The Singularity—an Urban Legend?

The Singularity—the fateful moment when AI surpasses its creators in intelligence and takes over the world—is a meme worth pondering. It has the earmarks of an urban legend: a certain scientific plausibility ("Well, in principle I guess it's possible!") coupled with a deliciously shudder-inducing punch line ("We'd be ruled by robots!"). Did you know that if you sneeze, belch, and fart all at the same time, you die? Wow. Following in the wake of decades of AI hype, you might think the Singularity would be regarded as a parody, a joke, but it has proven to be a remarkably persuasive escalation. Add a few illustrious converts—Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and David Chalmers, among others—and how can we not take it seriously? Whether this stupendous event takes place ten or a hundred or a thousand years in the future, isn't it prudent to start planning now, setting up the necessary barricades and keeping our eyes pealed for harbingers of catastrophe?

I think, on the contrary, that these alarm calls distract us from a more pressing problem, an impending disaster that won't need any help from Moore's Law or further breakthroughs in theory to reach its much closer tipping point: after centuries of hard-won understanding of nature that now permits us, for the first time in history, to control many aspects of our destinies, we are on the verge of abdicating this control to artificial agents that can't think, prematurely putting civilization on auto-pilot. The process is insidious because each step of it makes good local sense, is an offer you can't refuse. You'd be a fool today to do large arithmetical calculations with pencil and paper when a hand calculator is much faster and almost perfectly reliable (don't forget about round-off error), and why memorize train timetables when they are instantly available on your smart phone? Leave the map-reading and navigation to your GPS system; it isn't conscious; it can't think in any meaningful sense, but it's much better than you are at keeping track of where you are and where you want to go.

Much farther up the staircase, doctors are becoming increasingly dependent on diagnostic systems that are provably more reliable than any human diagnostician. Do you want your doctor to overrule the machine's verdict when it comes to making a life-saving choice of treatment? This may prove to be the best—most provably successful, most immediately useful—application of the technology behind IBM's Watson, and the issue of whether or not Watson can be properly said to think (or be conscious) is beside the point. If Watson turns out to be better than human experts at generating diagnoses from available data it will be morally obligatory to avail ourselves of its results. A doctor who defies it will be asking for a malpractice suit. No area of human endeavor appears to be clearly off-limits to such prosthetic performance-enhancers, and wherever they prove themselves, the forced choice will be reliable results over the human touch, as it always has been. Hand-made law and even science could come to occupy niches adjacent to artisanal pottery and hand-knitted sweaters.

In the earliest days of AI, an attempt was made to enforce a sharp distinction between artificial intelligence and cognitive simulation. The former was to be a branch of engineering, getting the job done by hook or by crook, with no attempt to mimic human thought processes—except when that proved to be an effective way of proceeding. Cognitive simulation, in contrast, was to be psychology and neuroscience conducted by computer modeling. A cognitive simulation model that nicely exhibited recognizably human errors or confusions would be a triumph, not a failure. The distinction in aspiration lives on, but has largely been erased from public consciousness: to lay people AI means passing the Turing Test, being humanoid. The recent breakthroughs in AI have been largely the result of turning away from (what we thought we understood about) human thought processes and using the awesome data-mining powers of super-computers to grind out valuable connections and patterns without trying to make them understand what they are doing. Ironically, the impressive results are inspiring many in cognitive science to reconsider; it turns out that there is much to learn about how the brain does its brilliant job of producing future by applying the techniques of data-mining and machine learning.

But the public will persist in imagining that any black box that can do that (whatever the latest AI accomplishment is) must be an intelligent agent much like a human being, when in fact what is inside the box is a bizarrely truncated, two-dimensional fabric that gains its power precisely by not adding the overhead of a human mind, with all its distractability, worries, emotional commitments, memories, allegiances. It is not a humanoid robot at all but a mindless slave, the latest advance in auto-pilots.

What's wrong with turning over the drudgery of thought to such high-tech marvels? Nothing, so long as (1) we don't delude ourselves, and (2) we somehow manage to keep our own cognitive skills from atrophying.

(1) It is very, very hard to imagine (and keep in mind) the limitations of entities that can be such valued assistants, and the human tendency is always to over-endow them with understanding—as we have known since Joe Weizenbaum's notorious Eliza program of the early 1970s. This is a huge risk, since we will always be tempted to ask more of them than they were designed to accomplish, and to trust the results when we shouldn't.

(2) Use it or lose it. As we become ever more dependent on these cognitive prostheses, we risk becoming helpless if they ever shut down. The Internet is not an intelligent agent (well, in some ways it is) but we have nevertheless become so dependent on it that were it to crash, panic would set in and we could destroy society in a few days. That's an event we should bend our efforts to averting now, because it could happen any day.

The real danger, then, is not machines that are more intelligent than we are usurping our role as captains of our destinies, but machines that are basically clueless in almost all regards being ceded authority far beyond their competence.