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Artificial Intelligence and Its Ends

I had taken some class in Graduate School of Management; I don’t remember what the title of it was, it was one of those rather open-ended courses taught by the professors in my concentration, which was in general, Organizational Behavior/Human Relations. That part is not important; I just remember a brief discussion I had with someone in class, a woman who I don’t think was a student in GSM, maybe she was from another department, or visiting for some reason.

And I don’t remember how this came up; I said something about how the people who had invented some device or weapon bore some degree of responsibility for how it was used. And she said that this was “first-grade thinking.” Well, we didn’t usually have those kind of ad hominem attacks in classes, and I was rather shocked at her rudeness, but I said something non-personal in response, and then the discussion went on to another subject.

I have remembered that, for the tone of it, but more importantly, because it is about something which I have felt strongly about for long time, although you may or may not agree with me on it. I grew up reading and studying subjects in the Humanities: Literature, History, Philosophy, later Law. I did take many math courses in high school and even graduate school, which I liked; and then I took some science, which I mostly did not enjoy very much, but I had to take. Because of that preference, or as part of it, I am rather untrusting of the role of science and scientists. Not their honesty, necessarily, but my perhaps biased sense that many people in that field are so fascinated with inventing things, and gaining money and prestige for it, that they seem to have no interest in how these things might be used for dangerous or even evil ends.

An example which I might have given in that argument in class was, if someone invented a colorless, odorless, absolutely undetectable poison, would they not have a moral responsibility for how it was used? This is not like someone inventing a garden hoe which someone smashes someone’s head with; the purpose of the hoe was benign, although maybe a very humane inventor might put in some aspect which would make it less likely to be used as a weapon.

But the poison; what was the non-malevolent intention of that invention? My strong opinion is that for the inventor to shrug his shoulders, and say that he has no responsibility for the wave of unsolved poisonings which occurred, is either, or most likely both, disingenuous, and abysmally amoral. “Oh, I just wanted to invent this poison, I didn’t think of someone using it for malevolent purposes. I’m a scientist, I’ll leave that to the moralists.”

There are many things to worry about, if one wants to think about them. One can’t, or most likely shouldn’t, worry about all of them. But one thing that has always been a major concern for me, is that, as we have developed culture, science has come first, and the implications come later, usually if not always too late. Science comes up with new gadgets, new implements, new techniques, and then the world has to look on while we see what in many cases are the absolutely predictable and inevitable consequences of them.

And this gap is growing. I have this extreme image of a bunch of science types with glittering, fanatical eyes, working hard to come up with something which will give them fame, fortune, and power, or any one or two of those. That is probably an unfairly distorted image, but even if so, I think that the general truth is there. And I don’t think about this so much in terms of implements invented, like a new kind of oven or garden hose, or even the dreaded (by me) self-driving car. I think about Artificial Intelligence in all its aspects. Stephen Hawking said that AI was the greatest threat to the human race, and it doesn’t take much of an imagination to perceive the many reasons why.

I just saw a report on a new invention, something where the scientists can actually mimic someone’s voice, to where it is impossible for most to tell if it is the person they know, or the “bot” which has copied it. My favorite news anchor Chris Jansing, in her usual good-natured way, said that it was “cool, but creepy.” I would focus on the “creepy,” as I don’t see most inventions as cool, just unsettling at best

Well, it would be pretty easy for anyone with an imagination, to think of ways in which this device, which of course will be even more “perfected,” could be used for evil. The most obvious would be for monetary scams. Someone who sounds like your grandmother, or the head of your company, but which is in reality a bot created to mimic their voice, asks you to wire them some money to deal with an emergency. Someone, perhaps employed by a business rival, calls to tell you that your flight time has been changed to four hours later.

I don’t know about you, and I am very unsophisticated with regard to computer -oriented things, so maybe that is why I can’t easily fix it,; but I keep getting text messages on my phone, which read that Netflix, Amazon, some institution, has put a hold on my account, so that I need to click on the link to release it. Of course I never do, but it is still quite irritating and even unsettling. That is a pale imitation of what scammers can now do with fake voices which will sound exactly like people you know. And how far are we from seeing holographs, or whatever one calls them, that look like real people? Maybe “only” on TV or computers now, but how long until you start seeing simulacrums on the street, who walk and talk, and say “gonna” and “kinda,” and “like,” just like most people now do?

Elon Musk, who I now see as one of the most evil people in the world (and you don’t necessarily have to be intentionally evil, just stupid enough not to understand your evil), is apparently very interested in the world of Artificial Intelligence. Imagine the uses to which he could put it, and is already doing so. Create an army of bots which flood Twitter and other social media, with arguments and slogans in favor of totalitarianism. Bots which turn over targets’ personal information to the person who controls them.. Ads which appear to feature someone’s political enemies; they look and talk like them, saying weird things, to cause people not to vote for them.

I had mentioned the television show “Capture,” which I watched some of, and may come back to. It showed a developing ability to doctor and even create videos that could be used to charge and convict innocent people. “The video doesn’t lie,” becomes a terrible irony. Put the power to create a believable reality in the hands of unscrupulous and evil people, and they will not stop doing it. Could it get to the point where the average, well-meaning person could not tell truth from lies, day from night, your friends from your mortal enemies who want to enslave or destroy you? Why would it not get that far?

What I have felt, wishfully, was that we needed some kind of organization of very bright, very far-sighted people, who were necessary to approve inventions before they were allowed to be used. Maybe like the Federation in Star Trek? I actually don’t know much of what they did, but I think they were committed to philosophical principles, and morality; maybe like a more developed concept of what the United Nations was meant to be. Something to believe in, some indication that the human race was progressing, or seriously attempting to.

But America and the world have no such enlightened body with any power to implement anything they come up with. People might discuss these things in intellectual symposiums, Bill Clinton used to organize them, and invite all sorts of intelligent people from different disciplines to discuss a wide variety of issues. But of course they had no power. He did,but only to the extent that his enemies on the Right would let him try to explain and illuminate them to the public. And I would think that he and Hillary did discuss such profound things, but the Right Wing media, and the corporations which fund it, did not want to ever have such a dialogue. They wanted the power, the money, and the ability to do with science what most benefited only them.

So we have people, for whatever reasons, constantly experimenting to develop more sophisticated Artificial Intelligence. Why? Why are some scientists apparently trying to invent things which very likely have far more negative implications than positive? Where is the sense of responsibility, or do they just get so wrapped up in the excitement or power in doing it, that they don’t care? Please suggest one good reason for developing a program which can virtually mimic a real person’s voice? What is the purpose of robots? Oh, I can think of one or two fairly benign ones , but I can easily imagine much more nightmarish ones; and why do the people working on them seem to have no interest in those implications?

Do you remember a poem, maybe you read it in an anthology, “Nighmare Number 3” by Stephen Vincent Benet? It was written in 1935, and it imagined machines taking over. My father read it to me, and later I saw it in poetry books. Quite an unsettling poem. But the machines could not have been imagined by their inventors to have developed that kind of collective will and power. Artificial Intelligence could easily have been imagined or even expected to have. But the scientists, and then the very rich people who think that science will provide them with the ability to satisfy their desires to control the human race and make them worship them, imagine that they can control it for those ends. That is horrifying enough; the next step may be even more so. And yet they keep on inventing, and tinkering, and boasting about how they are perfecting their inventions. In the service of what?



17 Responses

  1. Interesting essay, William. I admit to having serious concerns about science run amok, in AI and other areas.

    I was a History major in college, with a concentration in J#w*sh history. I also took many courses in literature, philosophy and religion (the rigorous academic study of religion – I was not attending Bible college). I took only a few science courses, ones I needed to graduate.

    In the “History of the H#loc*ust” course I took in my major, my professor (who was J#w*sh) devoted an entire class session to the subject of the relatively large number of Germans who were university educated in the sciences who became N#zis, especially high level N#zis, as opposed to a much smaller number of Germans university educated in the humanities who became N#zis. Why was that the case, he asked? Can a concentration on the sciences somehow ‘desensitize’ people or make them less concerned about the consequences of actions? Conversely, does a focus on the humanities make people more empathetic or ethical? He had no clear answers to these complex questions (nor do I) but I do remember it was a fascinating discussion, one that continues to be relevant.

    • Yes, it is a very meaningful question. And then of course one could ask if it were the course of study which had effect on them, or did they already have the nature which gravitated to it? Your preference for the Humanties, and learning about history, is to your credit, in my view. But RD, who gravitated to science, also has the humanity which is so important.

      Certainly science has done some great things, but it has also done some awful things, no matter how the people rationalized it. And then the beyond terrible experiments which the Nazis performed on Jewish people, which the mind cannot even deal with.

      There are exceptions to most rules, but in general, I would feel more comfortable knowing that someone had read Shakespeare, and the poems of Keats and Coleridge, than that they were only immersed in science. I highly respect our best doctors, and people in related fields. But am very uncomfortable about “artificial intelligence,” because I have difficulty tracing a line of logic to how this is going to benefit the nature of humans, or enhance the higher emotions, including empathy, sympathy, and concern.

  2. It’s sad to me, but I think that most of the problems with the many scientific advances we see that are put to ill-use are due to greed. Money really is the root of all evil. I had to look it up and it appears this came from St. Paul, I really don’t have a lot of respect for what he said, but this one makes up for a lot.

      • OY, Even the greedy bastards who run Medicare Advantage plans want to use AI to rape their customers even faster. The Profit Gekko would be Soooo proud.

        • Something very similar to this just happened to a long-time friend of mine. His 92 year-old wife (he’s 83) fell and broke a hip in early February. Her surgery went well, but it took a week longer than originally expected for her to be discharged to a rehab facility. Their Medicare Advantage plan decided two weeks of rehab was enough and ordered her discharged to home, even though she can’t stand, feed herself, or do much of anything yet. Basically, continuing rehab at home was prohibitively expensive so last week they moved into assisted living.

          Traditional Medicare pays for 100 days of rehab after any hospitalization of 3 days or more. Medicare Advantage, not so much. They really do want to kill us all.

          • Unless and Until more Americans realize that the Advantage in Medicare Advantage always goes to the Insurance company stories like this will continue to happen. Sadly there are way TOO MANY Democratic politicians who support Medicare Advantage, and IMO the just as bad for us ACO-REACH.

  3. Slightly off topic: William, in your next lifetime, I hope you become an English professor. It must have been very hard for you to endure business school and law school in this life. Your soul belonged elsewhere.

  4. Okay, the camel’s back just broke.

    I can’t post links on about half the threads here.

    The environment gets gloomier and gloomier and gloomier.

    I doubt I will post here with any frequency any longer.

    May your lives and afterlives be blessed.


  5. Occasionally a comment will disappear into the ether but I don’t have problems posting links here.

  6. BTW: “science” has precious little to do with stuff like DALL-E and ChatGPT. There haven’t been any significant advances in the science of ML/AI in a couple of decades. What *has* happened is that various forms of compute accelerators (particularly ones that are very fast at low precision linear algebra – matrix multiplies in particular) have become much cheaper and more common, which in turn allows the collection of very large training data sets. That’s not science – it’s engineering.

    ChatGPT itself is a parlor trick. It doesn’t “know” anything, at least not in the sense we typically think of knowledge. It does generate English text in response to queries by stringing together words and phrases that its training data suggest are strongly correlated with the queries and with one another. Consider the following exchange between an Australian Computer Science professor and ChatGPT, as reported by him on LinkedIn:


  7. Totally off topic: Princeton beats Arizona in a huge upset! Probably ruined most people’s brackets (for people who do that sort of thing) but wasn’t it worth it?

    Don’t underestimate Northwestern. They are a good team. Beat us twice.

    • Yes, Northwestern had an impressive conference season, and former Duke player Chris Collins is a good coach. If UCLA wins that game, it’s probably peaking Gonzaga, and then Kansas. Too much, I think with our top defensive player, some say the best defender in the country, Jaylen Clark, out for the tournament.

      Definitely fun to see Princeton beat U of A. Good day for academic schools, nice to see them compete well in the tourney. With regard to Duke, It unfortunately looks like Scheyer is going to be a great coach, replacing K, who is now doing commercials.

      • Wow! #1 seed Purdue loses to #16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson. Huge upset.

        (I never thought Purdue was all that great or we wouldn’t have beaten them twice during the regular season!)

        Crazy tournament so far.

        • Gee, my favorite word to describe an upset seems to be “huge”. I need to expand my vocabulary in that respect.

  8. Fairleigh Dickinson with Brobdingnagian upset over Purdue!!!

    • Good adjective!

      Good win for Indiana. Purdue should not have been a #1 seed, but sure enough, Duke ended up in their region, and may well make the Final Four because of it.

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