(Roughly) Daily

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way”*…

… or at least sociopathic. Indeed, Evgeny Morozov suggests, we may be well on our way. There may be versions of A.G.I. (Artificial General Intelligence) that will be a boon to society; but, he argues, the current approaches aren’t likely to yield them…

… The mounting anxiety about A.I. isn’t because of the boring but reliable technologies that autocomplete our text messages or direct robot vacuums to dodge obstacles in our living rooms. It is the rise of artificial general intelligence, or A.G.I., that worries the experts.

A.G.I. doesn’t exist yet, but some believe that the rapidly growing capabilities of OpenAI’s ChatGPT suggest its emergence is near. Sam Altman, a co-founder of OpenAI, has described it as “systems that are generally smarter than humans.” Building such systems remains a daunting — some say impossible — task. But the benefits appear truly tantalizing.

Imagine Roombas, no longer condemned to vacuuming the floors, that evolve into all-purpose robots, happy to brew morning coffee or fold laundry — without ever being programmed to do these things.Sounds appealing. But should these A.G.I. Roombas get too powerful, their mission to create a spotless utopia might get messy for their dust-spreading human masters. At least we’ve had a good run.Discussions of A.G.I. are rife with such apocalyptic scenarios. Yet a nascent A.G.I. lobby of academics, investors and entrepreneurs counter that, once made safe, A.G.I. would be a boon to civilization. Mr. Altman, the face of this campaign, embarked on a global tour to charm lawmakers. Earlier this year he wrote that A.G.I. might even turbocharge the economy, boost scientific knowledge and “elevate humanity by increasing abundance.”

This is why, for all the hand-wringing, so many smart people in the tech industry are toiling to build this controversial technology: not using it to save the world seems immoral. They are beholden to an ideology that views this new technology as inevitable and, in a safe version, as universally beneficial. Its proponents can think of no better alternatives for fixing humanity and expanding its intelligence.But this ideology — call it A.G.I.-ism — is mistaken. The real risks of A.G.I. are political and won’t be fixed by taming rebellious robots. The safest of A.G.I.s would not deliver the progressive panacea promised by its lobby. And in presenting its emergence as all but inevitable, A.G.I.-ism distracts from finding better ways to augment intelligence.

Unbeknown to its proponents, A.G.I.-ism is just a bastard child of a much grander ideology, one preaching that, as Margaret Thatcher memorably put it, there is no alternative, not to the market.

Rather than breaking capitalism, as Mr. Altman has hinted it could do, A.G.I. — or at least the rush to build it — is more likely to create a powerful (and much hipper) ally for capitalism’s most destructive creed: neoliberalism.

Fascinated with privatization, competition and free trade, the architects of neoliberalism wanted to dynamize and transform a stagnant and labor-friendly economy through markets and deregulation…

… the Biden administration has distanced itself from the ideology, acknowledging that markets sometimes get it wrong. Foundations, think tanks and academics have even dared to imagine a post-neoliberal future.Yet neoliberalism is far from dead. Worse, it has found an ally in A.G.I.-ism, which stands to reinforce and replicate its main biases: that private actors outperform public ones (the market bias), that adapting to reality beats transforming it (the adaptation bias) and that efficiency trumps social concerns (the efficiency bias).These biases turn the alluring promise behind A.G.I. on its head: Instead of saving the world, the quest to build it will make things only worse. Here is how…

[There follows a bracing run-down…]

… Margaret Thatcher’s other famous neoliberal dictum was that “there is no such thing as society.”The A.G.I. lobby unwittingly shares this grim view. For them, the kind of intelligence worth replicating is a function of what happens in individuals’ heads rather than in society at large.

But human intelligence is as much a product of policies and institutions as it is of genes and individual aptitudes. It’s easier to be smart on a fellowship in the Library of Congress than while working several jobs in a place without a bookstore or even decent Wi-Fi.

It doesn’t seem all that controversial to suggest that more scholarships and public libraries will do wonders for boosting human intelligence. But for the solutionist crowd in Silicon Valley, augmenting intelligence is primarily a technological problem — hence the excitement about A.G.I.

However, if A.G.I.-ism really is neoliberalism by other means, then we should be ready to see fewer — not more — intelligence-enabling institutions. After all, they are the remnants of that dreaded “society” that, for neoliberals, doesn’t really exist. A.G.I.’s grand project of amplifying intelligence may end up shrinking it.

Because of such solutionist bias, even seemingly innovative policy ideas around A.G.I. fail to excite. Take the recent proposal for a “Manhattan Project for A.I. Safety.” This is premised on the false idea that there’s no alternative to A.G.I.But wouldn’t our quest for augmenting intelligence be far more effective if the government funded a Manhattan Project for culture and education and the institutions that nurture them instead?

Without such efforts, the vast cultural resources of our existing public institutions risk becoming mere training data sets for A.G.I. start-ups, reinforcing the falsehood that society doesn’t exist…

If it’s true that we shape our tools, then our tools shape us, then it behooves us to be very careful as to how we shape them… Eminently worth reading in full: “The True Threat of Artificial Intelligence” (gift link) from @evgenymorozov in @nytimes.

Apposite: on the A. I. we currently have: “The LLMentalist Effect: how chat-based Large Language Models replicate the mechanisms of a psychic’s con,” from @baldurbjarnason.

[Image above: source]

* Margaret J. Wheatley


As we set aside solutionism, we might we might send thoroughly-organized birthday greetings to Josiah Wedgwood; he was born on this date in 1730. An English potter, businessman (he founded the Wedgwood company), and inventor (he designed the company’s process machinery and high-temperature beehive-shaped kilns), he is credited, via his technique of “division of labor,” with the industrialization of the manufacture of pottery– and via his example, much of British (and thus American) manufacturing. Wedgwood was a member of the Lunar Society, the Royal Society, and was an ardent abolitionist.  His daughter, Susannah, was the mother of Charles Darwin.


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