Wednesday, August 13, 2014

David Hume nails Artificial Intelligence

"Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

David Hume, "Treatise on Human Nature", T 2.3.3 p. 415, 1739.
Razib Khan writes:
"In other news, my post on the Islamic State has been widely distributed, including being referenced in Ross Douthat’s column. I would have chosen a better title if I had known how it would blow up, but who knows such things. Most of the reaction has been positive, but a few have come up with this sort of feedback:

"The ease with which the author rationalizes ISIS' genocidal ways has left me pretty much speechless!"

The post was long, so this individual may not have read it in full. Or, they may have some issues with reading comprehension, I’m not the clearest writer sometimes (though often it is by design because sometimes I don’t want to be explicit about secondary or sideline issues). But it’s not an uncommon response over the years when I talk about controversial or difficult things. There are several definitions of rationalize, but the key is that often I write in a somewhat bloodless and detached manner about topics which people are emotional about. The problem here is with people who are emotional and allow their emotions to cloud all ability to reason. To understand something you need to engage in Epoche, detach yourself from your conventional perspective and attempt to fly over the landscape. Those who lack emotional self control can’t comprehend that sort of self control in others, and so impute emotional motives. This is unfortunate, since it helps turn everything into screaming match. On the other hand, I do agree with David Hume that reason serves emotions. But that service of reason is rendered null if the two aspects are muddled."

Putting Empiricism to one side, let's agree that Hume is absolutely right in the quote at the start of this post. People in the grip of emotion (often abhorrence or disgust, but it can go the other way) all too frequently apply their rationality in the service of justifying their feelings. So what is Razib Khan actually asking for? That the emotional drive we should engage when thinking about something analytically is that of enquiry, the urge to find out. Only there will truth lie (and apologies for the superficial gloss on Epoché).

Another application of Hume's law. People worry about the technological singularity, that the ultrasmart machines will take over the world and render humans extinct. But wait - it's those endangered humans who build the smart machines; the AI systems' objectives -  Hume's 'reason' - derives from our own human objectives. While this remains true, they're artefacts, and typically artefacts which can't self-reproduce. If our smart tools render us extinct (why? what passions drive them thus and from whence did they come?) they'll soon be streaks of rust on the landscape. The magic of entropy.

Start to worry only when we design automata which are capable of self-reproduction in a non-technological environment and are motivated to do so. Von Neumann might have had the worst idea in history!