Intelligence is not Artificial

Why the Singularity is not Coming any Time Soon And Other Meditations on the Post-Human Condition and the Future of Intelligence

by piero scaruffi
Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence | Bibliography and book reviews | My book on consciousness | Contact/feedback/email

(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

A Consumer's Rant Against the Stupidity of Machines: Reverting Evolution?

When you buy an appliance and it turns out that you have to do something weird in order to make it work, it is natural to dismiss it as "a piece of garbage". However, when it is something about computers and networks, you are instead supposed to stand in awe and respectfully listen to (or read) a lengthy explanation of what you are supposed to do in order to please the machine, which is usually something utterly convoluted bordering on the ridiculous.

This double standard creates the illusion that machines are becoming incredibly smart when in fact mostly we are simply witnessing poor quality assurance (due to the frantic product lifecycles of our times) and often incredibly dumb design.

You never know what is going to happen to your favorite application when you download an "update". New releases (which you are forced to adopt even if you are perfectly happy with the old release) often result in lengthy detours trying to figure out how to do things that were trivial in the previous release (and that have been complicated by the software manufacturer for no other reason than to justify a new release). A few weeks ago my computer displayed the message "Updating Skype... Just a moment, we're improving your Skype experience". How in heaven do they know that this will improve my Skype experience? Of course they don't. The reason they want you to move to a new release is different: it will certainly improve THEIR experience. Whether it will also improve mine and yours is a secondary issue. At the least, any change in the user interface will make it more difficult to do the things to which you were accustomed.

We live in an age in which installing a wireless modem can take a whole day and external hard disks get corrupted after a few months "if you use them too often" (as an associate told me at Silicon Valley's most popular computer store).

In the old days i was backing up my work all the time because i didn't trust computers: they frequently crashed. I didn't trust them because they were not reliable. These days computers don't crash anymore but i still back up frequently my work: i don't trust them because it is unpredictable what they will do with my work. Computers download and store files where they want (often in obscure folders/ directories), they change my desktop appearance, sometimes they change the formatting of my documents, etc. The manufacturers that sell them tell me that they are becoming "more and more intelligent": obviously we have wildly different definitions of "intelligence".

In 1997 Steve Jobs famously told Business Week: "People don't know what they want until you show it to them." Maybe. But sometimes the high-tech industry should say: "People don't know what they want until we FORCE it on them and give them no alternative."

Reality check: here is the transcript of a conversation with Comcast's automated customer support:

"If you are currently a Comcast customer, press 1" [I press 1]
"Please enter the ten-digit phone number associated with your account" [I enter my phone number]
"OK Please wait just a moment while i access your account"
"For technical help press 1"
"For billing press 2" [I press 2]
If you are calling regarding important information about Xfinity etc press 1 [I press 2]
"For payments press 1"
"For balance information press 2"
"For payment locations press 3"
"For all other billing questions press 4" [I press 4]
"For questions about your first bill press 1"
"For other billing questions press 3" [I press 3]
"Thank you for calling Comcast. Our office is currently closed."
(You can listen to it at )

Based on the evidence, it is easier to believe that we still live in the stone age of computer science than to believe that we are about to witness the advent of superhuman intelligence in machines.

It is interesting how different generations react to the stupidity of machines: the old generation that grew up without electronic machines gets extremely upset (because the automated system can complicate things that used to be simple in the old-fashioned manual system), my generation (that grew up with machines) gets somewhat upset (because machines are still so dumb), and the younger generations are progressively less upset, with the youngest ones simply taking for granted that customer support has to be what it is (from lousy to non-existent) and that many things (pretty much all the things that require common sense, expertise, and what we normally call "intelligence") are virtually impossible for machines.

A book on "The State of Machine Stupidity" instead of "The State of Machine Intelligence" should be much longer.

Incidentally, there are very important fields in which we haven't even achieved the first step of automation: getting rid of paper. Health care, for example, still depends on paper: your medical records are probably stored in old fashioned files, not the files made of zeros and ones but the ones made of cardboard or plastic. We are bombarded daily by news of amazing medical devices and applications that will change the way diseases are prevented, identified and healed, but for the time being we have seen very little progress in simply turning all those paper files into computer files that the patient can access from a regular computer or smartphone and then save, print, email or delete at will.

What we have done so far, and only in some fields, is to replace bits and pieces of human intelligence with rather unintelligent machines that can only understand very simple commands (less than what a two-year old toddler can understand) and can perform very simple tasks.

In the process we are also achieving lower and lower forms of human intelligence, addicted to having technology simplify all sorts of tasks (more about this later). Of course, many people claim the opposite: from the point of view of a lower intelligence, what unintelligent machines do might appear intelligent.

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