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

In Defense of Regress: Apocalypse Now

We accept as “progress” many innovations whose usefulness is dubious at best. Here are some favorite examples.

Any computer with a "mouse" requires the user to basically have three hands.

Never since the 1950s have phone communications been so rudimentary as after the introduction of the mobile phone. Conversations invariably contain a lot of "Can you hear me?" like in the age of black and white movies.  I felt relieved in a Mexican town where there was a public phone at every corner: drop a coin and you are making a phone call. Wow. No contract needed, and no “can you hear me?”

Mobile phone ringers that go off in public places such as movie theaters and auditoria (and that obnoxiously repeat the same music-box refrain in a mechanical tone) do not improve the experience.

Voice recognition may have represented an improvement when it allowed people to say numbers rather than press them on the phone keyboard; but now the automated system on the other side of the phone asks you for names of cities or even “your mother’s maiden name”, and never gets them right  (especially if you, like me, have a foreign accent) or for long numbers (such as the 16-digit number of my credit card) that you have to repeat over and over again until it gets it right or it gives up and mercifully connects you to a human operator.

I interact with Alexa the exact same way i used to interact 30 years ago with the Unix shell: i issue a command and Alexa responds (sometimes). Ironically, what makes Alexa more "human" is the fact that in so many cases it fails (it misunderstands what i commanded), whereas the old text-based user interfaces never failed. Hence i get angry with Alexa in a way that i never did with the Unix shell. I am painfully aware that Alexa is just a retarded piece of software, whereas the Unix shell felt like an extremely efficient assistant.

The automation of cash registers means that it takes longer to pay than to find the item you want to buy (and you cannot buy it at all if the cash register doesn't work).

The car keys with an embedded microchip (the “transponder” keys) cost 140 times more to duplicate than the old chip-less car keys.

If you made the mistake of buying a new car, you may have a car without a spare tire. For a century since the invention of the car, replacing a flat tire was a matter of minutes. Now a flat tire may leave you stranded for hours if not days.The new cars come with a do-it-yourself kit (sealant and inflator) that is a lot more difficult to use than a lug wrench and a jack, and, in general, it doesn't work: repairing even the smallest puncture requires superhuman skills and side punctures cannot be repaired anyway. A flat tire, that used to be an annoyance, has now become an emergency.

Watching films on digital media such as DVDs is more difficult for a professional critic than watching them on videotapes because stopping, rewinding, forwarding and, in general, pinpointing a scene is much easier and faster on analog videotapes (VCRs) than on digital files.

Computer's and car’s CD drives that you have to push (instead of pull) in order to open are simply more likely to break and don’t really add any useful feature. If the CD or DVD gets stuck inside, the drive can only be opened with a special screwdriver that virtually no user has.

In theory, it sounds like progress that our devices come packed with so many features. In reality, because manuals have disappeared and have been replaced by desperate searches on the web, we know very little about the devices that we buy, and we will never even know that some features exist. It is astonishing how little we know about the features for which we pay when we buy a computer, a phone or a software package. Unfortunately, most of us have a life, i.e. we have better things to do than to experiment with the labyrinthine menus and obscure terms of our devices.
Nowadays more and more families keep a lens handy: the serial number of a product was certainly a kind of progress because it easily identifies the device that you have purchased, but the serial number is usually a tiny number in the most unlikely corner of the device, hence the resurgence of the medieval lens, indispensable whenever you need technical support.

Most portable gadgets used to operate with the same AA or AAA batteries. When on the road, you only had to worry about having those spare batteries. Now most cameras work only with proprietary rechargeable batteries: the fact that they are "rechargeable" is useless if they die in a place where you cannot recharge them, which is the case whenever you are far from a town or forgot the charger at home. I don’t see this as progress compared with the cheap, easily replaceable AA batteries that i could also use with my hiking GPS, my headlight and my walkie-talkie. In fact, Nikon mentions it as a plus that its Coolpix series is still "powered by readily available AA batteries”.

Booking a shuttle to the airport now requires filling an endless series of forms. I used to do it with a phone call. Sure: i had to wait for 5 or 10 minutes to get connected, but i never made a mistake. Recently i mistakenly entered "AM" instead of "PM" as the pick-up time, a mistake that i would have never made on the phone (especially since it was a 2PM flight). The first problem is that there are so many forms to fill: i would not make mistakes if i could just write directly all the flight information in one line. The second problem is that i have to convert my one line of information (San Francisco - Beijing, January 13, 2pm) into a long sequence of finger movements: sometimes click, sometimes scroll, sometimes roll... It is unnatural and prone to error. There are two more "improvements" on this website for the airport shuttle: 1. the confirmation email lists no phone number to call in case the shuttle doesn't show up on time; 2. the tip is automatically included in the charge to your credit card (you only have one chance to say "no" and it's not very visible). Bottom line: you tip the driver even before he shows up and, if he doesn't show up, good luck.

It is hard to believe that there was a time (a century ago) when you would pick up the phone and ask an operator to connect you to someone. Now you have to dial a 10-digit number, and sometimes a 13-digit number if you are calling abroad. More recently there used to be telephone directories to find the phone number of other telephone subscribers. I remember making fun of Moscow when we visited it in the 1980s because it didn’t have a telephone directory. In the age of mobile phones the telephone directory has disappeared: you can know a subscriber’s number only if someone gives it to you. Apparently the Soviet Union was the future, not the past.

Thanks to air-conditioned buildings with windows that are tightly sealed, we freeze in the summer and sometimes catch bronchitis while it is really hot outside.

The air conditioning control has become so complicated that in most hotels we end up having no air conditioning at all: it is just too difficult to figure out how to turn it on and how to adjust it. Turning on the TV set now requires studying a manual: on one remote control i counted 58 buttons.

Talking of windows, the electric windows of your car won’t operate if the car’s battery dies (the old “roll down the window” does not apply to a car with dead battery).

In most of the developed world, when you travel by bus or train, you need to get your ticket at a machine or have exact change to buy it on the bus, hardly an improvement over the old system of paying the conductor when you board. New buses and trains are climatized: it is impossible to take decent pictures of the landscape because the windows cannot be opened and are dimmed.

Printing photographs has become more, not less, expensive with the advent of digital cameras, and the quality of the print is debatable.

The taximeter, rarely used in developing countries but mandatory in “advanced” countries, is a mixed blessing. Basically, a taxi driver asks you to buy a good without telling you the price until you have already used the good and you cannot change your mind. The taximeter often increases the cost of a ride because you can't bargain anymore as you would normally do based on the law of supply and demand (for example, in situations when the taxi driver has no hopes for other customers). Furthermore, the taximeter motivates unscrupulous taxi drivers to take the longest and slowest route to your destination, whereas a negotiated price would motivate the driver to deliver you as quickly as possible.

Thanks to “progress” in software, over the years i had to adapt to countless limitations.

I have been using email since the early 1980s. The email system that i am forced to use at Stanford today is absolutely atrocious compared with the simple, quick, user-friendly and no-brainer email system that i was using twenty years ago at the same institution. Google's Gmail program and Microsoft's Outlook program, the most used email clients of this year, hardly qualify as progress: they rank among the most idiotic email clients ever designed. When i am forced to use either program, the expression that comes to mind is not "wow what a amazing intelligent program!" but rather "what a ridiculous piece of garbage!". (I personally believe that Gmail is singlehandedly responsible for the decline of email's popularity among the younger generations because younger people think that email "is" gmail and therefore shun email unless forced by teachers or employers).

In some cases “progress” is humiliating. I’ve had an email address  piero .•´¯`•.¸.•´¯`•..•´¯`•. scaruffi” since the 1980s. Cute, eh? Well, in 2016 i was forced  to abandon it and adopt a simple “piero scaruffi” because the #1 email system in the world started treating as spam any email address that contains special characters. This is just the latest step in a process of “normalization” of my Internet persona that started when they forced me to put a smiling adult headshot of me on the website of a popular university about 20 years ago (until that day i had always used the first picture ever taken of me as a child).I presume that at some point they will force me to capitalize my name to “Piero Scaruffi” to be as uniform as possible with the rest of humankind. They are asking me to remove my personality from what i do, otherwise i will not be able to do it anymore. In my humble opinion, these are terrorist actions, no more and no less terrifying than a physical terrorist attack. What is truly accelerating is not progress but the standardization of human behavior.

It has become commonplace on the Web to see this line on the webpage that you are reading: "This site uses cookies to improve your experience". You know what that means, right? It means that they spy on what you do and then some other website will try to sell you something, and all of them get a cut out of those "cookies" sitting on your computer.

Increasingly, you are very welcome to upload a video for free on platforms such as Youtube, but you are not welcome to download one for free: they tell you that watching it on the "cloud" (i.e., "streaming" it) is so much better. It is certainly much better for them: If you watch the video on the cloud, they can feed you all the ads that maximize their profits, something that they cannot do if you download the video on your computer.

One of the hot topics of our age is the transition from the home computer to the cloud. The idea is that you don't need to have your data on your own device: you can keep them on the cloud, so that you can access them from anywhere in the world. This idea is preposterous any way you look at it: 1. You can access your data only where there is a connection to the cloud, only when the cloud platform is up and working, and only under the terms of the corporation that owns that platform; 2. It is obviously not safe, and all your data can be stolen in one second by a hacker who breaks into the cloud platform; 3. Access to your data will never be as fast as when they are on your own device. It is difficult to see "progress" in the fact that i used to have a movie on a videotape in my bookshelf and now i have to rely on a third-party to watch that movie. But corporations and governments relentlessly promote the idea of using their cloud to store your data. In many cases they are willing to do it for free. The real reason is that they make money out of it, and they can spy on and control what we do. It would be nice if they told us honestly "We make money out of owning your data, and maybe it is also convenient for you". The certain thing is that they make money out of it. Progress for them? Certainly.

The best example of the mixed "progress" inherent in the cloud is Wikipedia. Now the world only has one encyclopedia, entirely written by anonymous contributors, which turn out to be mostly public-relationship departments of corporations, marketing agents of celebrities, special-interest groups, sometimes foreign government agencies, and lots of fanatics determined to defend their version of the truth. See my article "Wikipedia as a Force for Evil" (2013).

Today i cannot check the weather forecast because the most popular website floods my screen with refrigerators: a Chinese friend used my browser to check prices of refrigerators while waiting for his flight to China, and there's no way to tell the various websites that my friend lives in China and i am not going to relay to him the various promotions that appear on my screen here in California.

I cannot login anymore into my bank account from my old desktop computer. When i login, i get the error message "You are using an unsupported browser version". Fair enough: it's an old computer. One after the other all websites will start telling me that i can't login anymore from this computer. I don't think that's "progress", but i'm willing to accept that i need a new desktop computer, even if there's nothing wrong with this old one. (Imagine if your fridge one day refused to open or your dishwasher one day refused to wash dishes simply because you are wearing old gloves). But then i used my laptop computer, which is brand new, and i noticed another "improvement" to my bank's website: they made it really difficult if not impossible to send them an electronic message. Now you can only contact them by phone or visit their offices in person (which is precisely the world of thirty years ago).

Some financial transactions that used to take a few minutes at the bank's branch are becoming more and more difficult, if not impossible. The bank will tell you that you must do it online, where the website will tell you that additional steps are required "for your own security" with the result that, given slow Internet connections, antispam firewalls and assorted filters, you have to spend a lot more than a few minutes. Soon those transactions may become de facto impossible except for the most perseverant of users. The bank isn't increasing our security, it is banning those services.

After being notified a thousand times by a very aggressive Windows 10 operating system that new updates were available, one day i finally clicked on Yes and... Movie Maker stopped working: it now consistently objects that my brand new laptop does not meet the minimum requirements (yes, it does). A few days later i received another notification that new updates were available and immediately clicked on Yes hoping that one of these updates would fix the problem that keeps Movie Maker from running. The only noticeable difference is that now my laptop arranges all the icons to the left, no matter how i try to arrange them. I tried to get rid of the annoying "lock screen". I searched the Web and found that thousands of Windows 10 users are as annoyed as me by this "feature". There is absolutely no information on the Microsoft website but there are forums ("customer support" in the age of intelligent machines) where several people have posted a solution that worked for me. Quote:

             Open the registry editor.

             Navigate to


             Create a new registry key called Personalization

             Navigate to the Personalization key

             Right click in the right pane and select New then DWORD (32-bit) Value.

             Name the new value NoLockScreen

             Set NoLockScreen to 1"

This was titled "Simple Steps To Get Rid Of Windows 10's New Lock Screen".

No, this does not happen only with Windows 10, nor only with Microsoft software. It happens with all the software out there.

It is hard to see how modern websites such as Linkedin and Pinterest, or online magazines such as Wired and Rolling Stones, can constitute progress when they crash 90% of the browsers in the world (most computers in the world still run old operating systems: not everybody is willing to buy a new computer just because Linkedin or Pinterest has decided to use sophisticated scripting technology). On the other hand you are constantly stalked by software that desperately wants you to reset your password.

If progress means that what i have been using will not work anymore it is not progress. It is progress for the ones who make it and sell it, but not for the ones who never asked for it and are now forced to accept it and pay for it.

Computers can be amazingly unintuitive compared with older devices. If you remove a USB flash drive the way you normally remove a CD or DVD from its player, you may lose all the data, so you are required to “safely remove” it. On Apple computers the way to safely remove a drive is to… throw it in the garbage can!

Websites with graphics, animation, pop-up windows, “click here and there”, cause you to spend most of the time scrolling away from these digital paraphernalia instead of reading the information that you were looking for.

In 2017 the most popular oxymoron on websites seems to be "We use cookies to improve your experience": does anybody believe that the website has hired costly software engineers to implement those cookies for the sole purpose of improving our experience?

We the consumers passively accept too many of these dubious “improvements”.

Most of these "improvements" may represent progress, but the question is “progress for whom”? Pickpockets used to steal one wallet at a time. The fact that today a hacker can steal millions of credit card numbers in an instant constitutes progress, but progress for whom?

And don’t get me started on “health care”, which in these high-tech days has become less about “health” and more and more about making you chronically ill. You are perfectly fine until you walk into the office of a dentist, eye doctor or other specialist; when you come out, you have become a medication addict with an immune system weakened by antibiotics and some prosthetic addition to your body that will require lifelong maintenance: progress for the “health-care” industry, not for you. (In 2016 a study published in the British Medical Journal by Martin Makary, a surgeon at the Johns Hopkins University, estimated that medical error was the third leading cause of death in the USA after heart disease and cancer).

We live in a world of not particularly intelligent machines, but certainly in a world of machines that like to beep. My car beeps when I start it, when I leave the door open, and if I don’t fasten my seat belt. Note that it doesn’t beep if something much more serious happen, like the alternator dies or the oil level is dangerously low. My microwave oven beeps when the food is ready, and it keeps beeping virtually forever unless someone opens its door (it doesn’t matter that you actually pick up the food, just open the door). My printer beeps when it starts, when it needs paper, and whenever something goes wrong (a blinking message on the display is not enough, apparently). Best of all, my phone beeps when i turn it off, and, of course, sometimes i turn it off because i want it silent: it will beep to tell everybody that it is being silenced.  I think that every manual should come with instructions on how to disable the beeping on the device: “First and foremost, here is how you can completely shut up your device once and forever”.

Last but not least, something is being lost in the digital age, something that was the fundamental experience of (broadly defined) entertainment. During a vacation in a developing country i watched as a girl came out of the photographer's shop. She couldn't wait and immediately opened the envelope that contained her photographs. I witnessed her joy as she flipped through the pictures. The magic of that moment, when she sees how the pictures came, will be gone the day she buys her first digital camera. There will be nothing special about watching the pictures on her computer's screen. There will be no anxious waiting while she uploads them to the computer because, most likely, she will already know how the pictures look like before she uploads them. Part of the magic of taking photographs is gone forever, replaced by a new, cold experience that consists in refining the photograph with digital tools until it is what you want to see, not what it really looked like, and then posting it on social media in an act of vanity.

Or take live events. The magic of a live sport event used to be the anxious wait for the event to start, and then the "rooting" for one of the competitors or teams. After the introduction of TiVo, one can watch a "live" event at any time by conveniently "taping" it. Many live events are actually broadcasted with a slight delay, so you may find on the Internet the result of a soccer game that is still going on according to your television channel. Thus the "waiting" and the "rooting" are no longer the two fundamental components of the "live" experience. The whole point of watching a live event was the irrational feeling that  your emotional state could somehow influence the result. If the event is recorded (i.e., is already in the past), that feeling disappears and you have to face the crude reality of your impotence to affect the result. But then what's the point of rooting? Thus the viewer is unlikely to feel the same emotional attachment to the game that s/he is watching. In the back of her/his mind, it is clear that the game has already finished. The experience of watching the "live" event is no longer one of anxiety but one of appreciation. Told by a friend that it was a lousy game, the viewer may well decide not to watch the event that her home appliance taped.

The first time that i went to Hong Kong i took a slow ferry for about $1. I was on the deck and took lots of great pictures of the island. In 2017 i took the ferry again. This time the price was 40 times more. Passengers are no longer allowed to walk on the deck, they are confined in the cabin and can only take pictures through the windows, extremely filthy windows that cannot be opened. You pay 40 times more for a much less rewarding experience. But the ferry is indeed many times faster than the old one, and that counts as "progress". Except that younger people will never have the beautiful pictures that i have from 20 years ago, or will have to pay even more to get on a tourist boat that allows passengers on the deck.

Yes, i know that Skype and Uber and many new services can solve or will solve these problems, but the point is that these gadgets and features were conceived and understood as "progress" when they were introduced (and usually amid much fanfare). The very fact that platforms such as Skype and Uber have been successful proves that the quality of services in those fields had overall regressed, not progressed, and therefore there was an opportunity for someone to restore service to a decent level.

We should always pause and analyze whether something presented as "progress" truly represents progress. And for whom.

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