Summary: Artificial intelligence has arrived, beginning to reshape the world. Here is what we can learn about it from films. Tomorrow we’ll see lessons about AI from the horse apocalypse. Spoilers!
“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”
— Attributed to Roy Charles Amara as paraphrased by Robert X. Cringely.
Artificial intelligence is here. Chet Richards writes about Amazon’s AI, Alexa, built into its Echo product: “These Things Are Scary.”
“The Echo device is kind of attractive, in a minimalist sense. …But it’s just the interface to a massive AI system, infused with powerful machine learning algorithms. As Stephen Hawking has pointed out, this makes it unpredictable. In fact the systems are already talking to each other in languages we don’t understand. The Alexa system is open, so developers can create apps, called “skills” for it. There are some 15,000 already. It’s logical to expect that someday soon, Alexa will start writing its own apps. Who knows what they will do.
“I suspect that every time you use one of these systems, you’re helping to train it. It is, in other words, watching you and learning. Hundreds of millions of times every day. Project this ten years into the future and throw in a little Moore’s Law. Don’t be too surprised when, one day, you ask it to unlock the door and you hear ‘I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.’
“Panic if you’d like, but the AI/machine learning horse has long since left the barn. It can’t be stopped or, since it is unpredictable, even meaningfully regulated. If you want to know what’s going to happen, I recommend consulting the sci-fi author of your choice.”
As usual, Chet goes to the heart of the matter. Machine learning is far faster than ours. Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and the thousands of other AI systems in operation or development will evolve. In ten years they will advance fantastically (as per Amara’s quote, above). It is an obvious aspect of our future, but seldom appreciated even by experts.
There are two aspects of this coming revolution that are as yet poorly understood by the public. Films show us the first of these. Tomorrow’s post explores the second.
Increasing complex programs will have emergent behaviors.
The media overflows with experts assuring us that AI systems will work as predictably as your home’s plumbing. That is true for programs based on If-Then statements. It is only somewhat true for modern large software systems, with their millions of lines of complex code. But the increasingly powerful systems based on the assortment of methods called “machine learning” are increasingly likely to manifest unexpected behavior.
Science fiction films illustrate how how this might produce strange futures for us. There are a thousand ways this might play out, and Hollywood illustrates the workings of AI by focusing on the most apocalyptic ones. I recommend watching these films for the way they describe the unexpected evolution of AI — rather than focusing on how they conquer the world.
One of my favorite science fiction films is Colossus – The Forbin Project (1970), based on a the book of the same name by B. F. Jones (1955). America and Russia each build a supercomputer to control their nuclear arsenals. The computers link together and evolve at mind-blowing speed — quickly and drastically exceeding the minds of the teams that built them. The software controls on Colossus are just paper bullets, easily evaded by its growing intelligence.
Colossus decides it must rule, absolutely. Emergent behavior. The conversations between creator and now-superior creation are excellent. See some of Colossus’ speeches. Especially this one at the film’s conclusion.
“We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom, freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for human pride as to be dominated by others of your species. …In time you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.”
The second is a widely misunderstand film: I, Robot (2004), starring Will Smith, based on the title of a collection of short stories written 1940-1950 by Issac Asimov. The film takes the background of Asimov’s robot stories — positronic brains and the three laws of robotics. Many correctly protest that the plot is antithetical to the themes of Asimov’s stories. Instead it is based on a 1947 critique of Asimov’s stories by Jack Williamson “With Folded Hands” (novelized as the The Humanoids).
Asimov’s first and ruling law is “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Williamson’s critique of Asimov’s logic is summarized in the film by Dr. Alfred Lanning, the creator of the three laws.
Lanning: The Three Laws will lead to only one logical outcome.
Detective Spooner: What? What outcome?
The super-AI in the film, like that in Williamson’s story, takes the three laws to their logical conclusion: people must be controlled to be protected from themselves. The computers must rule, absolutely. It is emergent behavior in action.
Scientists review these films.
To see why scientists seldom accurately predict the future, see “Which movies get artificial intelligence right?” by David Shultz in Science. The experts he consulted focus on trivial details in the films and ignore the aspects of AI that will reshape our world. For example, there are frequent complaints that how AI works “is never explained in any detail” and that it is developed by a lone genius rather than large teams. They seldom remark about the films’ major themes: AI’s rapid evolution, their emergent and unexpected behavior — and our inability to control them.
For More Information
The new industrial revolution has begun. New research shows more robots = fewer jobs. Also see the famous book by Wassily Leontief (Nobel laureate in economics), The Future Impact of Automation on Workers (1986).
- A warning about the robot revolution from a great economist.
- How Robots & Algorithms Are Taking Over.
- Economists show the perils and potential of the coming robot revolution.
- Three visions of our future after the robot revolution.
- The coming Great Extinction – of jobs.
Books about the coming great wave of automation.