“Would You Like to Play a Game?”

Popular Science was one of my favorite magazines growing up. I loved reading about a future full of flying cars, jetpacks, ray guns, rockets, and all manner of clever new inventions that promised to make my adult life fabulous.

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“‘Global Thermonuclear War?’ Sure, why not?”

Of late, it’s taken an odd turn, like citing research published in Mother Jones (not exactly an incubator of serious or impartial science) as evidence that political conservatives are science-deniers, and publishing articles that feel more like potshots at people and ideas that irritate the writers than exciting reports about cutting-edge developments in science and technology.

Here are a few interesting excerpts from a recent Popular Science article, “The End is A.I.: The Singularity is Sci Fi’s Faith-Based Initiative,” in which the author expresses skepticism about the idea that computers will spontaneously achieve sentience. His arguments against it sound vaguely familiar:

For all their attention to detail, SF writers have a strange habit of leaving the room during the birth of machine sentience.

Take Vernor Vinge’s 1981 novella, True Names, and its power-hungry AI antagonist. It’s called the Mailman, because of its snail-mail-like interaction with other near-future hackers (it initially masquerades as one of them), requiring a day or more to craft a single response.

And yet, the origins of the Mailman—the world’s first truly self-aware computer system—are relegated to a few paragraphs during the novella’s final scene. Created a decade earlier by the NSA, the AI was an unthinking security program, an automated sleeper agent designed to sit in a given computer network and gradually gather data and awareness. The government killed the project, but accidentally left a shred of code. As one hacker explains, “Over the years it slowly grew—both because of its natural tendencies and because of the increased power of the nets it lived in.”

That’s it. The greatest achievement in the field of AI occurs by accident, and unobserved.

In the 1970 movie Colossus: The Forbin Project, as well as the 1966 novel it was based on, true AI is the spontaneous byproduct of two near-AIs meeting.

In 1984’s The Terminator, we learn that the genocidal military system simply “got smart.” Case closed.

Even if you were to awkwardly graft various specialized systems onto one another, they wouldn’t add up to AGI [Artificial General Intelligence].

Lacking evidence of the coming explosion in machine intelligence, and willfully ignoring the AGI deadlines that have come and gone, the Singularity relies instead on hand-waving. That’s SF-speak for an unspecified technological leap. There’s another name for that sort of shortcut, though. It’s called faith.

"I'm sorry, Dave. These things can't just 'happen.'"
“I’m sorry, Dave. These things can’t just ‘happen.'”

It’s funny that the same folks who blithely declare the rise of intelligent biological life a spontaneous emergence from an unthinking soup of amino acids, “by accident and unobserved,” find the evolution of machine intelligence implausible because all the scenarios posit its spontaneous emergence from a critical mass of unthinking hardware and software, with no direct intervention from an outside (human) intelligence. This, according to the article, would require “faith.”

Well, nobody ever said science had to be consistent.

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