How to picture AI

How to picture AI

Jaron Lanier writes:

A technology by itself is never enough. In order for it to be of use, it needs to be accompanied by other elements, such as popular understanding, good habits, and acceptance of shared responsibility for its consequences. Without that kind of societal halo, technologies tend to be used ineffectively or incompletely. A good example of this might be the mRNA vaccines created during the covid epidemic. They were an amazing medical achievement—and yet, because of widespread incomprehension, they didn’t land as well as they might have. It might not even be proper to call a technology a technology absent the elements needed to bring it usefully into the human world; if we can’t understand how a technology works, we risk succumbing to magical thinking.

Another way of saying this is that we need cartoons in our heads about how technologies work. I don’t know enough about vaccines to make one for myself, but I have a vaccine cartoon, and it gives me an approximate understanding; it’s good enough to help me follow news about vaccines, and grasp the development process, the risks, and the likely future of the technology. I have similar cartoons in my head about rockets, financial regulation, and nuclear power. They aren’t perfect, but they give me good-enough intuitions. Even experts use cartoons to talk to one another: sometimes a simplified view of things helps them see the forest for the trees.

On this point, I experience some tension with many in my community of computer scientists. I believe that the cartoons we have broadcast about A.I. are counterproductive. We have brought artificial intelligence into the world accompanied by ideas that are unhelpful and befuddling. The worst of it is probably the sense of human obsolescence and doom that many of us convey. I have trouble understanding why some of my colleagues say that what they are doing might lead to human extinction, and yet argue that it is still worth doing. It is hard to comprehend this way of talking without wondering whether A.I. is becoming a new kind of religion. [Continue reading…]

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