodies the best collection of values, abilities, and charisma for a civilized society.

Everybody looks for something different in a candidate, but a truly perfect candidate would appeal to everyone in a democratic system. This person would embody the highest values, championing human rights to the utmost and justice for everyone. Every decision they make is with the safety, sanctity, and rights of other people as their top priority. There’s no compromise. They do right by the people every time and all the time.

This person would also be the ultimate leader, capable of getting anyone to go along with them without fear or coercion. There wouldn’t need to be corruption of any kind. This person would be perfectly capable of navigating every level of government and making it work to the utmost. The people would trust in that government, believe in it, and even celebrate it.

Keep that perfect candidate in the forefront of your mind because when it comes to discussing politics, cynicism tends to rule the day. I don’t think I need to cite too many recent events to show how imperfect democracy is these days. I don’t even need to cite famous historical events that show just how bad government can be in this convoluted world.

It’s because of that cynicism, though, that the perfect candidate you’re thinking of could never win a democratic election in the real world. Even if they existed, the inherent flaws of the electorate and those of less perfect candidates would keep them from winning. It’s one of democracy’s greatest flaws. It’s not about who the best candidate is. It’s just about who can convince enough people that they’re worth voting for.

On the subject of democracy, Winston Churchill once said the following:

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Time, politics, and the proliferation of has only proven Mr. Churchill right. I would even amend that quote to say just 30 seconds on 4chan will make anyone lose faith in the promise of democracy. That’s not to say democracy is all bad, though. Mr. Churchill also once famously said this about the alternatives:

“Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

It’s distressing, but frustrating fact of civilization, one that fuels mass protests, fake news, and lurid scandals. Go back to any point in history and scrutinize any government, be it a king or some quasi-democracy, and chances are you’ll find serious flaws in the system. I don’t just mean long lines at the post office, either. There have been times when democracy has not furthered the protection of human rights.

It’s not necessarily a flawed principle as it is a concept with flawed ingredients. While I tend to place a great deal of faith in the goodness of human nature, I don’t deny that people can be arrogant, irrational, and downright callous. We’re prone to overreacting and not thinking things through. We’re hard-wired to go with intuition over logic.

Even when we’re proven wrong, we stubbornly cling to our assertions. The prevalence of creationism is proof enough of that. Every election cycle is prone to bold promises, bloated melodrama, and major goals that rarely ever become actual policy. Some become full-fledged revolutions with Utopian visions. The fact that none of those utopias ever manifested is proof of how unsuccessful they were.

We are not a species built for democracy on a large scale. We evolved to function in close-knit tribes, hunting and gathering for food while fighting for survival. That kind of evolution doesn’t really lend itself to a functioning democracy. It doesn’t lend itself to a total autocracy, either. Whether it’s a free republic or a fascist state, humans cannot govern other humans without their flaws plaguing them in both directions.

It’s for this reason that I often lean libertarian in political debates, but given the complexities and challenges of modern society, even that only goes so far. Like it or not, large-scale civilizations populated a species not evolved to manage it requires some measure of authority. More importantly, it requires competent, incorruptible, compassionate authority.

It needs to be able to defend a population of people within a particular border. It needs fair and just laws that can be equally enforced. It also needs the confidence and trust of the people being governed. Sometimes, it’s done out of fear. Sometimes, it’s done out of free will. Both can work, provided the system has robust capabilities that aren’t prone to human error.

Unless a government is populated by a democratic council consisting of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Dr. Doom, that kind of functional democracy is physically impossible. Even though democracy is still the best we have from an exceedingly limited list of options, that may change in a big way thanks to artificial intelligence.

I know it seems like I attribute many superhuman capabilities to this emerging field, it’s hard to overstate its potential. Unlike every other tool humanity has created, artificial intelligence promises to rewrite the rules at every level of society. That includes government and it’s here where AI’s capabilities could go beyond superhuman.

Think back to that perfect candidate I mentioned earlier and all the traits that made them perfect. By and large, an advanced artificial intelligence shares many of those traits and then some. A sufficiently powerful AI would be beyond politics, pettiness, or demagoguery. In principle, it could embody everything people would want in a strong leader and a capable government.

For one, it would be smarter than any human. Beyond knowing more about every subject than any human ever could, it would be smart in a way that would allow it to persuade people to trust it. That’s often a skill that even smart politicians fail to refine. It certainly doesn’t help that many voters attribute intelligence with smugness. That’s a big reason why populist candidates of questionable merit gain so much support.

An advanced artificial intelligence, provided it has an in depth understanding of human psychology and how to persuade people, would be able to gain support from everyone. It wouldn’t be bound by the limits that keep most human candidates from appealing to everyone. With enough intelligence and capabilities, it would surmise a way to appeal to everybody.

Beyond just persuading the voters, an AI of that level could be just as effective at actual governance. There are plenty of candidates who are very adept at winning elections, but terrible when it comes to actually governing. A capable AI would be able to do both. If anything, one function would complement the other.

With enough emotional, logistical, and pragmatic intelligence, this AI would be capable of crafting and passing laws without the need for debate or controversy. The laws it crafts are already so refined and so well thought out that to do so would be redundant. In the same time it takes your phone to send a text, this AI could pass sweeping legislation that protects human rights, ensures justice for all, and promotes economic growth.

It’s hard to imagine because the only laws and government we’ve ever known have come from flawed humans. It’s just as hard to imagine how those laws would be enforced. Perhaps this advanced AI has nodes all throughout society that allow it to gather data, know where enforcement is needed, and determine the appropriate recourse. If it’s capable enough, people won’t even know it’s there.

Perhaps that same AI uses a mix of human enforcers and intelligent robots to maintain order. If the AI is sufficiently capable, every enforcer at every level would be equipped with perfect knowledge and a clear understanding of how to carry out the orders of the government. Since an AI wouldn’t be prone to corruption or prejudice, instances of injustices would be few and far between.

It wouldn’t be a totalitarian state of Orwellian proportions. It would be more of a “Star Trek” style, post-scarcity society where we wouldn’t have to be cynical about government authority. We would inherently trust it because it’s just that effective. We wouldn’t feel like we’re being run by a robot dictator. We would feel like we’re being run by the greatest ruler outside of a “Black Panther” movie.

To some extent, though, an advanced artificial intelligence of this nature would render democracy obsolete. If we created an AI that could effectively govern society at every level, then what’s the purpose of having elections in the first place? Why bother when there’s an intelligence that’s literally more capable than any ordinary human could possibly be?

History has shown that democracy and government can only do so much when flawed humans are in charge. Once advanced artificial intelligence enters the picture, the logistics of governance changes entirely.

Perhaps there will be a period in our history where instead of running human candidates, we start creating AI systems that compete with one another in a pseudo-democratic process. That would go a long way towards improving overall governance.

Unlike humans, though, technology evolves much faster than humans ever will and it wouldn’t take long for those systems to improve to a point where they’re just too good an option to overlook. Human-led governments, even in humans who are enhanced to some degree, will still have flaws. In a future where technology, society, and individuals keep creating new challenges, we’ll need a capable government to manage it all.

In the end, that government probably won’t be a democracy. It won’t be a dictatorship, either. It’ll be something that we can’t yet conceptualize. That’s the biggest challenge when contemplating something like an advanced artificial intelligence, though. It operates on a level that ordinary humans literally cannot comprehend. That’s why it’s our best option for governing our future.

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Fake News, AI, And The (Potentially Horrifying) Future Of Media

In one of the most iconic scenes in the famous movie/mindfuck that is “The Matrix,” Morpheus asked Neo a question that has perplexed philosophers, scientists, and stoners for centuries.

“What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

To this day, the answer to that question is incomplete. It’s just as much a mental marathon to Keanu Reeves as it was to Plato in the days of Ancient Greece. Plato had his famous allegory of the cave.  Neo had his existential breakdown after taking the red pill. Everyone else is just waiting for someone to resolve the debate over what is real so they can get back to playing fantasy sports.

The philosophical conflict over what is means to be real is an old, philosophical question with some pretty mind-bending implications. I’ve talked a lot about the frustrating limitations of the human brain, but I’ve tried to avoid some of the more metaphysical questions, if only because I favor stimulating genitals more than minds.

Avoiding these questions has actually been fairly easy for most of human history. That’s because, even in the era of mass media, we can usually trust our senses to tell us whether something is sufficiently real. Even in the era of Photoshop, we can usually figure out when someone is trying to polish reality to an extreme. Sometimes it’s painfully obvious.

Well, now find ourselves entering unknown territory beyond the so-called uncanny valley. We’re just starting to become more aware of the flaws in our brain wiring. Concepts like “alternative facts” and “fake news” are buzzwords that might as well have come from a George Orwell fever dream.

We may not be living in the world of “1984” yet, but we are experiencing the concepts behind it, such as doublethink and newspeak. It’s all too easy these days to find instances of politicians being hypocrites or debates over proper pronouns. These are all elements that undermine our ability to make sense of what’s real.

As hard as it is to understand reality in an era where people get into arguments over the color of a dress, it’s actually about to get even harder. In fact, it’s about to get so distressingly difficult that our caveman brains will be even less reliable than they already are. Those brains already convince us that we have a chance to win the lottery or date Megan Fox. It’s not equipped to handle greater challenges.

It may not have a choice because at the same time we’re adapting to this era of alternative facts and fake news, the pace of technological advancement is accelerating and giving us the finger as it passes us by. The growth of artificial intelligence is already accelerating, so much so that even brilliant people like Stephen Hawking are calling it an existential threat.

Even before we face the prospect of fighting real life terminator robots, though, there’s another issue we’ll have to deal with. Anyone who owns PlayStation 4 or X-box One already has a vague idea of what I mean. Long before computers become smart enough to enslave us, they’ll become powerful enough to fool our senses.

Recently, researchers at the University of Washington accomplished an amazing/terrifying milestone in computer science. They were able to use an artificial intelligence technology to create a completely artificial rendering of former President Barack Obama. Watch this video and you might have a better understanding of how Neo felt after he took that red pill.

It shouldn’t take a dirty imagination that spends a lot of time contemplating sexy stories to realize the implications. It’s hard enough figuring out what’s real, if anything, about a rant by Sean Hannity or a documentary by Michael Moore. How the hell are we going to trust any video image we see if there’s technology that can render images so perfectly that our brains can’t tell the difference?

The short answer is we can’t. The long answer is even more distressing. Picture a world where realistic videos depicting Justin Beiber waving his dick in the face of starving orphans in Uganda surfaces. Picture a world where a realistic video of Kim Kardashian choking a bald eagle to death. With this technology, it won’t just be possible. It might be unavoidable.

Let’s not lie to ourselves. People have agendas and they’ll go to absurd lengths to further that agenda. It’s easy to ignore someone standing on a street corner, wearing a faded Pink Floyd shirt and shouting from a soap box that the CIA is slipping crack into milk. It’s a bit harder when that same person can use a computer to create realistic video showing CIA agents working with washed up rappers on a secret farm in Montana.

We’re already seeing this technology in movies where long-dead actors are coming back to life for iconic roles. There’s no way it’ll stop there. There’s just too much potential for someone to further their agenda. In the era of fake news and alternative facts, we can expect plenty of that potential to be realized.

What does this mean for the future of media? Well, that’s actually pretty damn scary when you think about it. While the technology is still being developed, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes refined. Add this to growing improvements in computer graphics technology and suddenly, you can’t trust any video you see.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s something as simple as a speech by the President or Teddy Roosevelt fighting a grizzly bear. Who’s to say which is real and which is simulated? With enough computing power, both look equally real to our brains.

If you think you might be able uncover the truth through sound, then I’ve got bad news for you. There’s another AI in development that can simulate anyone’s voice, including those of politicians and celebrities. You want to hear Sean Spicer go on an anti-sematic tirade that would make Mel Gibson blush? With this technology, that’s entirely possible.

There may very well come a time in the near future when anything we see and hear from the media is potentially fake. We already have cases of the news media deceptively editing stories to spin the story a particular way. Can you imagine what they’ll do when they can just use a computer to create imagery out of nothing? It might end up giving Alex Jones a heart attack.

These advancements in computer technology couldn’t come at a worse time. Trust in the media is already at an all-time low. Trust in government has been in decline for a half-century. Once the media has tools with which to forge their own reality out of nothing, then people will have even less reason to trust them.

This goes way beyond fake news and propaganda. This technology will allow those in positions of power to literally mold reality in accord with their message. That’s a terrifying thought, especially to anyone who sees the kind of dishonesty that major outlets like Fox News and CNN have exercised.

Now, that’s not to say these false stories will be accepted by anyone with a functioning brain. However, and it’s worth belaboring, our limited human brains will still struggle. We can barely get through a season of “Lost” without getting a headache. What hope do we have in a future when it’s possible to forge a false reality on demand?

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