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“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”*…

 

Pope AI

Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953

 

Nobody but AI mavens would ever tiptoe up to the notion of creating godlike cyber-entities that are much smarter than people. I hasten to assure you — I take that weird threat seriously. If we could wipe out the planet with nuclear physics back in the late 1940s, there must be plenty of other, novel ways to get that done…

In the hermetic world of AI ethics, it’s a given that self-driven cars will kill fewer people than we humans do. Why believe that? There’s no evidence for it. It’s merely a cranky aspiration. Life is cheap on traffic-choked American roads — that social bargain is already a hundred years old. If self-driven vehicles doubled the road-fatality rate, and yet cut shipping costs by 90 percent, of course those cars would be deployed…

Technological proliferation is not a list of principles. It is a deep, multivalent historical process with many radically different stakeholders over many different time-scales. People who invent technology never get to set the rules for what is done with it. A “non-evil” Google, built by two Stanford dropouts, is just not the same entity as modern Alphabet’s global multinational network, with its extensive planetary holdings in clouds, transmission cables, operating systems, and device manufacturing.

It’s not that Google and Alphabet become evil just because they’re big and rich. Frankly, they’re not even all that “evil.” They’re just inherently involved in huge, tangled, complex, consequential schemes, with much more variegated populations than had originally been imagined. It’s like the ethical difference between being two parish priests and becoming Pope.

Of course the actual Pope will confront Artificial Intelligence. His response will not be “is it socially beneficial to the user-base?” but rather, “does it serve God?” So unless you’re willing to morally out-rank the Pope, you need to understand that religious leaders will use Artificial Intelligence in precisely the way that televangelists have used television.

So I don’t mind the moralizing about AI. I even enjoy it as metaphysical game, but I do have one caveat about this activity, something that genuinely bothers me. The practitioners of AI are not up-front about the genuine allure of their enterprise, which is all about the old-school Steve-Jobsian charisma of denting the universe while becoming insanely great. Nobody does AI for our moral betterment; everybody does it to feel transcendent.

AI activists are not everyday brogrammers churning out grocery-code. These are visionary zealots driven by powerful urges they seem unwilling to confront. If you want to impress me with your moral authority, gaze first within your own soul.

Excerpted from the marvelous Bruce Sterling‘s essay “Artificial Morality,” a contribution to the Provocations series, a project of the Los Angeles Review of Books in conjunction with UCI’s “The Future of the Future: The Ethics and Implications of AI” conference.

* Voltaire

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As we agonize over algorithms, we might recall that it was on this date in 1872 that Luther Crowell patented a machine for the manufacture of accordion-sided, flat-bottomed paper bags (#123,811).  That said, Margaret E. Knight might more accurately be considered the “mother of the modern shopping bag”; she had perfected square bottoms two years earlier.

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