Intelligence is not Artificial

by piero scaruffi

Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence | Bibliography and book reviews | My book on consciousness | Contact/feedback/email
(Copyright © 2018 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )


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

You Are an Algorithm: The Vast Algorithmic Bureaucracy


The developed world is rapidly evolving towards a dystopia in which what is not mandatory is forbidden. (The Soviet Union was the future, not the past). There are rules and regulations for everything, and they are getting increasingly precise and pervasive. There are rules for driving, for paying at a supermarket, for sitting in a restaurant, for applying for a job, for applying for health care, for applying for retirement, for applying for citizenship, and even for hiking in the wilderness. If there is no rule for something, most likely it means that it is illegal. What other reason could there be for some actions not to be regulated by a bureaucracy?
It used to be that prohibitions prevailed: "Do not touch"; "Do not litter"; "Do not trespass"; etc. However, in vast algorithmic bureaucracies the balance will tilt towards what is mandatory. Algorithms will prescibe what you must do, and what you cannot do will become a consequence of what you must do. When you fill a form online, you often have no choice but to enter the data that the algorithm requires. Nobody says that you cannot enter different data, but there is just no way to do so. In fact, the vast algorithmic bureaucracy does more than define what is mandatory: it makes it the only option. You cannot break the law when you are inside an algorithm (just like a part on a conveyor belt cannot escape the assembly line). Other options are not forbidden: they are just not possible.
When someone working in a bureaucracy tells you "Don't worry", it means that you entered an algorithm: you have become just a string of data that is being fed to an algorithm, and you shouldn't worry for the simple reason that now you don't have any choice anymore.
An increasing number of activities are turned into algorithms that humans must follow strictly, whether it's preparing a sandwich in a fast food joint or registering a patient in a clinic. On most flights the flight attendants give passengers a little bag of peanuts and a paper napkin: tell them that you don't want the peanuts, and they won't give you the paper napkin.
What terrifies me is not a future in which machines rule people, but a future in which vast heartless bureaucracies rule the world. They already rule airport security, insurance claims and even the emergency rooms of hospitals and the educational system. These are places in which humanity and compassion are increasingly replaced by a mechanical procedure, and it makes no differenwe whether the mechanical procedure is carried out by humans or machines. You often hear people excuse themselves with the expression "I am just doing my job" which really means "I work for a vast heartless bureaucracy and they pay me to enforce this rule and we don't care about your particular situation. The only thing that matters to us are the rules and regulations that define and protect this bureaucracy". Their job has little to do with your needs. They don't have the power to care for your needs, and they quickly lose any motivation to care.
The expression "I am sorry" is losing its original meaning: when you hear "I am sorry" from someone who is denying you a service, you know that in reality nobody is sorry. It is just a rule that they have to say "I am sorry" when they say "no". You probably got many letters that started with a "We are sorry" denying you something that you wanted. Either the message was sent by a machine with no human intervention or it was sent by a human who pressed a key on a keyboard. Nobody in that organization is sorry, and in fact probably nobody even knows what happened except the one who pressed a button. Not even my friends are sorry, because they know how this works: we're all in the same boat.
In fact, it may soon be that we will prefer the care of a machine, that hopefully has been programmed to show some civility and compassion, rather than the care of a security agent, of an insurance adjustor or of a hospital receptionist, people who are losing any motivation to treat us with civility and increasingly view us like annoyances if we don't comply with the rules and regulations that they are paid to enforce. As we turn human activities into mechanical procedures, we are making it easier for machines not only to perform them more accurately but even to perform them more humanely. It is hard for a human being to smile all day long when simply repeating the same procedure over and over again. It is easy to program a robot to smile all day long while doing the exact same thing. As more and more of our activities are turned into a set of rules and regulations devised and enforced by these vast heartless bureaucracies, we may actually turn to the robot for hope. Alone, helpless and adrift into the intricate network of vast heartless bureaucracies of the future, our only hope will be that robots will mediate for us, that robots will be programmed wisely to treat us like human beings, not objects, and thus compensate for the fact that those vast heartless bureaucracies treat us like objects. Robots will mitigate for us the arrogance (and sometimes the incompetence) of the bureaucrats.
Don't blame it on the machine: it is humans who have invented the vast algorithmic bureaucracies and who keep making them bigger and more algorithmic. It is equally unfair to blame governments and big corporations for the growth and expansion of the vast algorithmic bureaucracies: we want the algorithms. When there is no algorithm, the "user experience" is often annoying and upsetting. For example, when you land in a US airport, immigration officers are entitled to ask you questions about your trip. You have nothing to hide, but having nothing to hide is never a reason to be relaxed when you are confronted by someone wearing a uniform in a place where it is forbidden to make recordings and with no witnesses next to you. The unnerving factor is the unpredictability of what the officer may ask us. If we knew the questions, we would have the answers ready. Instead, each time it's a lottery. The truth is that we, the citizens, normally prefer to deal with algorithms, because they tend to be predictable; and therefore we, the citizens, contribute to the establishment of algorithmic bureaucracies.
We have created highly structured societies in which what is not mandatory is increasingly forbidden, societies in which behavior is determined by a body of rules and regulations. The original motivation was probably to make sure that even idiots can survive: all these rules and regulations minimize the intelligence required to survive and to thrive. All we have to do is to follow the rules and regulations. We have de facto turned persons into machines. By doing so, we have created societies in which machines can perform as well as humans; not because machines have become more like us, but because we have become a lot more like them. Automation in general, and Artificial Intelligence in particular, has little to do with "intelligence" and a lot to do with these societies of rules and regulations in which humans are forced to behave like machines and therefore machines can easily behave like humans. If all you long for is a life made of safe and unconscious routines, your dream is coming true. If, on the other hand, you like adventure, uncertainty and challenges, what we are building is hell on Earth. But some do ask: why would anyone want adventure, uncertainty and challenges? Why not behave like a machine and be treated like a machine?
A "smart city" is a city where everything has been turned into an efficient algorithm connected to all other algorithms. Smart cities are about maximizing efficiency. But what exactly gets optimized? Efficient for what? Cities are not just buildings, streets and cars. There are also people. The term "smart city" makes you think of an intelligent city working for its citizens when, in fact, a "smart city" could become a high-tech concentration camp where citizens are treated like numbers.
During the economic boom of the 1960s the Japanese government built giant tenements called "danchi". There are strict rules on what you can do and not do in these tenements. In 2000 the authorities discovered the skeleton (not even corpse) of a tenant who had died three years earlier. It took three years because for three years the dead man had paid on time all his bills: the amounts were automatically withdrawn from his bank account. The pension was automatically deposited there, and his bills were paid automatically from there. Algorithms were working perfectly fine even if he was long dead. Nobody noticed that he was missing until his bank account ran out of money. Then the government sent someone to make him pay and that's when his skeleton was discovered. (A moving book has been published by a humble woman who spent most of her life in one of these tenements, “Chieko’s 53 Years in Tokiwadaira Danchi”).
When Wystan Auden wrote his lengthy poem "The Age of Anxiety" (1947), he was sympathyzing with the plight of humanity in an increasingly mechanized society. The next step in that process of "anxiety" is the plight of humans when they have to deal with these vast heartless bureaucracies that surreptitiously remove the human/humane element and replace it with algorithms. You can feel that anxiety, in particular, when you try to do something that is not included in the algorithm. If your case is an "exception", the bureaucracy still tries to fit you into its algorithm, and most likely this will cause you anger, frustration and anxiety.
One day something was wrong with my car and i took it to the mechanic. The first thing he asked me was to fill a form. A few days later a friend broke her wrist while skateboarding and i took her to the hospital. She was obviously in pain, and obviously couldn't write. Nevertheless, the first thing they asked her at the hospital was to fill a form. I filled the form for her and noticed that this form to take care of a wounded human being was quite similar to the form for repairing a malfunctioning car.
The Canadian philosophers Arthur and Marilouise Kroker wrote in "Code Warriors" (1996) that the reduction of knowledge to data constituted "a systematic assault against the human species, a virtual war strategy where knowledge is reduced to data". I think the real problem lies not in codifying knowledge as data, something that has been done since the invention of the alphabet, but rather in codifying human behavior as algorithms.
We scientists spend an incredible amount of time filling forms and drawing spreadsheets just to justify how we spend the money for doing important research. Whenever we have an idea for a great conference, the first concern is about who is going to do all the paperwork and "red tape". The vast algorithmic bureaucracy of the university will not allow you to realize your project if first you don't find out the exact procedure to get the budget, to book the rooms, to order microphones and so forth, and who will write the cheques for honoraria, all the way down to the humble employee who must enter the tax information of each participant. One has to wonder how many great conferences, workshops and symposia never happened because no scientist had either the time or the patience to fill all those forms and send all those emails; how much intellectual capital is wasted by society to make sure that its algorithms are properly activated and obeyed.
It is not only that you live in an increasingly mechanized world, but your own life has been mechanized: your life is being reduced to an algorithm so that a vast bureaucracy of computers can easily and quickly process it (or, better, "process you").
Get over it: you are an algorithm.

Back to the Table of Contents


Purchase "Intelligence is not Artificial")
Back to Cognitive Science | My book on consciousness | My reviews of books | Contact