Singularity beef, day 2

Paul Raven @ 24-06-2011

Well, we’re off to a good start. Alex “Robot Overlords” Knapp also picked up on Stross’ skeptical post and Anissimov’s rebuttal thereof, and posted his own response. An excerpt:

Anissmov’s first point here is just magical thinking. At the present time, a lot of the ways that human beings think is simply unknown. To argue that we can simply “workaround” the issue misses the underlying point that we can’t yet quantify the difference between human intelligence and machine intelligence. Indeed, it’s become pretty clear that even  human thinking and animal thinking is quite different. For example, it’s clear that apes, octopii, dolphins and even parrots are, to certain degrees quite intelligent and capable of using logical reasoning to solve problems. But their intelligence is sharply different than that of humans.  And I don’t mean on a different level — I mean actually different.  On this point, I’d highly recommend reading Temple Grandin, who’s done some brilliant work on how animals and neurotypical humans are starkly different in their perceptions of the same environment.

Knapp’s argument here is familiar from other iterations of this debate, and basically hinges on what, for want of a better phrase, we might call neurological exceptionalism – the theory that human consciousness is an emergent function of human embodiment, and too complex to be replicated with pure hardware. (I’m maintaining my agnosticism, here, by the way; I know way too little about any or all of these fields of research to start coming to conclusions of my own. I have marks on my arse from being sat on the fence, and I’m just fine with that.)

But my biggest take-away from Knapp’s post, plus Ben Goertzel’s responses to such in the comments, and Mike Anissimov’s response at his own site? That the phrase “magical thinking” is the F-bomb of AI speculation, and gets taken very personally. Anissimov counters Knapp with some discussion of Bayesian models of brain function, which is interesting stuff. This paragraph is a bit odd, though:

Even if we aren’t there yet, Knapp and Stross should be cheering on the incremental effort, not standing on the sidelines and frowning, making toasts to the eternal superiority of Homo sapiens sapiens. Wherever AI is today, can’t we agree that we should make responsible effort towards beneficial AI? Isn’t that important? Even if we think true AI is a million years away because if it were closer then that would mean that human intelligence isn’t as complicated and mystical as we had wished? [Emphasis as found in original.]

This appeal to an emotional or ethical response to the debate seems somewhat out of character, and the line about “toasting the superiority” feels a bit off; I don’t get any sense that Stross or Knapp want AI to be impossible or even difficult, and the rather crowing tone rolled out as Anissimov cheerleads for Goertzel’s ‘scolding’ of Knapp (delivered from the comfort of his own site) smacks more than a little of “yeah, well, tell that to my big brother, then”. There are two comments on that latter post from one Alexander Kruel that appear to point out some inconsistencies in Goertzel’s responses, also… though I’d note that I’m more worried by experts whose opinions never change than those who adapt their ideas to the latest findings. This is an instance where the language used in the defence of an argument is at least as interesting as the argument itself… or at least it is to me, anyway. YMMV, and all that.

The last word in today’s round-up goes to molecular biologist and regular Futurismic commenter Athena Andreadis, who has repubbed an essay she placed with H+ Magazine in late 2009. It’s an argument from biological principles against the possibility of reproducing consciousness on non-biological substrates:

To place a brain into another biological body, à la Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, could arise as the endpoint extension of appropriating blood, sperm, ova, wombs or other organs in a heavily stratified society. Besides being de facto murder of the original occupant, it would also require that the incoming brain be completely intact, as well as able to rewire for all physical and mental functions. After electrochemical activity ceases in the brain, neuronal integrity deteriorates in a matter of seconds. The slightest delay in preserving the tissue seriously skews in vitro research results, which tells you how well this method would work in maintaining details of the original’s personality.

To recreate a brain/mind in silico, whether a cyborg body or a computer frame, is equally problematic. Large portions of the brain process and interpret signals from the body and the environment. Without a body, these functions will flail around and can result in the brain, well, losing its mind. Without corrective “pingbacks” from the environment that are filtered by the body, the brain can easily misjudge to the point of hallucination, as seen in phenomena like phantom limb pain or fibromyalgia.

Additionally, without context we may lose the ability for empathy, as is shown in Bacigalupi’s disturbing story People of Sand and Slag. Empathy is as instrumental to high-order intelligence as it is to survival: without it, we are at best idiot savants, at worst psychotic killers. Of course, someone can argue that the entire universe can be recreated in VR. At that point, we’re in god territory … except that even if some of us manage to live the perfect Second Life, there’s still the danger of someone unplugging the computer or deleting the noomorphs. So there go the Star Trek transporters, there go the Battlestar Galactica Cylon resurrection tanks.

No signs of anyone backing down from their corner yet, with the exception of Alex Knapp apologising for the “magical thinking” diss. Stay tuned for further developments… and do pipe up in the comments if there’s more stuff that I’m missing, or if you’ve your own take on the topic.