Artificial Intelligence vs Synthetic Consciousness

The leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity is a leap across the Rubicon into a new world of synthetic consciousness.

 

Artificial Intelligence is an old idea, visited often by philosophers over the centuries. To researchers, programmers, and self professed nerds, the ultimate achievement in the field of AI has always been to create a machine interface, intuitive and adaptable enough to provide human users with a natural experience. Technologically, we are witnessing breakthroughs at an unprecedented pace, but philosophically we are still grappling with the meaning of intelligence, artificial or otherwise.

Blame the science fiction genre if you think an artificial intelligence interface should mimic a human personality. Most of us have been primed on the finer points of AI by Hollywood; the HAL9000 computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey“,  C3P0 and various droids in the “Star Wars” franchise, or the synthetic human replicants in “Blade Runner“.

Real artificial intelligence is considerably less human. IBM’s Watson became a household name by dominating its human opponents on the TV game show Jeopardy in 2011. Watson’s ability to quickly retrieve relevant information is an invaluable skill, but whether or not it qualifies as intelligent is up for debate. Intelligence, after all, is more than just matching well formed questions to existing factual answers.

In 2016, the AI team at Google’s DeepMind created an AI named AlphaGo to play the Chinese (and later, Japanese) board game, Go. Go is an abstract strategy game, unlike Jeopardy which is a question-and-answer game. Go requires players to invent their next move – while adhering to the rules of play. While Watson was programmed to quickly sift through data, AlphaGo was programmed to learn by doing. AlphaGo didn’t win its first, second, or millionth game – but it was able to remember every move it ever made in every game it ever played, building up a database of game-play scenarios that it continually refers back to; as they say, hindsight is 20/20. If you had instantaneous and flawless recall of everything you ever did, you’d be at the top of your game too.

AlphaGo has become virtually unbeatable at Go, but don’t ask it for directions to the nearest Starbucks. For that you need Siri. Apple’s voice activated virtual assistant adds a humanesque layer of functionality to Apple products with its voice recognition and verbose feedback. It can quickly retrieve information when asked in the form of question; “Hey Siri, where is the nearest Starbucks?”, or “Hey Siri, what is the largest prime number less than one million?”. In many ways, interacting with Siri is what it might have been like using an early development version of HAl9000, but something is missing. There is no ghost in this machine – it doesn’t feel alive.

We are measuring the quality of AI on a human scale. In fact we measure all intelligence on a human scale; we have no other point of reference. But human intelligence, curiosity, and consciousness are inextricably entwined.

Can an AI be programmed to be curious? Artificial intelligence has proven that it can retrieve answers and perform calculations – but can we program our AI to be creative enough to invent new questions? And if we do, will the AI ask questions that lead to its self-awareness? A sense of being? A will to live? Will the AI suffer the classic existential crisis and start searching for purpose in its existence?

To programmers, making the leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity is a matter of syntax – more code. But to philosophers, the leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity represents the great leap across the Rubicon into the new world of synthetic consciousness.

 

Facebook’s Polarizing Social Force

Racists become more racist, homophobes get even more homophobic, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider.

Opinions, preferences, beliefs, convictions – these are the elements of which our individual identities are constructed. We are creatures of proclivity. We like what we like – that’s our opinion – and we don’t like being asked to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. We have shown time and time again that a familiar falsehood is always preferential to an unpleasant truth.

This most human of traits is quite literally the very basis of the mathematical algorithm that generates your Facebook feed – and it’s fracturing society.

If you just rolled your eyes and thought, “Oh gawd, here we go. More of Glen’s paranoid Facebook-bashing”, please just read another few lines before you click away.

Think about your own Facebook newsfeed for a second … If you like Donald Trump, Facebook delivers pro-Trump news to your feed.  Oh, you don’t like Trump? Then Facebook delivers anti-Trump news to your feed.  If you believe that vaccines cause autism your newsfeed will reinforce this with agreeable news stories that support your anti-vaxxer stance, and vice versa.

You see the bias – Facebook shows us what we like, but we don’t consider what Facebook is hiding from us. Facebook biases our newsfeeds with content that we are most likely to “like” and hides the content that we are least likely to “like”. In marketing terms, a “like” is called “engagement”, and advertisers will spend billions to reach a highly-engaged audience. Great, right? A biased newsfeed full of content that supports our opinions; a newsfeed that validates our beliefs. We get a little surge of dopamine every time we see content that offers even a glimmer of hope that our opinions are correct. We are all dopamine junkies and we will spend every waking minute watching that news feed for something that says, “You’re right”.

So what. We like our dopamine. Where’s the harm in that?

Well, first you need to know two things

  1. Worldwide, 1 in 3 adults has an active Facebook account
  2. Facebook is the world’s #1 distributor of news information

The harm? One-third of the world’s literate, adult population is forming their opinions around information that is specifically tailored to agree with whatever opinions they already held – just reinforcing whatever they already believe. The harm is that racists become more racist, homophobes get even more hate-filled, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider. The harm is that Facebook’s nifty algorithm, which exploits the human tendency to be rather narrow-minded, is adding its energy to a wave of social chaos that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.

 

The loss of the letter

Thanks for the cat videos. Thank you for all the pictures of your protein smoothies and for letting me know that you worked out this morning. Thank you especially for inviting me to play Candy Crush Saga. And thank you, really, for your latest selfie — I almost forgot what you looked like.

Facebook, like the Internet itself, has a lot of promise. It has the potential to allow people to reconnect and share aspects of their lives with loved ones across great distances. It allows for a cultural exchange of ideas, art and information.

It provides a network through which millions of strangers can unite as one to accomplish what they cannot do alone.

Just like the Internet, however, Facebook is a cultural mirror. It shows us exactly who we are — what we like, what we desire and what we believe. For those willing to look beyond the trees to see the whole forest, Facebook is an unflatteringly accurate reflection of modern society — narcissistic, self-centric, superficial. There can be no other explanation for the volume and nature of the content we share. To look at Facebook is to see the world as the backdrop to somebody else’s selfie. Intelligent expression has been reduced to little more than an endless barrage of witty and sarcastic captions typed across photos of famous faces.

I recently came across a news story about a collection of letters that had been written by Albert Einstein to his friends and colleagues over the course of his career. I read some of them. Combined, they are the portrait of a man — fiercely intelligent, romantic, humorous, compassionate. In the age of Facebook, we have stopped writing letters, and in doing so, we have lost a gift of immeasurable value.

In this Facebook-ized society, we are having fewer and fewer meaningful conversations. As a result, we are not only depriving ourselves of the opportunity to interact on a deeper level with others, but we are also depriving future generations of something that our generation takes for granted — letters. Thanks to ink and paper, we presently enjoy a rich, historical record of insightful dialogue and the exchange of original ideas. It is highly doubtful that scholars in the next century will have the patience or inclination to sift through trillions of Facebook posts. And if they do, what will they find?

I have long believed that the greatest strength of the human species is our ability to communicate, to share complex and meaningful ideas so our accomplishments can be reproduced by others for the betterment of all.

By design, Facebook is the ideal tool for us to do just that — to express our creativity and share our intelligence. So, to that end, I’ll refrain from sharing a pictures of my breakfast and quotes from my cat.

Goodbye Facebook – Spy you later.

“They know what you like, what you think, what you believe, your desires, your intentions, your aspirations, and your fears.  They know where you live, where you work, where you shop, where you relax, and where you travel.  They know your friends, your family, your colleagues, and your classmates.  They know what you eat and when you sleep.  They know your face from every possible angle.  They know your your weight, your eye colour, your hair colour – today, yesterday, and tomorrow.  This is your dossier, and Facebook owns it.”

Facebook is watching you.Facebook knows all of this because you’ve shown them and told them.  You’ve given them the means to dig deep and fill in all gaps you’ve left empty.  You have given them the keys to your life.  Facebook knows more about you than you know about yourself.  And if you think you can hide behind a profile name like ChillyWilly88, think again.

Are you skeptical?  Do you think I’m paranoid?  Overreacting perhaps?  Follow me down the rabbit hole, and decide for yourself …

  1. Every face in every photo on Facebook is identified, willingly, by users like you.  Without realizing it, you and your friends have assisted in creating the largest database of faces and names ever compiled – hundreds of millions, approaching one billion.
  2. You have voluntarily allowed Facebook to track your movements by enabling the GPS function on your mobile phone.  By agreeing to Facebook’s terms of use, you have given them access to your location.  Within only a few weeks, your predictable daily pattern of activity emerges.  Not only do they know where you are now, they know where you will be an hour from now.
  3. You have told Facebook what you like, over and over and over.  Every time you click “like” you are adding another piece of psychographic meta-data to your growing dossier.  Have you noticed that most websites have a “like” button?  And that you normally don’t have to log-in to Facebook to “like” something, because you are already logged-in? The presence of a Facebook “like” button on a website indicates the use of tracking cookies, allowing Facebook to know what websites you visit, even if don’t click “like”.  This gives Facebook the means of building a hierarchical psychographic profile for every user.
  4. Now, that’s just you.  What about your “friends”?  Have they tagged you in photos?  Where you “with” them when they updated their status?  More meta-data: where, when, what, with whom, how often.
  5. Have you commented on a post?  What did you say?  Facebook can read.  The text, context, hypertext, and subtext of every comment you make is filtered and interpreted; creating a very complete picture of what really makes you tick.
  6. When are you active on-line?  When do you use Facebook the most?  When do you surf the web?  By monitoring your activity week after week, Facebook knows what shifts you work, when you sleep, when you take your lunch break, when you attend pottery class.  They also know what church you attend and how regularly go.

In short … Facebook + mobile phone = 24/7 surveillance

Now, I will repeat what I said earlier: “They know what you like, what you think, what you believe, your desires, your intentions, your aspirations, and your fears.  They know where you live, where you work, where you shop, where you relax, and where you travel.  They know your friends, your family, your colleagues, and your classmates.  They know what you eat and when you sleep.  They know your face from every possible angle.  They know your your weight, your eye colour, your hair colour – today, yesterday, and tomorrow.  This is your dossier, and Facebook owns it.

Why should you care?  What difference does it make if Facebook knows you are gay, or atheist, or democrat?  Under Facebook’s terms, your data will remain private as long as they wish.  Your data is their property, and when they choose to sell your dossier, they won’t have to ask your permission.  You have already given it.