technology is a mirror: a few thoughts on the singularity, and seeing ourselves in artificial intelligence
Bonus post this week: While digging through my archives, I rediscovered a piece of mine from 2018. At the time, the technology industry was just nearing the end of a highly-abstract intellectual turf war on the topic of artificial intelligence. Will it kill us all? Will it bring about utopia? Really what we were discussing, I argued, was human nature. Today, I’m realizing how similar this projection is on the topic of blockchain. There are many interesting critiques of Web3, but they have nothing to do with socialism (as defined by TikTok influencers) or equity (as defined by culture war zealots). These are simply the things with which our politicians and intellectual luminaries are presently obsessed.
Rereading Rorschach, I was reminded of how ambitious conversations in tech used to be, and how recently. Thought it worth sharing.
I don’t fear artificial intelligence, I fear people who fear artificial intelligence.
It’s the 1960s. A psychologist stares at his patient — a balding, middle-aged foreman with a cigarette in his hand, and a curl of smoke around him like a halo on an acid trip. The psychologist holds up an inkblot, an ambiguous, black splatter on a white flashcard, and asks his patient what he sees. The thinking is his patient, not willing or otherwise able to express his feelings, his thoughts, his motivations, might inadvertently reveal some piece of his inner self while describing the ambiguous. The foreman doesn’t see a nondescript swiggle, or stain. He sees a man and woman making love, perhaps violently. He sees a mother holding her child. He sees a grisly murder. While the descriptions of these inkblots reveal very little about the world, they reveal a great deal about the man describing them, because when faced with an inscrutable abstract he projects himself onto the ambiguous.
Let’s look at this in the context of artificial intelligence. I’m not talking about self-driving cars, or algorithms serving ads for wallpaper and nice leather boots on Gmail. I’m not talking about the stuff we call artificial intelligence to raise money from bewildered venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road. I’m talking about general artificial intelligence, which is a computer that wants stuff, and chiefly to live. I’m talking about building a conscious machine just smart enough to make itself smarter. From here, the thought experiment runs like this: the conscious machine does make itself smarter, and once it’s smarter, it learns how to make itself smarter, which it does for good measure. The smarter the machine becomes, the faster this pattern repeats itself, and the intelligence of the machine begins to increase exponentially. In this way, a conscious artificial intelligence born on a Tuesday morning might be twice as smart as the smartest man who ever lived by Wednesday afternoon, and omnipotent by Friday. This is how we invent the thing that invents God. In nerd lore, it’s known as the Singularity. The question — the only question that could possibly matter to a human no longer at the top of the intellectual food chain — is what does an exponential intelligence want? Conventional wisdom: it extremely wants to murder you.
The dystopian version of superintelligence is illustrated with frequency by leaders in the technology industry, and is famously depicted by Hollywood in films like Terminator, or more recently Ex Machina, and even the Avengers. The “angry god A.I.” is a story you know, because it is the story you are constantly told: we build the thinking machine, it surpasses our abilities in every way, and it destroys us for one of any number of reasons. Maybe it perceives us as a threat. Maybe we’re just in its way, and it hardly perceives us at all — humanity, a disposable insect race. There are of course many arguments in opposition to the now ubiquitous concept of our apocalypse by artificial intelligence. I myself have called into question the logic of such dystopian arguments in Anatomy of Next. But our subject here is less pertaining to the nature of the conscious machine than it is to the way we talk about this subject, and what it means. First, consider that most of the artificial intelligence depicted in culture looks human, a representation with no basis in technological reality. Then, the true scope of the Singularity is almost impossible to predict, which begs a question: where are these opinions about the broadly unknowable coming from?
There’s an obvious difficulty in trying to understand the hypothetical motivations of a hypothetically god-like intelligence. To your beloved labradoodle, you are a being of immense magic with near unfathomable motivations. You summon light and sound from inanimate matter, soar through the streets on angry metal, cast fire from your hands! The labradoodle’s conception of man is distorted because there is a vast difference between the intelligence of a dog, and the intelligence of a human. Let us name this difference ‘x.’ Now, as we try and understand the difference between the most intelligent human who has ever lived and a hypothetical god-like intelligence born of the Singularity, let us set our difference in intelligence at a conservative ‘1000x.’
How does one even begin to conceive of a being this smart?
Here we approach our inscrutable abstract, and our robot Rorschach test. But in this contemporary version of the famous psychological prompts, what we are observing is not even entirely ambiguous. We are attempting to imagine a greatly-amplified mind. To the question of “mind,” each of us has a particularly relevant data point — our own. In trying to imagine the amplified intelligence, it is natural to imagine our own intelligence amplified. In imagining the motivations of this amplified intelligence, we naturally imagine ourselves. If, as you try to conceive of a future with machine intelligence, a monster comes to mind, it is likely you aren’t afraid of something alien at all. You’re afraid of something exactly like you. What would you do with unlimited power?
Psychological projection seems to work in several contexts outside of general artificial intelligence. In the technology industry the concept of “meritocracy” is now hotly debated. How much of your life is determined by luck, and how much by chance? There’s no answer here we know for sure, but has there ever been a better Rorschach test for separating high-achievers from people who were given what they have? Questions pertaining to human nature are almost open self-reflection. Are we basically good, with some exceptions, or are humans basically beasts, with an animal nature just barely contained by a set of slowly-eroding stories we tell ourselves — law, faith, society. The inner workings of a mind can’t be fully shared, and they can’t be observed by a neutral party. We therefore do not — can not, currently — know anything of the inner workings of people in general. But we can know ourselves. So in the face of large abstractions concerning intelligence, we hold up a mirror.
Not everyone who fears general artificial intelligence would cause harm to others. There are many people who haven’t thought deeply about these questions at all. They look to their neighbors for cues on what to think, and there is no shortage of people willing to tell them. The media has ads to sell, after all, and historically they have found great success in doing this with horror stories. But as we try to understand the people who have thought about these questions with some depth — with the depth required of a thoughtful screenplay, for example, or a book, or a company — it’s worth considering the inkblot.