Artificial Intelligence: Hype, Reality, and Real Dangers? (part I of II)

28 May

Not much theology today, just what I hope are intelligent musings informed by theology….

On Gene Veith’s blog he talks about an article titled: Nara: Algorithm will refine the web using neuroscience:

MEET my new friend Nara. We’re recently acquainted, but she knows me pretty well.

She thinks I’d enjoy American Gangster because I’m a fan of Goodfellas, anything directed by Ridley Scott and drama and crime movies.

She also knows I like seafood, steakhouses and a “chic atmosphere” — although I never told her that — so she’s able to make some spot-on restaurant recommendations. She can recommend the perfect hotel for my travels, too.

The only thing is, Nara’s a robot, designed to connect me to places and things that “matter to me”.

Designed by a groups of scientists, artists and entrepreneurs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Nara collects information about your interests and tastes to create a “neural network”.

Nara picks out a movie based on my preferences.

While anyone can try out the beta version of Nara, it’s not designed to be the next popular social network. “From the get-go, our mission has been to help humanity find what matters across the swelling oceans of information we face today,” reads the website.

“The first two years of Nara were spent in stealth, as our neuroscientists and computer scientists from MIT began building our brain-like algorithm. In the two years since then, we’ve achieved a number of notable milestones and continue to push the latest in artificial intelligence into the business world.”

[Keep reading. . .]

Dr. Veith asks: “Find what matters?”  Restaurants?  Movies?  Is that what artificial intelligence is reduced to?  Is that what we are reduced to?”

Part of me thinks, “well, yes”.  Today Albert Mohler also reported how chimpanzees literally got their day in court in New York. Chimps as persons… why not “Nara” to?  Aren’t we probably just “meat puppets” anyways?

Yes, maybe it is crazy and everyone will realize that. But a part of me wonders about the general population at large… first of all, to set the stage, you might want to see the post I did entitled: Salvation and damnation by technology: introducing the MSTM (modern scientific and technological mindset).

This post, along with others I have done, is a part of a library technology presentation I did last year that deals with these topics.*  Today and tomorrow I will do a couple other parts from that presentation, “Why Don’t You Marry It?”: Seduced by the Mechanical Muse (part I) and I think Therefore You Aren’t?: Philosophical issues (part II).  Here is part I of II

“Why Don’t You Marry It?”: Seduced by the Mechanical Muse

“When our machines overtook us, too complex and efficient for us to control, they did so fast and so smoothly and so usefully, only a fool or prophet would have dared complain.” — science fiction writer Simon Ings [i]

Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle

In the same talk mentioned above Alister Croll stated that “24 months ago, the average person was still afraid of IT. Today, the average person is terrified of being without it.” [ii] Exaggeration or not, Croll hits on a critical point here: we are increasingly becoming more comfortable with digital technologies, particularly the youngest among us. This is the case to some extent in most all of us, whether or not we strongly identity with the MSTM [again: modern scientific and technological mindset].

MIT professor Sherry Turkle has done research in the area of “companion robots”, interviewing hundreds of people for her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. She finds that, out of a sense of disappointment with each other, several persons have turned to robots as a substitute for human interaction. What Turkle meticulously charts in Alone Together are robots used by lonely, isolated human beings as lovers, best friends and caregivers.

robotspeopletoAccording to her, in the world of sociable robotics, nurturance is the killer app – we nurture what we love, but we also love what we nurture. After studying every “digital creature” that asked for our care, Turkle concluded that we attach to things and want to love them. The “robotic moment” that she talks about is when we begin to think robots care about us and consider them as candidates which can be put in the place of human beings. There is a gradual slide from “better than nothing” to “better than anything” – while a robotic puppy might not seem so good at first, the robotic puppy will never die.

Hence, we are very vulnerable to what technology affords. Turkle’s evaluation: “We are toast”.[iii]

Can one identify a similar phenomenon occurring with regular web applications? It might seem a real stretch to say so – the Star Trek Next Generation “Holodeck” would seem to be a few years from production – but consider this: as computer environments become more immersive – fueled by all the shaping power that Big data will be able to provide – the temptation to regularly inhabit them will likely become much greater. And we will no doubt find ourselves desiring – at this or that level – what they offer.   In a recent edition of the KCRW (an NPR affiliate) news program “This is Interesting” Matt Miller described his experience of having his brains electrical signature extended out into a beautiful picture he could manipulate: “cool, surreal, otherworldly”.[iv] And surely, more is to come.

Heard of her?

Heard of her?

Of course, even now, we are being courted and wooed.   The internet – rather, those running the web applications on the internet – offer us all manner of things without much commitment on our part (just the way we like it these days!) – giving us promise that it can, in part, fulfill our dreams and desires: pleasure, intimacy, and a sense of vital connection.[v] And it can give us other things, that while lesser wants, are still very highly sought after by us. Jaron Lanier talks about the “candy” being offered: “insanely easy and cheap mortgages; free music, video, Web search and social networking: all are examples of the trinkets dangled to lure initiates into answering the call of a Siren Server.”[vi]

Again, services like Google become more powerful by giving us what we want – by leading us to things Google did not create – so that, ultimately, we might more and more become their product – as they sell our interests, our attention, and increasingly, our data (anonymized of course) to others.[vii] And, besides the occasional uneasy feeling about the whole thing, we generally love it! And the one courting us is a powerful and attractive partner indeed! As Lanier explains, “Google ad is guaranteed to work, the overall Google ad scheme by definition must work, because of the laws of statistics. Superior computation lets a Siren Server enjoy the magical benefits of reliably manipulating others even though no hand is forced.”[viii]

Of course you read this…  Amazing what we put up with for those we love.

Of course you read this… Amazing what we put up with for those we love.

And this game being played is even more sophisticated still. Lanier also talks about how Steve Jobs learned from Eastern gurus that sometimes, it can be very effective to more or less give someone what amounts to a public beating. For example, by berating an employee in front of other employees, Jobs would not necessarily cause someone to quit, but instead to become more loyal to him – and to work even harder for his approval. In like fashion, companies like Google will try to increase your addiction – your “attraction” – by using something called a “noisy reward”. A noisy reward is a reward that is not always doled out in a consistent fashion.   Because this is the case, it has the paradoxical effect of generating repetitive behavior on the part of the user. The idea is that you “fall in love” with what you have to struggle for, and social networks only tend to exacerbate this effect.[ix]

Seduction per se does not need to be evil. One can certainly argue that there is a proper context to woo and to win. That said, this is decidedly not the case with the player who seeks only to get into our pants, our pocketbook, or our playbook (i.e. all of our personal data). Modern internet companies seem more akin to the player than the genuine lover. One is reminded of a quote from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Profess, quoted by C.S. Lewis in his book the Abolition of Man. Lured in by earthly pleasures, Pilgrim realizes what has become of him: “It came burning hot into my mind, whatever he said and however he flattered, when he got me to his house, he would sell me for a slave.”[x]

Japanese companion robot for the elderly.

Japanese companion robot for the elderly.

Here, one cannot help but think of the many companion robots being enlisted to help the elderly in Japan – many of the persons stuck in these situations are genuinely sad that this is their plight. Does it occur to us, as Turkle says, that we would have people to do these jobs if we respected this type of work – if we respected our elders who need this kind of work – enough to pay them a decent wage?   But we do not – first they are consigned to nursing homes and then they are banished to live with robots performing the cheapest labor possible.[xi]

It is true that family life – and especially village life! – was never perfect and is easily romanticized, but at least here persons beyond our immediate family knew us, loved us, and depended on us. Maybe there were even small business owners who we never could doubt for a minute really did care about us on a personal level.[xii] And for many of us, when our parents gave us a toy, there was of course a genuine love behind his actions, and not motives like those of which we have been speaking.

Why do I bring up toys? I note that automated functions began in toys – a la “candy” – before moving into industrial machinery. This looks to be taken to a whole new level as automation moves into the realm of “cognitive machinery”.   At this stage in the game, who are our electronic devices and online accounts really there for? While I must admit it seems a bit extreme for me to say it, here I go:   “Become one Big data…become one with it…. Welcome to the machine….”

Are we slowly becoming that which we want to be and that which we don’t want to be? Are we all increasingly awash with facts, figures, data….and readily contributing to the same, but with no real grasp of who we are? I think this is clearly the case, and will argue just that in the next section.



Turkle and robot images from Wikipedia.


*….some other posts with content from a library technology presentation I did last year that deals with these topics: Goethe said that in science and technology, every tool would be used to maximize the power of human being ; C.S. Lewis’ prophecy regarding man’s abolition ; What’s not so good about internet technologies.  Here is also the info I had in that presentation – based on a good deal of research – about the new industrial revolution that many are saying is upon us: “Slavery will come to us disguised as the light of liberty and progress”.

[i] Quoted by Barrat, James. 2013. Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. New York : Thomas Dunne Books, p. 210. Again, I do not believe that real AI is possible, but we certainly can use machines more than we ought and in ways we ought not.

[ii] OCLCVideo. 2013. “Alistair Croll: Implications and Opportunities of Big Data.” YouTube video, March 13. For more on how our views of computers have changed over the years see Atkinson, Paul. 2010. Computer. London: Reaktion Books, pp. 201-231.

[iii] Keen, Andrew. 2011. MIT Professor Says Robotic Moment Has Arrived, and We are Toast. Keen On. television program. Silicon Valley: Tech Crunch TCTV, February 14. ; Keen also refers to this article:

[iv] Miller, Matt. 2013. Thought-Controlled Computing. This…Is Interesting. podcast radio program. Santa Monica: KCRW News, July 31. (with guest Ariel Garten)

[v]I am not talking about dating and relationship matching sites. That said, Lanier has some really interesting comments about that as well: “technological solutions not embraced by Silicon Valley: For all the extolling of AI and the like, Apple would not leave the design choices for its products on an algorithm instead of Steve Jobs…. Lanier: has to do with the ‘nerd supremecy’ problem – people are being encouraged to leave to algorithms pretty person decisions – what music we listen to, who we date, what movies we see, etc…. Silicon Valley ‘knows that these algorithms don’t do anything’… ‘we aren’t going to believe that crap’….. ‘we don’t live by them ourselves, and so that is something worth noticing’.” Miller, Matt. 2013. Will Google and Facebook Destroy the Middle Class? This…Is Interesting. podcast radio program. Santa Monica: KCRW News, Jun 5.

[vi] Lanier, Jaron. “Fixing the Digital Economy.” New York Times, Jun 09, 2013, Late Edition (East Coast).

[vii] “An old-fashioned exercise in power, like censoring social network expression, would reduce the new kind of power, which is to be a private spying service on people who use social networking.” Ibid.

[viii] And again, where is this going in the relative short-term? Lanier says the following: “Siren Servers drive apart our identities as consumers and workers. In some cases, causality is apparent: free music downloads are great but throw musicians out of work. Free college courses are all the fad, but tenured professorships are disappearing. Free news proliferates, but money for investigative and foreign reporting is drying up. One can easily see this trend extending to the industries of the future, like 3-D printing and renewable energy.” Ibid.

[ix] The New York Public Library. 2013. “Jaron Lanier | LIVE from the NYPL.” YouTube video, October 10. Lanier connects all of this to social status concerns due to evolution. It seem to me that here we have “coercion by the machine – the seduction machine that carries us away (no autonomy). This is more akin to Brave New World than 1984. This notion of seduction seems doubly powerful to me when one consider the crazy fact that most of the technical advances that are developed on the internet are pioneered by persons involved in the pornography industry.

What happens here, it seems to me, is that this “hard truth” of everything being mechanical, is balanced with softer, more humanistic notions, more so I think in the latter than the former, and yet, the “hard truth” put forth here has a unrelenting power it seems, to pull us towards itself and into itself to drive our thinking and conversation.

It seems to me akin to the old notion of fate, updated with all of our scientific knowledge…and minus some classical virtues even.

[x] John Bunyan, quoted in Lewis, C. S. 1996. The Abolition of Man, or, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 63.

[xi] Of course, then there is also the fact that they no longer lived in a society where having more than a couple children was honored.


[xii] Capitalism has also always encouraged us to give business to those who offer the lowest price – and can still be trusted – but now, even here, the idea that it makes sense to support local businesses – people you know and you know what they are doing – is even further drowned out.



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