Four Recent Books About The Rise of the Machines

Prototype humanoid robots at the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Osaka, Japan

Prototype humanoid robots at the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Osaka, Japan

There has been a lot of discussion about the rise of intelligent machines in the last year. Here are 4 recent books about the subject with a brief description of each.

Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, by James Barrat:

At the heart of film maker Barrat’s book is the prophecy of the British mathematician I.J. Good, a colleague of Alan Turing. Good reasoned that once machines became more intelligent than humans, then the machines would design other machines leading to an intelligence explosion which would leave humans far behind. Is this true? What Barrat finds is that almost half of experts in the field expected intelligent machines within 15 years, and a large majority expected them shortly thereafter.  Barrett concludes that this intelligence explosion will lead almost immediately to the singularity, although we have no idea what these machines will do.

Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress, by Charles T Rubin:

The political philosopher Rubin’s book explores the roots of our desire to use technology to alter the human condition. This urge has aided humans greatly in the past, but Rubin believes that technologically-minded idealists regard humanity as a problem. This is a mistake, he believes, and allowing machines to make our decisions is problematic. Instead of improving us, our technology might supplant us; it would be like a hostile alien invader.

Smarter Than Us: The Rise of Machine Intelligence, by Stuart Armstrong:

Armstrong is a fellow of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford who has thought hard about how superintelligence could be made to be “friendly.” He argues that it would be difficult to communicate with alien beings that have computer minds. We might ask it to rid the planet of violence, and it would rid the planet of us! The point is that values are hard to explain, since they are based on, among other things, common sense and unstated assumptions. To turn those values into programming code would be extraordinarily challenging, and to avoid catastrophe, we could not make mistakes.

In Our Own Image: Will Artificial Intelligence Save or Destroy Us?, by George Zarkadakis:

Most of our ideas about what it would be like to live with superintelligences comes from science fiction, says the AI researcher George Zarkadakis. There can be little doubt that science fiction stories and metaphors have influenced us. As a result, we tend to anthropomorphize in order to make sense of our technology. We imagine robots like Schwarzenegger’s Terminator; we imagine robots and superintelligences with human qualities. But intelligence machines won’t be human, they will not share our evolutionary history, they will not have brains like ours. So who knows their goals and values; who knows how they will regard humans. Perhaps they will have no need for us.

All these books worry that intelligent machines might destroy us, even if only inadvertently. Moreover, many AI researchers aren’t even concerned about the problem of creating friendly AIs. In fact, a large part of AI research is dedicated to developing robots for war—to developing unfriendly AI. Surely things might go wrong if we create mostly machines that kill humans. All of these authors believe that we should be worried.


Prison Reform and Karl Menninger’s, The Crime of Punishment

It is hard to adequately condemn the American system of incarceration. It is applied so unfair, so draconian, so unjust, and applied so ubiquitously as to be literally beyond the understanding of civilized persons. Our descendents will look back with horror at the barbarity of the American prison system and its high-tech dungeons. I would encourage all good people to work for prison reform. Here is a list of the many organizations that currently work for prison reform. 

Hopefully, as we progress morally and scientifically, we will adopt a therapeutic model for anti-social behavior, rather than our archaic retributionist model. Then we will finally understand what Karl Menninger was talking about more than 50 years ago in his profound book: The Crime of Punishment.

Does Time Speeds Up As You Age?

The above video suggests that time speeds up as you age. On first reflection, this seems true. I’ve just turned 60, and time seems to pass faster now than when I was younger. As a child a day in school seemed to take forever, but so too did summer vacation. Today a school year seems to fly by for this professor. When I was a kid I thought something twenty years ago was prehistoric, now twenty years ago was 1995. And 1995 seems downright futuristic compared to the 1960s I remember. 

Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College has also found that the idea that objective time is speeding up as you age is illusory. “On the whole, most of us perceive short intervals of time similarly, regardless of age.” However, “when researchers asked the subjects about the 10-year interval, older subjects were far more likely than the younger subjects to report that the last decade had passed quickly.” So “Why … do older people look back at long stretches of their lives and feel it’s a race to the finish?”

Friedman’s answer is similar to Hammond’s. When you learn something for the first time, says a child, it takes time to learn and “you are forming a fairly steady stream of new memories of events, places and people.” Then as an adult when “you look back at your childhood experiences, they appear to unfold in slow motion probably because the sheer number of them gives you the impression that they must have taken forever to acquire.”

But this is merely an illusion, the way adults understand the past when they look through the telescope of lost time. This, though, is not an illusion: almost all of us faced far steeper learning curves when we were young. Most adults do not explore and learn about the world the way they did when they were young; adult life lacks the constant discovery and endless novelty of childhood.

“Studies have shown that the greater the cognitive demands of a task, the longer its duration is perceived to be,” so perhaps ” learning new things might slow down our internal sense of time.” This may also be part of the solution to the apparent speeding up of time as we age:

if you want time to slow down, become a student again. Learn something that requires sustained effort; do something novel. Put down the thriller when you’re sitting on the beach and break out a book on evolutionary theory or Spanish for beginners or a how-to book on something you’ve always wanted to do. Take a new route to work; vacation at an unknown spot. And take your sweet time about it.

I think this is right. We can squeeze a bit more out of life by continually developing. After all, the art of staying young is in large part a matter of continually learning new truths, and unlearning old falsehoods.

Game Theory and the Prisoner’s Dilemma in One Page

 Game Theory

For our purposes, a game is an interactive situation in which individuals, called players, choose strategies to deal with each other in attempting to maximize their individual utility. There are several ways of distinguishing games including: 1) in respect to the number of players involved; 2) in respect to the number of repetitions of play; 3) in respect of the order of the various player’s preferences over the same outcomes. On the one extreme are games of pure conflict, so-called zero-sum games, in which players have completely opposing interests over possible outcomes. On the other extreme are games of pure harmony, so-called games of coordination. In the middle are games involving both conflict and harmony in respect of others. It is one particular game that interests us most, since it describes the situation in Hobbes’ state of nature, and is the central problem in contractarian moral theory.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma is one of the most widely debated situations in game theory. The story has implications for a variety of human interactive situations. A prisoner’s dilemma is an interactive situation in which it is better for all to cooperate rather than for no one to do so, yet it is best for each not to cooperate, regardless of what the others do.

In the classic story, two prisoners have committed a serious crime but all of the evidence necessary to convict them is not admissible in court. Both prisoners are held separately and are unable to communicate. The prisoners are called separately by the authorities and each offered the same pro-position. Confess and if your partner does not, you will be convicted of a lesser crime and serve one year in jail while the unrepentant prisoner will be convicted of a more serious crime and serve ten years. If you do not confess and your partner does, then it is you who will be convicted of the more serious crime and your partner of the lesser crime. Should neither of you confess the penalty will be two years for each of you, but should both of you confess the penalty will be five years. In the following matrix, you are the row chooser and your partner the column chooser. The first number in each parenthesis represents the “payoff” for you in years in prison, the second number your partner’s years. Let us assume each player prefers the least number of years in prison possible. In matrix form, the situation looks like this:

Prisoner 2

    Confess  Don’t Confess
 Prisoner 1 Confess (5, 5) (1, 10)
Don’t Confess (10, 1) (2, 2)

So you reason as follows: If your partner confesses, you had better confess because if you don’t you will get 10 years rather than 5. If your partner doesn’t confess, again you should confess because you will only get 1 year rather than 2 for not confessing. So no matter what your partner does, you ought to confess. The reasoning is the same for your partner. The problem is that when both confess the outcome is worse for both than if neither confessed. You both could have done better, and neither of you worse, if you had not confessed! You might have made an agreement not to confess but this would not solve the problem. The reason is this: although agreeing not to confess is rational, compliance is surely not rational!

We have now come full circle to Hobbes. The prisoner’s dilemma represents the situation in the state of nature. If the prisoners cooperate, they both do better; if they do not cooperate, they both do worse. But both have a good reason not to cooperate; they are not sure the other will! We can only escape this dilemma, Hobbes maintained, by installing a coercive power that makes us comply with our agreements (contracts). Gauthier argues, as we saw earlier, for the rationality of voluntary non-coerced cooperation and compliance with agreements given the costs to each of us of enforcement agencies. We need to embrace what he calls “morals by agreement.”

Hobbes’ Political and Ethical Theories in Two Pages

Hobbes and the Social Contract

Moving in western culture from the ancient and medieval periods into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we approach modernity. The discovery of the new world, developments in commerce and industry, the Reformation, the scientific revolution, and the rise of the secular alongside the decline of Christianity transformed western civilization. Inevitably, natural law theory would be scrutinized. The major figures of the period–Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), John Locke (1632-1704) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)–all tried, in one way or another, to reconcile the new secular ideas with traditional Christian morality. But the most revolutionary of all the new theorists was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who believed that ethical norms were not to be found in God’s cosmic plan but in our social and political agreements.

Hobbes detested violence. He had read Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and had personally witnessed the decades of English civil war which culminated with the beheading of Charles II. The desire to avoid war motivated both his moral and political thought. Hobbes’ philosophy began by considering what the world would be like without morality. He believed that it would be a state of nature; a terrible place without art, literature, commerce, industry, or culture. Most terrifying of all, it would be a place of “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of [humans] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But why would it be so bad?

In the first place, Hobbes believed that human beings endeavor desperately to fulfill their desires for food, clothing, shelter, power, honor, glory, comfort, pleasure, self-aggrandizement, and a life of ease. Unfortunately, such things do not exist in abundance; they are scarce. In addition, he believed that persons were relatively equal in their power. Given desires, scarcity, relative power equality, and the predominant sense of self-interest all human beings exhibit, Hobbes concluded that human beings, in a state of nature, would be engaged in a fierce struggle over scarce resources. Individuals would attack, steal, destroy and invade to protect themselves and prove their status. Thus, Hobbes’ first thesis: the state of nature is a state of war.

Hobbes’ second thesis was that individuals in a state of nature have no a priori (natural, before experience) moral law that obligates them to constrain their behavior. For Hobbes, self-preservation justified the use of force and fraud to defend ourselves in a state of nature. In this state, only the power of others limited what we can do. Hobbes called this the right of nature. But this state is antithetical to our survival and so the desire for self-preservation expressed itself in another way which was Hobbes’ third thesis: fear of death and the desire for a good life incline us toward peace. Hobbes called this the law of nature. Morality was defined by articles of peace, essentially, the rules to which any rational self-interested person would agree. The state of nature demands that we follow one of the two formulations of the self-preservation principle. In the state of nature, we should exercise our right of nature; in the state of peace, we should follow the law of nature. These laws of nature bear no resemblance to the medieval concept of natural law; they simple demand self-preservation. In other words, morality is the set of rules that make peaceful living possible.

This led to Hobbes’ fourth thesis: though it is in our own interest to agree to the articles of peace; it is not rational to comply with our agreements unless some coercive power forces us. Otherwise, we might feign agreement and, when the other complies, violate the accord. To prevent this, a coercive power must ensure that we comply with our agreements. This agreement between individuals to establish the laws that make communal living possible and an agency to enforce those laws is called the social contract.

A Theory of Morality

While issues surrounding the nature of the coercive agency which guarantees compliance with the social contract lead to political theory, the agreed-upon rules constitute morality. Morality is the agreed-upon, mutually advantageous conventions which, assuming others’ compliance, make society possible. Thus, self-interest ultimately justifies morality. We can see easily that killing, lying, cheating, and stealing are prohibited since they threaten society and are not in anyone’s self-interest. Whether the moral prohibitions against homosexuality, prostitution, abortion, or euthanasia are justified in terms of individual and societal interest is more debatable.

But whatever the agreed-upon rules, according to the theory they do not exist prior to human contracts. We create morality by our agreements with-in the constraints demanded by self-preservation and self-interest; we do not discover antecedent moral truths. Prior to the contract, actions are neither moral nor immoral. But after the contract is signed, society forbids some actions, allows others, remains undecided on a few, and continually renegotiates the contract to satisfy rival parties. Therefore, the moral sphere is one of continual bargaining and power-struggling where conflict is resolved through moral discourse, a political mechanism, or violence. Hobbes’ detested the latter option.

Why the Social Contract Theory is Attractive

First, it takes the mystery out of ethics, ethics has to do with all of us being able to live well. Second it says that morality is objective, there are objective reasons we shouldn’t lie, but there are no mysterious moral facts from on high. Third, moral rules aren’t meant to interfere in people’s lives. Fourth, it doesn’t assume we are altruistic, it assumes we are self-interested, probably a more realistic assumption. And finally, it gives us a reason to be moral—it is in our self-interest.

The Problem of the Free Rider

We have answered the question of why “we” should be moral, but why should “I” be moral? Why not be a free rider. That is, why not be immoral if I can get away with it? Yes, it is good collectively for us all to be moral, but individually it seems I always do best to be immoral if I can get away with it. [The prisoner’s dilemma.] This is the toughest question for a contract theory of morality. Hobbes’ believed that we should penalize the non-cooperative move in order to deter individuals from choosing it.