Thursday, March 22, 2018

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence I

There aren't many good general interest books on AI, and I have avoided reading the best known one, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom, because it was written by a philosophy professor, which, in my experience, guarantees that it will contain needless diversions and complications. For the same reason, I have not read Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, by Daniel Dennett, even though I received it as a gift, am interested in Darwinism, like Daniel Dennett and have attended one of his lectures: he is a philosopher. I thought I would give Life 3.0, by Max Tegmark, a try, since he is a physics professor and seems less likely to inundate the reader with excess baggage. His writing quality is not the best, and he uses gimmicks, such as the title. Life 1.0 includes life forms that are stuck in a stimulus-response mode, in which they react mechanically in all situations; life 2.0 includes life forms that can think and modify their behavior, i.e. humans; life 3.0 includes life forms that can change both their thinking and their physical form. Tegmark refers to thoughts as software and bodies as hardware.

The opening chapter is a science fiction short story set in the near future, in which a tech company assembles a crack team of researchers to work on AI. Their goal is to create artificial general intelligence, or AGI, which entails a machine which is able to perform a wide array of intelligent tasks at least as well as humans. Thus far, AI hardware and software have been able to exceed human capabilities only in narrowly-focused areas and have been incapable of performing a wide range of tasks. The team succeeds in steps, and their AI module, called Prometheus, gradually increases its capabilities. The company immediately decides to use Prometheus to create the maximum profit possible. One of its first potential projects is computer games, in which they could easily dominate the field, but they reject that option because it would provide Prometheus with a way to escape. Gradually they move to other fields and vanquish the competition. They are able to make virtual films that are calibrated to exactly match human preferences, and they soon control the entertainment industry. Often, shell companies are set up to disguise the dominance of the company. From a security standpoint, extreme measures are taken to prevent Prometheus from direct access to the internet. Because Prometheus is able to consistently create the best products at the lowest cost, non-AGI companies are unable to compete. Then the focus turns to politics, and Prometheus identifies the exact characteristics needed in politicians and how they should be presented if they are to be elected. Over time, the company is so profitable that it is able to absorb costs previously covered by government spending. The need for government services is reduced when the company successfully advocates massive privatization and then absorbs the costs of social services. Because of high efficiency and automation in the economy, there is widespread unemployment, and the company supports those who are unemployed by giving them jobs in community service. Finally, through its economic and technical strength, the company takes over the world.

Although this story isn't nuanced or detailed enough to be fully convincing, I think it does represent a plausible scenario for the future. In fact, the company roughly approximates Amazon.com, which is actively engaged in AI research. It is already noticeable that Amazon.com has expanded into unrelated businesses and is succeeding in them. In previous decades, companies that expanded this way often became unwieldy conglomerates, which eventually led to their breakup into separate companies because of their unmanageability. Even recently, RR Donnelley, the large printing company that I used to work for, was broken up into three companies, based on markets served. So far, Amazon.com is going in the opposite direction, and AI may already be playing a role in its management decisions and strategy. I recently noticed that Amazon.com may be expanding through shell companies. When I began to research pet food in 2016, I came across Reviews.com, which was the only site I could find that reviewed cat food that didn't have an obvious connection to pet food manufacturers. I was a little suspicious, because the recommended brands all had links to Amazon.com, but I didn't think about it much at the time, since the research seemed convincing. I didn't buy any cat food through Amazon.com, because other sites had the same products for less. Recently, I took another look at Reviews.com's cat food recommendations, and they were almost completely different; all of the new brands also had links to Amazon.com. There was no explanation as to why the brands that I had been buying disappeared. In the fine print, it is explained that, while all the endorsed brands are good, some of them are sponsored brands which provide the revenue to run the site. Reviews.com, unsurprisingly, is located in Seattle, where Amazon.com is headquartered. I would guess that nearly all of their research is based on data that is available in the public domain, and that they have very few employees. Their analysis is probably performed with software that other companies do not possess. Reviews.com is probably a cost-effective way for Amazon.com to boost its revenues.

Also, by coincidence, the influence on political campaigns by Cambridge Analytica, which recently came to light, mirrors the use of technology in the story. However, in the case of Cambridge Analytica, wealthy individuals such as Robert Mercer, rather than large corporations, seem to be focused only on political influence. If Mercer helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election, he is unlikely to attain whatever goals he may have had, since Trump obviously was not the right person for the job; he has been unpopular since day one, doesn't seem to know what he's doing, probably won't be reelected and will be lucky if he remains in office until the end of his first term. And it seems unlikely that Cambridge Analytica uses sophisticated AI. More likely, they were able to devise an effective campaign strategy by mining data from Facebook, processing it a little and using well-worn propaganda techniques.

I've still got a long way to go in the book, but it looks as if it covers all of the topics I've brought up before on this blog about AI, so it should be quite informative. I think Tegmark has a genuine concern regarding the effects of AI on human destiny. His science fiction short story is probably not the best way to open a book of serious nonfiction, but it does demonstrate what could happen in a possible future. In that instance, do we want the world to be run by Jeff Bezos? There are other scenarios, in which, say, China, develops AGI first, or perhaps different countries or organizations will develop it simultaneously. Since I think that AGI is likely to be developed, possibly in my lifetime, I don't consider this idle speculation, and I'll have more to say.

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