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")

Machine Immortality and the Cloud

The other implicit assumption in the scenario of mind uploading is that these superhuman machines, capable of self-repairing and of self-replicating, will live forever.

That would represent a welcome change from what we are used to. The longest life expectancy for an electrical machine probably belongs to refrigerators, that can last longer than a human generation. Most appliances die within a decade. Computers are the most fragile of all machines: their life expectancy is just a few years. Their "memories" last less than human memory: if you stored your data on a floppy disc twenty years ago, there is probably no way for you to retrieve them today. Your CDs and DVDs will die before you. And even if your files survived longer, good luck finding an application that can still read them. Laptops, notepads and smartphones age increasingly faster. The life expectancy of machines seems to be decreasing ever more rapidly. And, of course, they are alive only for as long as they are plugged into an electrical outlet (battery life can be as little as a few hours); and they seem to be more vulnerable than humans to "viruses" and "bugs".

One has to be an inveterate optimist to infer from the state of the art in storage media that increasingly mortal and highly vulnerable computer technology is soon to become immortal.

Of course, the Singularity crowd will point out the "cloud", where someone else will take care of transferring your data from one dying storage to a newer one and translating them from one extinct format to a newer one. Hopefully some day the cloud will achieve, if not immortality, at least the reliability and long lifespan of our public libraries, where books have lasted millennia.

Having little faith in software engineers, i am a bit terrified at the idea that some day the "cloud" will contain all the knowledge of the human race: one "bug" and the entire human civilization will be wiped out in one second. It is already impressive how many people lose pictures, phone numbers and e-mail lists because of this or that failure of a device. All it takes is that you forget to click on some esoteric command called "safely remove" or "eject" and an entire external disc may become corrupted.

If and when super-intelligent machines come, i fear that they will come with their own deadly viruses, just like human intelligence came (alas) with the likes of influenza pandemics, AIDS (Acquired ImmunoDeficiency Syndrome), SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), Ebola and Zika. And that's not to mention the likelihood of intentional cyber terrorism (i'm not sure who's getting better at it: the cryptographers who are protecting our data or the hackers who are stealing them) and of "malware" in general. If today they can affect millions of computers in a few seconds, imagine what the risk would be the day that all the knowledge of the world is held in the same place, reachable in nanoseconds. The old computer viruses were created for fun by amateurs. We are entering the age in which "cyber crime" will be the domain of super-specialists hired by terrorists and governments. Originally, a computer virus was designed to be visible: that was the reward for its creator. Today's cyber crime is designed to be invisible... until it's too late. Remember when only fire could destroy your handwritten notes on paper? And it was so easy to make photocopies (or even manual copies) of those handwritten notes? We found the Dead Sea Scrolls two thousand years after they had been written (on a combination of vellum and papyrus), and the Rosetta stone is still readable after 2,200 years. Think of the Herculaneum Papyri, stored in Napoli's National Museum, dated to AD 79 and discovered in the 18th century, of the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus on parchment, discovered in 1844 at the monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai, housed in the British Museum, of the 2,000-year-old Buddhist scrolls discovered in the early 20th centuries in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang in China (housed in Beijing, London, Paris and St Petersburg). I wonder how many data that we are writing today will still be found two thousand years from now in the "cloud".

In March 2019 MySpace announced that all music uploaded onto MySpace prior to 2015 was lost. If you uploaded your song to MySpace in 2014, its "immortality" lasted only 5 years. Compare with the "Hurrian Hymn No. 6," written on a clay tablet around the 14th century B.C and discovered in the 1950s in Syria, or even with the "Gloria" by Handel whose score was found 300 years later at the Royal Academy of Music in 2001. If you want immortality, make sure your consciousness is replicated on paper or on a Sumerian tablet, not in a digital format that can be erased in a split second.

Hackers will keep getting more and more sophisticated and, when armed with powerful computers provided by rich governments, will be able to enter any computer that is online and access its contents (and possibly destroy them). In the old days the only way for a spy to steal a document was to infiltrate a building, search it, find the safe where the documents were being held, crack open the safe or bribe someone, duplicate the documents, flee. This was dangerous and time consuming. It could take years. Today a hacker can steal thousands if not millions of documents while comfortably sitting at her desk, and in a fraction of a second. The very nature of digital files makes it easy to search and find what you are looking for.

Ironically, an easy way to make your files safe from hacking is to print them and then delete them from all computers. The hacker who wants to steal those files is now powerless, and has to be replaced by a traditional thief who has to break into your house, a much more complicated proposition.

Cyber-experts now admit that anything that you write in digital form and store on a device that is directly or indirectly connected to the Internet will, sooner or later, be stolen. Or destroyed. When, in march 2013, the websites of JPMorgan Chase and then American Express were taken offline for a few hours after being attacked by the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters, cyber-security expert Alan Paller warned that cyber-attacks are changing from espionage to destruction. A malware to destroy (digital) information on a large scale would be even easier to manufacture than the malware Stuxnet (unleashed in 2010 probably by Israel and the USA) that damaged about one thousand centrifuges used to enrich nuclear material at Iran's nuclear facility in Natanz.
In just the year 2017 three billion Yahoo accounts were hacked, the WannaCry "ransomware" hit half of the world, and 145 million Equifax accounts were hacked. In 2016 even the servers of the US Democratic Party were hacked and we don't know how many financial and political agencies have been the victims of cyber-crime and didn't report it to avoid panic among the public. For millennia we thought of war mainly as destruction of buildings (and, alas, of the people who live inside them), but future will feature a new kind of wars, wars that will be about destroying data, each one an escalating cyber-battle between those who try to protect data and those who want to destroy data. I am not sure who is more motivated: the cyber-criminals make money only when they win the battle, whereas the executives get their hefty salary even when they lose (Fortune reported that, after losing that catastrophic cyber-battle, Equifax's CEO Richard Smith retired with $90 million in compensation).

I also feel that "knowledge" cannot be completely abstracted from the medium, although i find it hard to explain what the difference is between knowledge stored in Socrates' mind, knowledge stored in a library and knowledge stored in a "cloud". A co-founder of one of the main cloud-computing providers said to me: "Some day we'll burn all the books". Heinrich Heine's play "Almansor", written a century before Adolf Hitler's gas chambers, has a famous line: "Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people too". Unlike most predictions about machine intelligence, that is one prediction that came true.

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