Book review: Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine by J. Storrs Hall
The first two thirds of this book survey current knowledge of AI and make some guesses about when and how it will take off. This part is more eloquent than most books on similar subjects, and its somewhat different from normal perspective makes it worth reading if you are reading several books on the subject. But ease of reading is the only criterion by which this section stands out as better than competing books.
The last five chapters that are surprisingly good, and should shame most professional philosophers whose writings by comparison are a waste of time.
His chapter on consciousness, qualia, and related issues is more concise and persuasive than anything else I’ve read on these subjects. It’s unlikely to change the opinions of people who have already thought about these subjects, but it’s an excellent place for people who are unfamiliar with them to start.
His discussions of ethics using game theory and evolutionary pressures is an excellent way to frame ethical discussions.
My biggest disappointment was that he starts to recognize a possibly important risk of AI when he says “disparities among the abilities of AIs … could negate the evolutionary pressure to reciprocal altruism”, but then seems to dismiss that thoughtlessly (“The notion of one single AI taking off and obtaining hegemony over the whole world by its own efforts is ludicrous”).
He probably has semi-plausible grounds for dismissing some of the scenarios of this nature that have been proposed (e.g. the speed at which some people imagine an AI would take off is improbable). But if AIs with sufficiently general purpose intelligence enhance their intelligence at disparate rates for long enough, the results would render most of the book’s discussion of ethics irrelevant. The time it took humans to accumulate knowledge didn’t give Neanderthals much opportunity to adapt. Would the result have been different if Neanderthals had learned to trade with humans? The answer is not obvious, and probably depends on Neanderthal learning abilities in ways that I don’t know how to analyze.
Also, his arguments for optimism aren’t quite as strong as he thinks. His point that career criminals are generally of low intelligence is reassuring if the number of criminals is all that matters. But when the harm done by one relatively smart criminal can be very large (e.g. Mao), it’s hard to say that the number of criminals is all that matters.
Here’s a nice quote from Mencken which this book quotes part of:
Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on ‘I am not too sure.’
Another interesting tidbit is the anecdote that H.G. Wells predicted in 1907 that flying machines would be built. In spite of knowing a lot about attempts to build them, he wasn’t aware that the Wright brothers had succeeded in 1903.
If an AI started running in 2003 that has accumulated the knowledge of a 4-year old human and has the ability to continue learning at human or faster speeds, would we have noticed? Or would the reports we see about it sound too much like the reports of failed AIs for us to pay attention?