Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Progress, Real And Imaginary

Seeking progress is not a sin—unless it causes unnecessary harm. Or if it unnecessarily delays realistic progress in favor of unobtainable utopias. If it isn’t obvious, I’m talking about the promoters (hucksters, if I may) of The Singularity. The idea that superintelligent computers are inevitable and that this leap forward will solve all our problems is, to me, just smoke and mirrors, one more implausible, misguided utopia.

The progress they promote is an extension of past progress (mere extrapolation, if you will). E.g., they claim it’s inevitable. But progress is not a function of intelligence alone. Past progress was more than standing on the shoulders of giants. Intelligence, regardless of astounding individual achievements, is only the icing on the cake, glamorous high points rising above a vast foundation of often boring methodology. Superior intelligence, by itself, even super intelligence (whether from man or machine) will not yield significant progress, will not solve our problems.

The mundane moves much of the world. Science moves the world forward. If much of the scientific method is mundane, it is so because of the detailed rigorous steps required. Yet, this is the process that has given the world most of its progress. Yes, geniuses are important and exceptional intelligence can produce great leaps forward. But without the application of scientific discipline, great minds are little more than shooting stars.

To propose that superintelligence is achievable, when we don’t really understand intelligence—what it is, how to measure it, how to apply it effectively—is in itself absurdly foolish. To propose that superintelligence will solve our problems is delusional, since no one is willing to turn over government to the most intelligent humans. To propose that superintelligence in machines is desirable is not just ignorant, it is dangerous. Of what use is an intelligence without emotion (which supplies meaning), without personhood (which supplies value), and without consciousness (which enables true communication)? And what, pray tell, is an intelligence that is not a mind?

Scientific progress, for all its so-called breakthroughs, is mostly small step-by-step advances. Throwing this aside—even overlooking it for a moment—in favor of putting our valuable resource eggs into any utopian basket is not only senseless and wasteful, it is a risk we cannot afford to take. Especially at a time when we need all the solid progress we can get.

I realize this is not a popular position, that utopian dreams are what drive many, that the day-to-day details necessary for actual progress are not as dazzling as 3D dreams wrapped in shiny promises. Be that as it may, it’s the truth and someone has to say so. The commanders of the media may garner all the attention, but they are naked nonetheless.


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