The Coming Robot Takeover!: NBC News Goes Sci-Fi on the Singularity

by Vincent Board
File under: Fake Tech08 May 2013 2:09 EDT

NBC News has come out with an article on the singularity that echoes Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of the alien invasion drama The War of the Worlds, which many terrified people mistakenly took as real. While at least Mr. Welles had an aesthetic vision behind the manufacture of such hysteria, we can only imagine that desperation to scare up an audience motivated the network to run this kind of sensational nonsense: 

Ahhhhhh! Everybody panic! This is real, science says so- because nothing builds scientific credibility like beginning an article with mentions of robot overlords and an image from Terminator. Writer Tia Ghose then goes on to quote 'futurist' Ray Kurzweil extolling the power of computers over that of humans:

In his book "The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology" (Viking, 2005),futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted that computers will be as smart as humans by 2029, and that by 2045, "computers will be billions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence," Kurzweil wrote in an email to LiveScience.

"My estimates have not changed, but the consensus view of AI scientists has been changing to be much closer to my view," Kurzweil wrote.

This is a claim made in something like Scientology- it sounds plausible at first glance in a vague and impressive rhetorical way, but when you use that inferior old noggin on your shoulders you quickly realize it's just verbiage. As "smart" as humans? Smart how? Aren't they already smarter than humans in some respects- namely that function of computation a computer practices? There isn't a human on this planet that can perform millions of calculations in a second, like a computer can. 

Conversely, we know that there are domains of intelligence that a computer cannot even approach but humans can master. This includes anything involving any kind of self-awareness, which can never be attained by inorganic matter that's been constructed rather than evolved as a unified organism. This whole 'living' phenomenon seems to escape these prophets of the singularity who supply living motivations to these machines without realizing the firm class difference between life, which has motivations to solve problems intelligently, and non-life, i.e. all computers, which are constructed rather than born, and so can never have interests of their own. No computer program ever thought creatively about how to debug itself, to use the nearest analogy to living health possible. It would have no reason, and no capability regardless of increased processing power. It doesn't care if it malfunctions. Understanding, synthesizing, summarizing, creating, fixing- these all imply a unified self-awareness, and computers are never going to get there until some Dr. Frankenstein brings them to life- but that's probably NBC's next story. In the meantime, Ms. Ghose is forced to quote a more restrained computer scientist and concede that humans still have some value:

"I don't see any sign that we're close to a singularity," said Ernest Davis, a computer scientist at New York University.

While AI can trounce the best chess or Jeopardy player and do other specialized tasks, it's still light-years behind the average 7-year-old in terms of common sense, vision, language and intuition about how the physical world works, Davis said.

For instance, because of that physical intuition, humans can watch a person overturn a cup of coffee and just know that the end result will be a puddle on the floor. A computer program, on the other hand, would have to do a laborious simulation and know the exact size of the cup, the height of the cup from the surface and various other parameters to understand the outcome, Davis said.

But we're not interested in boring human realities. Forget that stuff. It's the computers that are going to save us! We're all going to live forever with machine parts and have magical computer economies!

Once the singularity occurs, people won't necessarily die (they can simply upgrade with cybernetic parts),and they could do just about anything they wanted to — provided it were physically possible and didn't require too much energy, Hibbard said.

The past two singularities — the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions — led to a doubling in economic productivity every 1,000 and 15 years, respectively, said Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., who is writing a book about the future singularity. But once machines become as smart as man, the economy will double every week or month.

This rapid pace of productivity would be possible because the main "actors" in the economy, namely people, could simply be replicated for whatever it costs to copy an intelligent-machine software into another computer.

This part tells you really everything you need to know about the cult of the singularity. Observe the social conditions in which it is growing- a crisis in every trusted institution of human affairs. Humans must be worthless compared to machines- look at the world we've created, in which we are already little better than them. Don't worry about the actual mess occuring in the economy, but take comfort in the expectation of a world in which heroic computers productively replicate disposable humans. We're the soulless, inorganic servants of state power, corporate corruption, and media trends, so who really still recognizes much of a distinctly human life? That implies concepts like self-creation, free-will, and contemplative (as opposed to artificial) intelligence. Unable or unwilling to rescue these virtues, we seek validation in wild fantasies of computer hegemony. Yet this is just an abdication of our humanity, a late Christian echo of the effacement of the ego in deference to an objectified pseudo "science", whom we imagine as having motivations in the form of anthropomorphized robots. The end of the article hints at the social reality underlying the scientific rationalizations:

Since Gutenberg invented the printing press, humans have continuously redefined intelligence and transferred those tasks to machines. Now, even tasks considered at the core of humanity, such as caring for the elderly or the sick, are being outsourced to empathetic robots, she said.

"The question is, could we evolve ourselves out of existence, being gradually replaced by the machines?" Slonczewski said. "I think that's an open question."

In fact, the future of humanity may be similar to that of mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of cells. Mitochondria were once independent organisms, but at some point, an ancestral cell engulfed those primitive bacteria, and over evolutionary history, mitochondria let cells gradually take over all the functions they used to perform, until they only produced energy.

"We're becoming like the mitochondria. We provide the energy — we turn on the machines," Slonczewski told LiveScience. "But increasingly, they do everything else."

We're just energy for the corporate-technological apparatus- at whose initiative? Certainly the computers didn't do it to us. Maybe what we need is less technology and more outdated introspection. Perhaps some therapy sessions with some empathetic robots can help us work through our 'human issues'. 

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Luke says:01 Jun 2013 0:08 EDT
Nice analysis. I agree that machines getting 'too smart' is the last thing we need to worry about in this era of constant institutional fuck-ups and stagnant, obsessively iterative technological 'progress.' I find it much more likely that AI systems will be implemented (especially in tools of violence like drones) far before their capabilities are up to the task by corporations desperate for the innovation that will restart the magic growth machine.

The ability to identify or appreciate naturally occurring intelligence (along with many other traditional forms of value) seems also to have been viciously excised from our collective consciousness(unfortunate side effect of media control system),making it even more doubtful that our society will be able to recreate it through mechanical means any time soon.
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