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")

Why I am not Afraid of A.I.

Between 2014 and 2015 Silicon Valley's serial entrepreneur Elon Musk and British physicist Stephen Hawking, as well as the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, all sounded alarm bells about the danger posed to humankind by Artificial Intelligence. Even former secretary of state Henry Kissinger weighed in, writing an article in the Atlantic titled "How the Enlightenment Ends" (June 2018). They were descendants of Bill Joy's "The Future doesn't need us". In 2016 Elon Musk and Peter Thiel founded OpenAI, a non-profit organization with the mission "to advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole". They hired Ilya Sutskever, formerly at Google and formerly in Hinton's group, to lead the research, and hired advisors such as Pieter Abbeel of UC Berkeley, Yoshua Bengio, and personal-computer pioneer Alan Kay. Even former secretary of state Henry Kissinger weighed in, writing an article in the Atlantic titled "How the Enlightenment Ends" (June 2018).

Gates, Hawking and Musk had a predecessor in the visionary art historian Jack Burnham. In the final pages of his book "Beyond Modern Sculpture" (1968) Burnham predates today's apocalyptic transhumanism, hinting at the possibility that humans may be engineering the very life form that will succeed them on this planet.

I, instead, am not afraid of A.I. because we are not even remotely close to having truly intelligent machines.

I am not afraid of A.I.: I am afraid that it will not arrive soon enough. Machines are essential to our well-being today, and will increasingly determine our well-being in the future, and more intelligent machines are probably indispensable to solve many of the gravest problems of our era.

A world without robots is a world in which humans have to work for very low wages in order to produce goods that ordinary families can afford to buy. It is a world in which only the rich could afford a car or even a TV set. A world without robots is a world in which humans would have to perform all sorts of dangerous and unhealthy jobs, such as cleaning up Fukushima's nuclear disaster, and would have to work in horrible conditions inside mines and steelworks. Robots are being used to disarm suicide bombers and to remove landmines. Without robots, these tasks would be carried out by human beings. A world without robots would be a terrible world.

Robots suffer from poor marketing. Robots are mostly presented as big, scary beasts. We should instead publicize the fact that someday the hardware store next door will offer tiny robots capable of crawling inside the plumbing of our house and of unclogging the pipes. Robotic "exosuits" will allow us to lift and carry heavy weights in the backyard. And so forth: robots will help us by solving practical problems around the house.

Do we need service robots? Do they steal jobs? Have you ever desperately looked for a human being in a large store, a shopping mall, a hotel lobby, a train station, a public office, or even in a street? How many times does it happen that you have a simple question and there's nobody to talk to? Or maybe there are people but they don't speak your language, or they are tourists like you, or they are wearing headsets and listening to music? Wouldn't it be nice if a robot could answer your question and, if it is about a location, even take you there? It could even be that humankind finally gets rid of the "hours of operation". Service robots can someday keep a store open nonstop even when all the human staff is asleep. That would be a much more dramatic achievement than super-intelligent machines. These service robots do not steal jobs. Those jobs today don't exist. Maybe they existed a century ago, and maybe they still exist in poor countries. I have been in developing countries where a clerk welcomes you when you enter the store and gladly helps you to find the product that you are looking for. But this has become a rarity in developed countries.

Instead of worrying about the jobs that may be "stolen" by machines, we should worry about the jobs that we will soon need and for which we are not prepared. Taking care of elderly people is a prime example. There is virtually no country where population growth is accelerating. In most countries of the world, population growth is decelerating. In some countries it is turning negative. In many countries the population has peaked and will soon start decreasing while at the same time aging thanks to improvements in medicine. In other words, many countries need to prepare for a future with a lot of older people with fewer younger people who can take care of them. In the Western world the 1950s and 1960s were the age of the "baby boom". The big social revolution of the 21st century will be the boom of elderly people. The rich world is entering the age of the "elderly boomers". Who is going to take care of that aging population? Most of these aging people will not be able to afford full-time human care. The solution is robots: robots that can go shopping, that can clean the house, that can remind people to take their medicines, that can check their blood pressure, etc. Robots could do all of these things day and night, every day of the year, and at an affordable price. I am afraid that A.I. will not come soon enough and we will face the aging apocalypse.

We profess that we want all the people in the world to become rich like in the rich Western countries, but the truth is that any "rich" society needs poor people to perform all the vital jobs that the "richer" people refuse. Poor people take care of most of the chores that keep society working and that keep us alive. Those are humble and low-paid jobs such as collecting garbage and making sandwiches. We profess that we want all eight billion people of the planet to have the same standard of living that the rich world has, but what happens when all eight billion people become rich enough that nobody wants to take those humble and low-paid jobs? Who is going to collect the garbage once a week, who is going to make sandwiches at the lunch cafeteria, who is going to clean the public bathrooms, who is going to wash the windows of the office buildings? We don't want to admit it, but today we rely on the existence of millions of poor people who are willing to do those jobs that we don't want to do. I hope that we will indeed solve the problem of poverty in 50 years or even less; but that means that we only have 50 years to invent robots that can do all the jobs that people will not want to do 50 years from now. I am not scared of robots, i am scared of what will happen in 50 years if we don't have intelligent robots to collect garbage, make sandwiches, clean bathrooms, etc.

A world without robots is a dysfunctional world, a world of very poor people working and living in horrible conditions, a world of societies that cannot care for the elderly and that cannot help people with permanent disabilities.

A world without robots is a scary place.

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