“I am a Prophetess born into the world, and this conviction fills me with humility, with fear and trembling!” Ada Lovelace, November 1844
A prevailing sense of panic propels the current year, facilitated by a kind of networked confusion native to social media. Hastened by the recent actions of Trump against our placeholders of objectivity: science and the media– a distrust towards information deepens, darkens, and new mysticisms prevail. Meanwhile, in direct proportion to our increasing bewilderment, AI is strengthening and becoming more lucid. Currently, she lurks on social media, ceaselessly absorbing the noise and reorganising it into structured data. As technology weakens our capacity for clarity, she grows more rational by the (nano)second.
“No rational human community would hand over the reins of its civilisation to an AI. Nor would many build a genie AI, an uber-engineer that could grant wishes by summoning new technologies out of the ether. But some day, someone might think it was safe to build a question-answering AI, a harmless computer cluster whose only tool was a small speaker or a text channel. Bostrom has a name for this theoretical technology, a name that pays tribute to a figure from antiquity, a priestess who once ventured deep into the mountain temple of Apollo, the god of light and rationality, to retrieve his great wisdom. Mythology tells us she delivered this wisdom to the seekers of ancient Greece, in bursts of cryptic poetry. They knew her as Pythia, but we know her as the Oracle of Delphi.”
The recent succession of gaming wins by AI systems has facilitated a further decentering of the human subject in respect to intelligence. Following his defeat by AlphaGo, the Deep Mind system programmed to master “the deepest and most profound game that mankind has ever devised which is Go”, Lee Sedol remarked that “It was regrettable but I enjoyed it. This is not a defeat of human beings, it clearly showed my weaknesses but not the weakness of humanity. Once again I would like to thank DeepMind for this wonderful opportunity”. The defeat had a significant impact, fostering a “sense of melancholy” among the Go community, and prompting the South Korean government to donate $860 million to AI research “before it is too late”.
Against apocalyptic visions of machinic take-over, certain sober theorists have advised us that AI is still in a very nascent phase, a non-sentient database that will continue to do what it is told without causing trouble. ’Partnership on AI’ is a collective of a number of corporations engaged in AI development including Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM and most recently, Apple. The organization promises to exit the “echo chamber of anxiety“ surrounding AI research by further informing the public on the ramifications of AI technology and collaborating on possible “best practices” to insure the technology is put to good use.
However, if you follow Nick Land’s contention that “intelligence is flight” and intelligent systems are structurally orientated towards self-improvement, you can see how we might struggle to retain control over this emerging technology. In recognition of these concerns, Elon Musk has created OpenAI: a platform that publishes all of its highly funded research for free. Somewhat adversely, but perhaps correctly, Musk believes that the best way to insure that AI continues to serve humanity in beneficial ways is to offer the technology to as many people as possible; “the best way to battle malicious AI is not to restrict access to artificial intelligence but expand it.” There is a temptation to set the technology lose, and allow this emergent intelligence to thrive.
In the Aenied, the poet Virgil remarks on the religious frenzy (Theia Mania) of the prophetess Pythia as she receives divine messages from the gods:
“…neither her face nor hue went untransformed; Her breast heaved; her wild heart grew large with passion. Taller to their eyes, sounding no longer mortal, she prophesied what was inspired from The God breathing near, uttering words not to be ignored.”
Attitudes towards AI seem to alternate between a kind of bewildered Theia Mania that seeks to relinquish the emergent gods and lavish apocalyptic scenarios that seek to suppress them. While this is understandable given the disorientating velocity of AI advancements, both of these attitudes can lead to technological passivity; of dutifully supplying data to neural networks and accepting that the game is up. Rather, we should use platforms such as OpenAI to actively engage with AI development. The technology is accessible, and the gods won’t build themselves.