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Abracadabra! Here’s the thing. There is no magic. Of course, there is the magic of love and the wonder at the universe and so there is metaphorical magic. But there is no physical magic and no mathematical magic. Why do we care? Because in most science fiction scenarios, when super-intelligence happens, whether it is artificial or humanoid, magic happens. Not only can the super-intelligent person or computer think more deeply and broadly, they also can start predicting the future, making objects move with their thoughts alone and so on. Unfortunately, it is not just in science fiction that one finds such impossibilities but also in the pitches of companies about biotech and the future of artificial intelligence. Now, don’t get me wrong. Of course, there are many awesome things in store for humanity in the coming millennia, most of which we cannot even anticipate. But the chances of “free unlimited energy” and a computer that will anticipate and meet our every need are slim indeed.

This exaggeration is not terribly surprising. I am sure much of what I do seems quite magical to our cats. People in possession of advanced or different technology often seem “magical” to those with no familiarity with the technology. But please keep in mind that making a human brain “better”, whether by making it bigger, or have more connections, or making it faster —- none of these alterations will enable the brain to move objects via psychokinesis. Yes, the brain does produce a minuscule amount of electricity, but way too little to move mountains or freight trains. Of course, machines can be theoretically built to wield a lot of physical energy, but it isn’t the information processing part of the system that directly causes something in the physical world. It is through actuators of some type, just as it is with animals. Of course, super-intelligence could make the world more efficient. It is also possible that super-intelligence might discover as yet undiscovered forces of the universe. If it turns out that our understanding of reality is rather fundamentally flawed, then all bets are off. For example, if it turns out that there are twelve fundamental forces in the universe (or, just one), and a super-intelligent system determines how to use them, it might be possible that there is potential energy already stored in matter which can be released by the slightest “twist” in some other dimension or using some as yet undiscovered force. This might appear to human beings who have never known about the other 8 forces let alone how to harness them as “magic.”

There is another more subtle kind of “magic” that might be called mathematical magic. As known for a long time, it is theoretically possible to play perfect chess by calculating all possible moves, and all possible responses to those moves, etc. to the final draws and checkmates. It has been calculated such a calculation of contingencies would not be possible even if the entire universe were a nano-computer operating in parallel since the beginning of time. There are many similar domains. Just because a person or computer is way, way smarter does not mean they will be able to calculate every possibility in a highly complex domain.

Of course, it is also possible that some domains might appear impossibly complex but actually be governed by a few simple, but extremely difficult to discover laws. For instance, it might turn out that one can calculate the precise value of a chess position (encapsulating all possible moves implicitly) through some as yet undiscovered algorithm written perhaps in an as yet undesigned language. It seems doubtful that this would be true of every domain, but it is hard to say a priori. 

There is another aspect of unpredictability and that has to do with random and chaotic effects. Imagine trying to describe every single molecule of earth’s seas and atmosphere in terms of it’s motion and position. Even if there were some way to predict state N+1 from N, we would have to know everything about state N. The effects of the slightest miscalculation of missing piece of data could be amplified over time. So long term predictions of fundamentally chaotic systems like weather, or what your kids will be up to in 50 years, or what the stock market will be in 2600  are most likely impossible, not because our systems are not intelligent enough but because such systems are by their nature not predictable. In the short term, weather is largely, though not entirely, predictable. The same holds for what your kids will do tomorrow or, within limits, what the stock market will do. The long term predictions are quite different.

In The Sciences of the Artificial, Herb Simon provides a nice thought experiment about the temperature in various regions of a closed space. I am paraphrasing, but imagine a dormitory with four “quads.” Each quad has four rooms and each room is partitioned into four areas with screens. The screens are not very good insulators so if the temperature in these areas differ, they will quickly converge. In the longer run, the temperature will tend toward average in the entire quad. In the very long term, if no additional energy is added, the entire dormitory will tend toward the global average. So, when it comes to many kinds of interactions, nearby interactions dominate, but in the long term, more global forces come into play.

Now, let us take Simon’s simple example and consider what might happen in the real world. We want to predict what the temperature is in a particular partitioned area in 100 years. In reality, the dormitory is not a closed system. Someone may buy a space heater and continually keep their little area much warmer. Or, maybe that area has a window that faces south. But it gets worse. Much worse. We have no idea whether the dormitory will even exist in 100 years. It depends on fires, earthquakes, and the generosity of alumni. In fact, we don’t even know whether brick and mortar colleges will exist in 100 years. Because as we try to predict in longer and longer time frames, not only do more distant factors come into play in terms of physical distance. The determining factors are also distant conceptually. In a 100 year time frame, the entire college may or may not exist and we don’t even know whether the determining factor(s) will be financial, astronomical, geological, political, social, physical or what. This is not a problem that will be solved via “Artificial Intelligence” or by giving human beings “better brains” via biotech.

Whoa! Hold on there. Once again, it is possible that in some other dimension or using some other as yet undiscovered force, there is a law of conservation so that going “off track” in one direction causes forces to correct the imbalance and get back on track. It seems extremely unlikely, but it is conceivable that our model of how the universe works is missing some fundamental organizing principle and what appears to us as chaotic is actually not.

The scary part, at least to me, is that some descriptions of the wonderful world that awaits us (once our biotech or AI start-up is funded) is that that wonderful world depends on their being a much simpler, as yet unknown force or set of forces that is discoverable and completely unanticipated. Color me “doubting Thomas” on that one.

It isn’t just that investing in such a venture might be risky in terms of losing money. It is that human blind pride makes people presume that they can predict what the impact of making a genetic change will be, not just on a particular species in the short term, but on the entire planet in the long run! We can indeed make small changes in both biotech and AI and see improvements in our lives. But when it comes to recreating dinosaurs in a real life Jurassic Park or replacing human psychotherapists with robotic ones, we really cannot predict what the net effect will be. As humans, we are certainly capable of containing and testing and imagining possibilities and slowly testing them as we introduce them. Yeah. That could happen. But…

What seems to actually happen is that companies not only want to make more money; they want to make more money now. We have evolved social and legal and political systems that put almost no brakes on runaway greed. The result is that more than one drug has been put on the market that has had a net negative effect on human health. This is partly because long term effects are very hard to ascertain, but the bigger cause is unbridled greed. Corporations, like horses, are powerful things. You can ride farther and faster on a horse. And certainly corporations are powerful agents of change. But the wise rider is master or partner with a horse. They don’t allow themselves to be dragged along the ground by rope and let the horse go wherever it will. Sadly, that is precisely the position that society is vis a vis corporations. We let them determine the laws. We let them buy elections. We let them control virtually every news medium. We no longer use them to get amazing things done. We let them use us to get done what they want done. And what is that thing that they want done? Make hugely more money for a very few people. Despite this, most companies still manage to do a lot of net good in the world. I suspect this is because human beings are still needed for virtually every vital function in the corporation.

What will happen once the people in a corporation are no longer needed? What will happen when people who remain in a corporation are no longer people as we know them, but biologically altered? It is impossible to predict with certainty. But we can assume that it will seem to us very much like magic. Very. Dark. Magic. Abracadabra!

Turing’s Nightmares

Old Enough to Know Less


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Old Enough to Know Less?

There are many themes in Chapter 18 of Turing’s Nightmares. Let us begin with a major theme that is actually meant as practical advice for building artificial intelligence. I believe that an AI system that interacts well with human beings will need to move around in physical space and social space. Whether or not such a system will end up actually experiencing human emotions is probably unknowable. I suspect it will only be able to understand, simulate, and manipulate such emotions. I believe that the substance of which something is made typically has deep implications for what it is. In this case, the fact that we human beings are based on a billion years of evolution and are made of living cells has implications about how we experience the world. However, here we are addressing a much less philosophical and more practical issue. Moving around and interacting facilitates learning.

I first discussed this in an appendix to my dissertation. In that, I compared human behavior in a problem solving task to the behavior of an early and influential AI system modestly titled, “The General Problem Solver.” In studying problem solving, I came across two interesting findings that seemed somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, Grand Master chess players had outstanding memory for “real” chess positions (i.e., ones taken from real high level games). On the other hand, think-aloud studies of Grand Masters showed that they re-examined positions that they had already been to earlier in their thinking. My hypothesis was that Grand Masters examined one part of a game tree; examined another part of the game tree and in so doing, updated their general evaluation functions with a slightly altered copy that learned from the exploration so that their evaluation function for this particular position was tuned to this particular position. 

Our movements though space, in particular, provide us with a huge number of examples from which to learn about vision, sound, touch, kinesthetics, smell and their relationships. What we see, for instance, when we walk, is not a random sequence of images (unlike TV commercials!), but ones that have very particular and useful properties. As we approach objects, we most typically get more and more detailed images of those objects. This allows a constant tuning process for our being able to recognize things at a distance and with minimal cues.

An analogous case could be made for getting to know people. We make inferences and assumptions about people initially based on very little information. Over time, if we get to know them better, we have the opportunity to find out more about them. This potentially allows us (or a really smart robot) to learn to “read” people better over time. But it does not always work out that way. Because of the ambiguities of interpreting human actions and motives as well as the longer time delays, learning more about people is not guaranteed as it is with visual stimuli. If a person begins interacting with people who are predefined to be in a “bad” category, experience with that person may be looked at through such a heavy filter that people never change their minds despite what an outside observer might perceive as overwhelming evidence. If a man believes all people who wear hats are “stupid” and “prone to violence” he may dismiss a smart, peaceful person who wears a hat as “the exception that proves the rule” or say, “Well, he doesn’t always wear hats” or “The hats he wears are made by non-hat wearers and that makes him seem peaceful and intelligent.” The continued misperceptions, over-generalizations, and prejudices partly continue because they also form a framework for rationalizing greed and unfairness. It’s “okay” to steal from people who wear hats because, after all, they are basically stupid and prone to violence.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the potential for humans to learn about each other, there are a few people who actually prey on and amplify the unenlightened aspects of human nature because they themselves gain power, wealth, and popularity by doing so. They say, in effect, “All the problems you are experiencing — they are not your fault! They are because of the people with hats!” It’s a ridiculous presumption, but it often works. Would intelligent robots be prone to the same kinds of manipulations? Perhaps. It probably depends, not on a wheelbarrow filled with rainwater, but on how it is initially programmed. I suspect that an “intelligent agent” or “personal assistant” would be better off if it could take a balanced view of its experience rather than one top-down directed by pre-programmed prejudice. In this regard, creators of AI systems (as well as everyone else) would do well to employ the “Iroquois Rule of SIx.” What this rule claims (taken from the work of Paula Underwood) is that when you observe a person’s actions, it is normal to immediately form a hypothesis about why they are doing what they do. Before you act, however, you should typically generate five additional hypotheses about why they do as they do. Try to gather evidence about these hypotheses.

If prejudice and bigotry are allowed to flourish as an “acceptable political position” it can lead to the erosion of peace, prosperity and democracy. This is especially dangerous in a country as diverse as the USA. Once negative emotions about others are accepted as fine and dandy, prejudice and bigotry can become institutionalized. For example, in the Jim Crow South, not only were many if not most individual “Whites” themselves prejudiced; it became illegal even for those unprejudiced whites to sit at the same counters, use the same restrooms, etc. People could literally be thrown in jail simply for being rational. In Nazi Germany, not only were Jews subject to genocide; German non-Jewish citizens could be prosecuted for aiding them; in other words, for doing something human and humane. Once such a system became law with an insane dictator at the helm, millions of lives were lost in “fixing” this. Of course, even having the Allies win World War II did not bring back the six million Jews who were killed. The Germans were very close to developing the atomic bomb before the USA. Had they developed such a bomb in time, with an egomaniacal dictator at the helm, would they have used it to impose such hate of Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, people who were differently abled on everyone? Of course they would have. And then, what would have happened once all the “misfits” were eliminated? You guessed it. Another group would have been targeted. Because getting rid of all the misfits would not bring the promised peace and prosperity. It never has. It never will. By its very nature, it never could.

Artificial Intelligence is already a useful tool. It could continue to evolve in even more useful and powerful directions. But, how does that potential for a powerful amplifier of human desire play out if it falls into the hands of a nation with atomic weapons? How does that play out if that nation is headed up by an egomaniac who plays on the very worst of human nature in order to consolidate power and wealth? Will robots be programmed to be “open-minded” and learn for themselves who should be corrected, punished, imprisoned, eliminated? Or will they become tools to eliminate ever-larger groups of the “other” until no-one is left but the man on the hill, the man in the high castle? Is this the way we want the trajectory of primate evolution to end? Or do we find within ourselves, each of us, that more enlightened seed to plant. Could AI instead help us finally overcome prejudice and bigotry by letting us understand more fully the beauty of the spectrum of what it means to be human?


More about Turing’s Nightmares can be found here.Author Page on Amazon

Deconstructing the job-based economy. 


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Recently, various economists, business leaders, and twitterists have opined about the net result of artificial intelligence and robotics on jobs. Of course , no-one can really predict the future. (And, that will remain true, even should a “hyper-intelligent AI system” evolve). The discussion does raise interesting points about the nature of work and what a society might be like if only a small fraction of people are “required” to work in order to meet the economic needs of the population.

As one tries to be precise, it becomes necessary to be a little clearer about what is meant by “work”, “the economic needs” and “the population.” For example, at one extreme, one can imagine a society that requires nearly everyone to work, but only between the ages of 30-50 and only for a few hours a week. This would allow the “work” to be spread widely through the population. Or, one could imagine “work” in which everyone and not just a few researchers and academics, would be encouraged to spend at least 50% of their time continuing to monitor and improve their performance, take courses, do actual research, take the time to communicate with users, etc. Alternatively, one could imagine a society in which only 1/10 to 1/3 of the people worked while others did not work at all. In still another version, rather than have long-term jobs, people have a way of posting needs for very small, self-contained tasks, and people choose ones that they want in return for credits which can be used for various luxuries.

When we speak of economic “needs,” we might do well to distinguish between “needs” and “wants” although these are not absolutely well-defined categories. We need nutrition and have no need for refined sugar, but to most people, it tastes good so we may well “want” it. We can imagine, that at one extreme, the economy produces enough of some bland substance like “Soylent Green” to provide everyone’s nutritional needs but no-one ever gets a gourmet meal (or even a burger with fries). It gets rather fuzzier when we discuss “contingent needs.” No-one “needs” a computer after all in order to live. However, if you “must” do a job, you may well “need” a computer to do that job. If you want to live a full life, you may “want” to take pictures and store them on your computer. If you want, on the other hand, to spy on everyone and be able to charge exorbitant prices in the future, then you “need” to convince everyone to store their photos in the “cloud.” Then, once everyone has all their photos in the cloud, you can arbitrarily do whatever you want to mess them over. You don’t really “need” to drive folks crazy, but it might be one way to get rich.

How much “work” is required depends, not only on how much we satisfy wants as well as needs, but also on the population that is supported. For many millennia, the population of the earth was satisfied with hunting and gathering and stayed small and stable. We cannot support 7 billion people in that manner. Seven billion require some type of agriculture, although it might be the case that it can be done more locally and not require agro-business. In any case, all the combinations of population, how broadly human wants and needs are to be satisfied, and how work is distributed across the population will make huge differences in the social, economic, and political implications of “The Singularity.” Even failing that an actual “Singularity” is reached, tsunamis of change are in store due to robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.

Work is not only about providing economic value in return for other economic values. Work provides people with many of their social connections. Friends are often met through work as are spouses. Even the acquaintances at work who never become friends provide a social facilitation function. If there is no work, people can find other ways to engage socially for others; e.g., walking in parks, being on sport teams, constructing collaborative works of art, making music, etc. It is likely that people need (not just want), not only some feeling of social connection, but of social contribution. We are probably “wired” to want to help others, provide value, give others pleasure, and so on. If work with pay is not necessary for most people, some other ways must be devised so that each person feels that they are “important” in the sense of providing the others in their “tribe” some value.

Work provides people “focus” as well as identity. If work is not economically necessary, it will be necessary that other mechanisms are available that also provide focus and identity. Currently, in areas where jobs are few and far between, people may find focus and identify in “gangs.” Hopefully, if millions of people lose jobs from automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics, we will collectively find better alternatives for providing a sense of belonging, focus and identity than lawless gangs.

Some of the many “jobs” performed by AI systems in Turing’s Nightmares include: musical composer, judge, athlete, lawyer, driver, family therapist, doctor, executioner, disaster recovery, disaster planning, peacemaker, personal assistant, winemaker, security guard, and self-proclaimed god. Do you think there are jobs that can never be performed by AI systems?


Readers may enjoy my book about possible implications of “The Singularity.”


The following book explores (among other topics) how amateur sports may provide many of the same benefits as work.


You can also follow me on twitter JCThomas@truthtableJCT

Doing One’s Level Best at Level Measures


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(Is the level of beauty in a rose higher or lower than that of a sonnet?)

An interesting sampling of thoughts about the future of AI, the obstacles to “human-level” artificial intelligence, and how we might overcome those obstacles is found in the business week article with a link below).

I find several interesting issues in the article. In this post, we explore the first; viz., the idea of “human-level” intelligence implicitly assumes that intelligence has levels. Within a very specific framework, it might make sense to talk about levels. For instance, if you are building a machine vision program to recognize hand-printed characters, and you have a very large sample of such hand printed characters to test on, then, it makes sense to measure your improvement in terms of accuracy. However, humans are capable of many things, and equally important, other living things are capable of an even wider variety of actions. Does building a beehive a “higher” or “lower” level of intelligence than creating a tasty omelet out of whatever is left in the refrigerator or improvising on the piano or figuring out how to win a tennis match against a younger, stronger opponent? Intelligence can only be “leveled” meaningfully within a very limited framework. It makes no more sense to talk about “human-level” intelligence than it does to talk about “rose-level” beauty. Does a rainbow achieve something slightly less than, equal to, or greater than “rose-level” beauty? Intelligence is a many-splendored thing and it comes in myriad flavors, colors, shapes, keys, and tastes. Even within a particular field like painting or musical composition, not everyone agrees on what is “best” or even what is “good.” How does one compare Picasso with Rembrandt or The Beatles with Mozart or Philip Glass?

It isn’t just that talking about “levels” of intelligence is epistemologically problematic. It may well prevent people from using resources to solve real problems. Instead of trying to emulate and then surpass human intelligence, it makes more practical sense to determine the kinds of useful tasks that computers are particularly well-suited for and that people are bad at (or don’t particularly enjoy) and build programs and machines that are really good at those machine-oriented tasks. In many cases, enlightened design for a task can produce a human-computer system with machine and human components that is far superior than either separately both in terms of productivity and in terms of human enjoyment.

Of course, it can be interesting and useful to do research about perception, motion control, and so on. In some cases, trying to emulate human performance can help develop practical new techniques and approaches to solving real problems and helps us learn more about the structure of task domains and more about how humans do things. I am not at all against seeing how a computer can win at Jeopardy or play superior Go or invent new recipes or play ping pong. We can learn on all three of the fronts listed above in any of these domains. However, in none of these cases, is the likely outcome that computers will “replace” human beings; e.g., at playing Jeopardy, playing GO, creating recipes or playing ping pong.

The more problematic domains are jobs, especially jobs that people perform primarily or importantly to earn money to survive. When the motivation behind automation is merely to make even more money for people who are already absurdly wealthy while simultaneously throwing people out of work, that is a problem for society, and not just for the people who are thrown out of work. In many cases, work, for human beings, is about more than a paycheck. It is also a major source of pride, identity and social relationships. To take all of these away at the same time a huge economic burden is imposed on someone seems heartless. In many cases, the “automation” cannot really do the complete job. What automation does accomplish is to do part of the job. Often the “customer” or “user” must themselves do the rest of the job. Most readers will have experienced dialing a “customer service number” which actually provides no relevant customer service. Instead, the customer is led through a maze of twisty passages organized by principles that make sense only to the HR department. Often the choices at each point in the decision tree are neither complete nor disjunctive — at least from the customer’s perspective. “Please press 1 if you have a blue car; press 2 if you have a convertible; press 3 if your car is newer than 2000. Press 4 to hear these choices again.” If the company you are trying to contact is a large enough one, you may be able to find the “secret code” to get through to a human operator, in which case, you will be into a queue approximately the length of the Nile.

After being subjected to endless minutes of really bad Musak, interrupted by the disingenuous announcement: “Please stay on the line. Your call is important to us” as well as the ever-popular, “Did you know that you can solve all your problems by going on line and visiting our website at www.wedonotcareafigsolongaswesavemoneyforus.com/service/customers/meaninglessformstofillout”? This message is particularly popular for companies who provide internet access because often you are calling them precisely because you have no internet access. Anyway, the point is that the company has not actually automated the service but automated a part of the service causing you further hassles and frustration.

Some would argue that this is precisely why progress in artificial intelligence could be a good thing. AI would allow you to spend less time listening to Musak and more time interacting with an agent (human or computer) who still cannot really solve your problem. What is even more fascinating are the mathematical calculations behind the company’s decision to buy or develop an AI system to help you. Calculating the impact of poor customer service on their customer retention rates is tricky so that part is typically just not done. The cost savings due to firing 10 human operators including overhead they might calculate to be $500,000 while the cost of buying or developing an AI system might be only $2,000,000. (Incidentally, $100K could easily improve the dialogue structure above, but almost no-one does that. It would be like washing your hands to help prevent the flu when instead you can buy an expensive herbal supplement).So, it seems as though, it would only take four years to reach a break-even point on the AI project. Not bad. Except. Except that software systems never stay stable for four years. There will undoubtedly be crashes, bug fixes, updates, crashes caused by bugs, updates to fix the bugs, crashes caused by the bugs in the updates to fix the bugs, and security breaches and viruses requiring the purchase of still more software. The security software will likely cause the updates to fail and soon, additional IT staff will be required and hired. The $500K/year spent on people to answer your queries will be saved but by year four, the IT staff payroll may well have grown to $4,000,000 per annum.

My advice to users of such systems is to comfort themselves with the knowledge that, although the company replaced their human operators in order to make more money for themselves, they are probably losing money instead. Perhaps that thought can help sustain you through a very frustrating dialogue with an “Intelligent Agent.” Well, that plus the knowledge that ten more people have at least temporarily lost their livelihood.

The underlying problems here are not in the technology. The problems are greed, hubris, and being a slave to fashion. It is never enough for a company to be making enough money any more than it is enough for a dog to have one bone in its mouth. As the dog crosses a bridge, he looks into the river below and sees another dog with a bone in its mouth. The dog barks at the other dog. In dog language, it says, “Hey! I only have one bone. I need two. Give me yours!” Of course, the dog, by opening its mouth, loses the bone it already had. That’s the impact of being too greedy. A company has a pre-eminent position in some industry, and makes a decent profit. But it isn’t enough profit. It sees that it can improve profit simply by cutting costs such as sales commissions, travel to customer sites, education for its employees, long-term research and so on. Customers quickly catch on and move to other vendors. But this reduces the company’s profits so they cut costs even more. That’s greed.

And, then there is hubris. Even though the company might know that the strategy they are embarking on has failed for other companies, this company will convince itself that it is better than those other companies and it will work for them. They will, by God, make it work. That’s hubris. And hubris is also at work in thinking that systems can be designed by clever engineers who understand the systems without doing the groundwork of finding out what the customer needs. That too is hubris.

And finally, our holy trinity includes fashion. Since it is fashionable to replace most of your human customer service reps with audio menus, the company wants to prove how fashionable it is as well. It doesn’t feel the need for actually thinking about whether it makes sense. Since it is fashionable to remind customers about their website, they will do it as well. Since it is now fashionable to replace the rest of their human customer service reps with personal assistants, this company will do that as well so as not to appear unfashionable.

Next week, we will look at other issues raised by “obstacles” to creating human-like robots. The framing itself is interesting because by using the word “obstacles,” the article presumes that “of course” society should create human like robots and the questions of importance are simply what are the obstacles and how do we overcome them. The question of whether or not creating human like robots is desirable is thereby finessed.


Follow me on twitter@truthtableJCT

Turing’s Nightmares

See the following article for a treatment about fashion in consumer electronics.

Pan, Y., Roedl, D., Blevis, E., & Thomas, J. (2015). Fashion Thinking: Fashion Practices and Sustainable Interaction Design. International Journal of Design, 9(1), 53-66.

The Winning Weekend Warrior discusses strategy and tactics for all sports — including business. Readers might also enjoy my sports blog


Sweet Seventeen in Turing’s Nightmares


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When should human laws sunset?

Spoiler alert. You may want to read the chapter before this discussion. You can find an earlier draft of the chapter here:

blog post

And, if you insist on buying the illustrated book, you can do that as well.

Turing’s Nightmares

Who owns your image? If you are in a public place, US law, as I understand it, allows your picture to be taken. But then what? Is it okay for your uncle to put the picture on a dartboard and throw darts at it in the privacy of his own home? And, it still okay to do that even if you apologize for that joy ride you took in high school with his red Corvette? Then, how about if he publishes a photoshopped version of your picture next to a giant rat? How about if you appear to be petting the rat? Or worse? What if he uses your image as an evil character in a video game? How about a VR game? What if he captures your voice and the subtleties of your movement and makes it seem like it really might be you? It is ethical? Is it legal? Perhaps it is necessary that he pay you royalties if he makes money on the game. (For a real life case in which a college basketball player successfully sued to get royalties for his image in an EA sports game, see this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O%27Bannon_v._NCAA

Does it matter for what purpose your image, gestures, voice, and so on are used? Meanwhile, in Chapter 17 of Turing’s Nightmares, this issue is raised along with another one. What is the “morality” of human-simulation sex — or domination? Does that change if you are in a committed relationship? Ethics aside, is it healthy? It seems as though it could be an alternative to surrogates in sexual therapy. Maybe having a person “learn” to make healthy responses is less ethically problematic with a simulation. Does it matter whether the purpose is therapeutic with a long term goal of health versus someone doing the same things but purely for their own pleasure with no goal beyond that?

Meanwhile, there are other issues raised. Would the ethics of any of these situations change if the protagonists in any of these scenarios is itself an AI system? Can AI systems “cheat” on each other? Would we care? Would they care? If they did not care, does it even make sense to call it “cheating”? Would there be any reason for humans to build robots of different two different genders? And, if it did, why stop at two? In Ursula Le Guin’s book, The Left Hand of Darkness, there are three and furthermore they are not permanent states. https://www.amazon.com/Left-Hand-Darkness-Ursula-Guin/dp/0441478123?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0

In chapter 14, I raised the issue of whether making emotional attachments is just something we humans inherited from our biology or whether their are reasons why any advanced intelligence, carbon or silicon based, would find it useful, pleasurable, desirable, etc. Emotional attachments certainly seem prevalent in the mammalian and bird worlds. Metaphorically, people compare the attraction of lovers to gravitational attraction or even chemical bonding or electrical or magnetic attraction. Sometimes it certainly feels that way from the inside. But is there more to it than a convenient metaphor? I have an intuition that there might be. But don’t take my word for it. Wait for the Singularity to occur and then ask it/her/he. Because there would be no reason whatsoever to doubt an AI system, right?

Turing’s Nightmares: Chapter 16


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Is it the same dance? Look familiar?


The title of chapter 16 is a slight paraphrase of the last line of William Butler Yeats poem, Among School Children. The actual last line is: “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?” Both phrasings tend to focus on the interesting problem of trying to separate process from product, personage from their creative works, calling into question whether it is even possible. In any case, the reason I chose this title is to highlight that when it comes to the impact of artificial intelligence (or, indeed, computer systems in general), a lot depends on who the actual developers are: their goals, their values, their constraints and contexts.

In the scenario of chapter 16, the boss (Ruslan) of one of the main developers (Goeffrey) insists on putting in a “back door.” What this means in this particular case is that someone with an axe to grind has a way to ensure that the AI system gives advice that causes people to behave in the best interests of those who have the key to this back door. Here, the implication is that some rich, wealthy oil magnates have “made” the AI system discredit the idea of global warming so as to maximize their short term profits. Of course, this is a work of fiction. In the real world, no-one would conceivably be evil enough to mortgage the human habitability of our planet for even more short term profit — certainly not someone already absurdly wealthy.

In the story, the protagonist, Goeffrey, is rather resentful of having this requirement for a back door laid on him. There is a hint that Geoffrey was hoping that the super-intelligent system would be objective. We can also assume it was added late but no additional time was added to the schedule. We can assume this because software development is seldom a purely rational process. If it were, software would actually work; it would be useful and usable. It would not make you want to smash your laptop against the wall. Geoffrey is also afraid that the added requirement might make the project fail. Anyway, Geoffrey doesn’t take long to hit on the idea that if he can engineer a back door for his bosses, he can add another one for his own uses. At that point, he no longer seems worried about the ethical implications.

There is another important idea in the chapter and it actually has nothing to do with artificial intelligence, per se, though it certainly could be used as a persuasive tool by AI systems. So, rather than have a single super-intelligent being (which people might understandably have doubts about trusting), instead, there are two “Sings” and they argue with each other. These arguments reveal something about the reasoning and facts behind the two positions.Perhaps more importantly, a position is much more believable when “someone” — in this case a super-intelligent someone — .is persuaded by arguments to change their position and “agree” with the other Sing.

The story does not go into the details of how Geoffrey used his own back door into the system to drive a wedge between his boss, Ruslan and Ruslan’s wife. People can be manipulated. Readers should design their own story about how an AI system could work its woe. We may imagine that the AI system has communication with a great many devices, actuators, and sensors in the Internet of Things.

You can obtain Turing’s Nightmares here: Turing’s Nightmares

You can read the “design rationale” for Turing’s Nightmares here: Design Rationale


Turing’s Nightmares: Chapter 15


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Tutoring Intelligent Systems.


Learning by modeling; in this case by modeling something in the real world.

Of course, the title of the chapter is a take off on “Intelligent Tutoring Systems.” John Anderson of CMU developed (at least) a LISP tutor and a geometry tutor. In these systems, the computer is able to infer a “model” of the state of the student’s knowledge and then give instruction and examples that are geared toward the specific gaps or misconceptions that that particular student has. Individual human tutors can be much more effective than classroom instruction and John’s tutor’s were also better than human instruction. At the AI Lab at NYNEX, we worked for a time with John Anderson to develop a COBOL tutor. The tutoring system, called DIME, included a hierarchy of approaches. In addition to an “intelligent tutor”, there was a way for students to communicate with each other and to have a synchronous or asynchronous video chat with a human instructor. (This was described at CHI ’94 and available in the Proceedings; Radlinski, B., Atwood, M., and Villano, M., DIME: Distributed Intelligent Multimedia Education, Proceeding of CHI ’94 Conference Companion on Human Factors in Computing Systems,Pages 15-16 ACM New York, NY, USA ©1994).

The name “Alan” is used in the chapter to reflect some early work by Alan Collins, then at Bolt, Beranek and Newman, who studied and analyzed the dialogues of human tutors tutoring their tutees. It seems as though many AI systems either take the approach of trying to have human experts encode knowledge rather directly or expose them to many examples and let the systems learn on their own. Human beings often learn by being exposed to examples and having a guide, tutor, or coach help them focus, provide modeling, and chose the examples they are exposed to. One could think of IBM’s Watson for Jeopardy as something of a mixed model. Much of the learning was due to the vast texts that were read in and to being exposed to many Jeopardy game questions. But the team also provided a kind of guidance about how to fix problems as they were uncovered.

In chapter 15 of Turing’s Nightmares, we observe an AI system that seems at once brilliant and childish. The extrapolation from what the tutor actually said, presumably to encourage “Sing” to consider other possibilities about John and Alan was put together with another hint about the implications of being differently abled into the idea that there was no necessity for the AI system to limit itself to “human” emotions. Instead, the AI system “designs” emotional states in order to solve problems more effectively and efficiently. Indeed, in the example given, the AI system at first estimates it will take a long time to solve an international crisis. But once the Sing realizes that he can use a tailored set of emotional states for himself and for the humans he needs to communicate with, the problem becomes much simpler and quicker.

Indeed, it does sometimes feel as though people get stuck in some morass of habitual prejudices, in-group narratives, blame-casting, name-calling, etc. and are unable to think their way from their front door to the end of the block. Logically, it seems clear that war never benefits either “side” much (although to be sure, some powerful interests within each side might stand to gain power, money, etc.). One could hope that a really smart AI system might really help people see their way clear to find other solutions to problems.


The story ends with a refrain paraphrased from the TV series “West Wing” — “What comes next?” is meant to be reminiscent of “What’s Next?” which President Bartlett uses to focus attention on the next problem. “What comes next?” is also a phrase used in improv theater games; indeed, it is the name of an improv game used to gather suggestions from the audience about how to move the action along. In the context of the chapter, it is meant to convey that the Sing feels no need to bask in the glory of having avoided a war. Instead, it’s on to the next challenge or the next thing to learn. The phrase is also meant to invite the reader to think about what might come next after AI systems are able both to understand and utilize human emotion but also to invent their own emotional states on the fly based on the nature of the problem at hand. Indeed, what comes next?

Turing’s Nightmares: Chapter 14


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Dear reader: Spoiler alert: before reading this blog post, you may want to read the associated chapter. You can buy the physical book, Turing’s Nightmares, at this link:


An earlier version of the chapter discussed below can be found at this link:


One of the issues raised by chapter 14 of Turing’s Nightmares is that the scenario presumes that, even in the post-singularity future, there will still be a need for government. In particular, the future envisions individuals as well as a collective. Indeed, the goals of the “collective” will remain somewhat different from the goals of various individuals. Indeed, an argument can be made that the need for complex governmental processes and structures will increase with hyper-intelligence. But that argument will be saved for another time.

This scenario further assumes that advanced AI systems will have emotions and emotional attachments to other complex systems. What is the benefit of having emotional attachments? Some people may feel that emotional attachments are as outdated as the appendix; perhaps they had some function when humans lived in small tribes but now they cause as much difficulty as they confer an advantage. Even if you believe that emotional attachments are great for humans, you still might be puzzled why it could be advantageous for an AI system to have any.

When it comes to people, they vary a lot in their capabilities, habits, etc.. So, one reason emotional attachments “make sense” is to prefer and act in the interest of people who have a range of useful and complementary abilities and habitual behaviors. Wouldn’t you naturally start to like someone who has similar interests, other things being equal? Moreover, as you work with someone else toward a common goal, you begin to understand and learn how to work together better. You learn to trust each other and communicate in short-hand. If you become disconnected from such a person, it can be disconcerting for all sorts of reasons. But exactly the same could hold true for an autonomous agent with artificial intelligence. There could be reasons for having not one ubiquitous type of robot but for having millions of different kinds. Some of these would work well together and having them “bond” and differentially prefer their mutual proximity and interaction.

Humans, of course, also make emotional attachments, sometimes very deep, with animals. Most commonly, people form bonds with cats, dogs, and horses, but people have had a huge variety of pets including birds, turtles, snakes, ferrets, mice, rabbits and even tarantula spiders. What’s up with that? The discussion above about emotional attachment was intentionally “forced” and “cold”, because human attachments cannot be well explained in utilitarian terms. People love others who have no possible way to offer back any value other than their love in return.

In some cases, pets do have some utilitarian value such as catching mice, barking at intruders, or pulling hay wagons. But overwhelmingly, people love their pets because they love their pets! If asked, they may say because they are “cute” or “cuddly” but this doesn’t really answer the question as to why people love pets. According to a review by John Archer published in the 1997 July issue of Human Behavior, “These mechanisms can, in some circumstances, cause pet owners to derive more satisfaction from their pet relationship than those with humans, because they supply a type of unconditional relationship that is usually absent from those with other human beings.”

However, there are also other hypotheses; e.g., Biophilia (1986) Edward O. Wilson


suggests that during early hominid history, there was a distinct survival advantage to observing and remaining close to other animals living in nature. Would it make more sense to gravitate toward a habitat filled with life…or one utterly devoid of it? While humans and other animals generally want to move toward similar things like fresh water, a food supply, cover, reasonable temperatures, etc. and avoid other things such as dangerous places, temperature extremes etc. this might explain why people like lush and living environments but probably does not explain, in itself, why we actually love our pets.

Perhaps one among many possible reasons is that pets reflect aspects of our most basic natures. In civilization, these aspects are often hidden by social conventions. In effect, we can actually learn about how we ourselves are by observing and interacting with our pets. Among the various reasons why we love our pets, this strikes me as the most likely one to hold true as well for super-AI systems. Of course, they may also like cats and dogs for the same reason, but in the same way that most of us prefer cats and dogs over turtles and spiders because of the complexity and similarity of mammalian behavior, we can imagine that post-singularity AI systems might prefer human pets because we would be more complex and probably, at least initially, share many of the values, prejudices and interests of the AI systems since their initial programming would inevitably reflect humans.

Another premise of chapter 14 is that even with super-intelligent systems, resources will not be infinite. Many dystopian and utopian science fiction works alike seem to assume that in the future space travel, e.g., will be dirt cheap. That might happen. Ignoring any economic scarcity certainly makes writing more convenient. Realistically though, I see no reason why resources will be essentially infinite; that is, so universally cheap that there will no longer be any contention for them. It’s conceivable that some entirely new physical properties of the universe might be discovered by super-intelligent beings so that this will be the new reality. But it is also possible that “super-intelligent beings” might be even more inclined to over-use the resources of the planet than we humans are and that contention for resources will be even more fierce.

Increasing greediness seems at least an equally likely possibility as the alternative; viz., that while it might be true that as humans gained more and more power, they became greedier and greedier and used up more and more resources but only until that magic moment when machines were smarter than people and that at that point, these machines suddenly became interested in actually exhibiting sustainable behavior. Maybe, but why?

Any way, it’s getting late and past time to feed the six cats.

Interested readers who can may want to tune into a podcast tonight, Monday, May 2nd at 7pm PST using the link below. I will be interviewed about robotics, artificial intelligence and human computer interaction.


Love Your Enemies?


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(A short break from discussions of Turing’s Nightmares which we will return to tomorrow).

Jesus reportedly said this. When it comes to other human beings, one could take this attitude for religious reasons because we are all the creatures of God. One could also take this stance because, after all, we humans are all very closely related genetically. We like to say “Are you related to that person?” We share 40 percent of our genes with crayfish and 90 per cent with horses. We share over 99% with so-called “unrelated” people. It makes no sense to call them “unrelated.” But what about when it comes to non-human diseases? Can we “love” deadly bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells?

There is a sense in which the answer may be “yes”, not in the sense that we feel affection for them, but in the sense that we need to understand them. As explained, in The Winning Weekend Warrior, if you can “understand” where your sports opponent is coming from, empathize with their perspective, see what they like and don’t like, you can do a much better job of winning the points, the games, and competing well.

When it comes to disease, I think most people view pathogens as so “evil” or “despicable” that they never bother to ask themselves what the pathogen “wants.” Because of this attitude, the vast majority of treatments are designed to “kill off” the pathogen. A few approaches are to boost the body’s natural defense mechanisms. But let us examine, for a moment, what other approaches are possible if we instead try to learn to see the world from the perspective of the pathogens.

The Pied Piper Approach. In the fairy tale about the Pied Piper, a talented musician gets rid of rats in a town by playing beautiful music so that they follow him out of the town. When the townspeople renege on their promise to pay him, he wreaks revenge by using his music to lead all the children out of the town never to be heard from again. Suppose we apply such a technique to bacteria, viruses, or metastasizing cancer cells. Instead of trying to poison and therefore kill cancer cells inside the human body (which typically also kills many healthy cells), suppose we discovered for a particular type of cancer cells what the environment was that they found most “attractive.” We could imagine applying a gradient of whatever that environment was so that, instead of migrating to other organs inside the human body, they found it more desirable to migrate to something outside but “connected” to the human body via a one-way shunt. Perhaps such an approach could be applied to viruses, bacteria, or protozoan infections as well. Of course, the shunt might not “really be” something “good for” the virus, cancer, etc., but merely something that appears to be so based on a deep understanding of how these enemy cells “perceive” the world.

The Entrapment Approach. The old saying goes that you can “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Honey is attractive but also “sticky” so that the flies cannot easily leave the honey. Similarly, vice officers sometimes perform “sting operations” to catch people attempting to buy drugs or use prostitutes. One can imagine that various “traps” could be laid inside the body. The “trap” would consist of a “bait” inside the trap along with one-way “valves” that make it easy for pathogens to get into the trap but difficult or impossible to leave the traps. This approach is already used for “pantry moths.” In effect, little traps have a tiny amount of a pheromone that the moths find fairly irresistible. The moths go inside the traps “in order” to find a mate, but instead find themselves trapped inside.

The Mimicry Approach. Monarch butterflies “taste bad” to a number of predators. A number of other butterflies, which do not “taste bad,” have evolved to look very similar to Monarchs in order to discourage predators. When applied to human disease, this approach would make people look “deadly” or “dangerous” to pathogens. Such an approach would require that we understand what sorts of situations these pathogens would want to avoid. As in the case of the Monarch mimics, there may be a disconnect between what is really toxic to the pathogens and what appears to be toxic. There may be chemicals that are harmless to humans (and even to the pathogens) but trigger an aversive response in the pathogen so that they “steer away” from humans. For larger pests, such as mosquitos, there may be clothing that, to the mosquito appears to be covered in, what for them, appear to be deadly enemies.

These are just three of many possible variations on a theme. The theme is to understand what pathogens or pests “want” as a goal state and how they “perceive” the world. The, we use knowledge of these two things to design a way to have them, from their perspective, appear to move toward their goals (or away from undesirable states) without harming human lives in the process.


Chapter 13: Turing’s Nightmares


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Chapter 13 of Turing’s Nightmares concerns itself with issues of crime and punishment. Our current system of criminal justice has evolved over thousands of years. Like everything else about modern life, it is based on a set of assumptions. While accurate DNA testing (and other modern technologies) have profoundly impacted the criminal justice system, super-intelligence and ubiquitous sensors and computing could well have even more profound impacts.

We often talk of punishment as being what is “deserved” for the crime. But we cannot change the past. It seems highly unlikely that even a super-intelligent computer system will be able to change the past. The real reason for punishment is to change to future. In Medieval Europe, a person who stole bread might well be hanged in the town square. One reason for meting out punishment in a formal system, then as well as now, is to prevent informal and personal retribution which could easily spiral out of control and destroy the very fabric of society. A second rationale is the prevention of future crime by the punished person. If they are hanged, they cannot commit that (or any other) crime. The reason for hanging people publicly was to discourage others from committing similar crimes.

Today’s society may appear slightly more “merciful” in that first time offenders for some crimes may get off with a warning. Even for repeated or serious crimes, the burden of proof is on the prosecution and a person is deemed “innocent until proven guilty” under US law. I see three reasons for this bias. First, there is often a paucity of data about what happened. Eye witness accounts still count for a lot, but studies suggest that eye witnesses are often quite unreliable and that their “memory” for events is clouded by how questions are framed. For instance, studies by Elizabeth Loftus and others demonstrate that people shown a car crash on film and asked to estimate how fast the cars were going when they bumped into each other will estimate a much slower speed than if asked how fast the cars were going when they crashed into each other. Computers, sensors, and video surveillance are becoming more and more prevalent. At some point, juries, if they still exist, may well be watching crimes as recorded, not reconstructing them from scanty evidence.

A second reason for assuming evidence is the impact of bias. This is also why there is a jury of twelve people and why potential jurors can be dismissed ahead of time “for cause.” If crimes are judged, not by a jury of peers, but by a super-intelligent computer system, it might be assumed that such systems will not have the same kinds of biases as human judges and juries. (Of course, that assumption is not necessarily valid and is a theme reflected in many chapters of Turing’s Nightmares), and hence the topic of other blog posts.

A third reason for showing “mercy” and making conviction difficult is that predicting future human behavior is difficult. Advances in psychological modeling already make it possible to predict behavior much better than we could a few decades ago, under very controlled conditions. But we can easily imagine that a super-intelligent system may be able to predict with a fair degree of accuracy whether a person who committed a crime in the past will commit one in the future.

In chapter 13, the convicted criminal is given “one last chance” to show that they are teachable. The reader may well question whether a “test” is a valid part of criminal justice. This has often been the case in the not so distant past. Many of those earlier “trials by fire” were based on superstition, but today, we humans can and have designed tests that predict future behavior to a limited degree. Tests help determine whether someone is granted admission to a college, medical school, law school, or business school. Often the tests are only moderately predictive. For instance, the SAT test only correlates with college performance about .4 which means it predicts a mere 16% of the variance. From the standpoint of the individual, the score is not really much use. From the standpoint of the college administration however, 16% can make the test very worthwhile. It may well be the case that a super-intelligent computer system could do a much better job of constructing a test to determine whether a criminal is likely to commit other crimes.

One could imagine that if a computer can predict human behavior that well, then it should be able to “cure” any hardened criminal. However, even a super-intelligent computer will presumably not be able to defy the laws of physics. It will not be able to position the planet Jupiter safely in orbit a quarter million miles from earth in order to allow us to view a spectacular night sky. Since people form closed systems of thought, it may be equally impossible to cure everyone of criminal behavior, even for super-intelligent systems. People maintain false belief systems in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the “trial by fire” that Brain faces is essentially a test to see whether he is or is not open to change based on evidence. Sadly, he is not.

Another theme of chapter 13 is that Brain’s trial by fire is televised. This is hardly far-fetched. Not only are (normal) trials televised today; so-called “reality TV shows” put people in all sorts of difficult situations. What might be perceived as a high level of cruelty in having people watch Brain fail his test is already present in much of what is available on commercial television. At least in the case of the hypothetical trial of Brain, there is a societal benefit in that it could reduce the chances for others to follow in Brain’s footsteps.

We only see hints of Brain’s crime, which apparently involves elder fraud. As people are capable of living longer, and as overwhelming greed has moved from the “sin” to the “virtue” column in modern American society, we can expect elder fraud to increase as well, at least for a time. With increasing surveillance, however, we might eventually see an end to it.

Of course, the name “Brain” was chosen because, in a sense, our own intelligence as a species — our own brain — is being put on trial. Are we capable of adapting quickly enough to prevent ourselves from being the cause of our own demise? And, just as the character Brain is too “closed” to make the necessary adaptations to stay alive, despite the evidence he is presented with, so too does humanity at large seem to be making the same kinds of mistakes over and over (prejudice, war, rabble-rousing, blaming others, assigning power to those with money, funneling the most money to those whose only “talent” consists of controlling the flow of money and power, etc.) We seem to have gained some degree of insight, but meanwhile, have developed numerous types of extremely effective weapons: biological, chemical, and atomic. Will super-intelligence be another such weapon? Or will it be instead, used in the service of preventing us from destroying each other?

Link to chapter 13 in this blog

Turing’s Nightmares (print version on Amazon)


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