Thursday, September 18, 2014

Artificial intelligence, natural stupidity

This started out as one of my standard ddulite rants, another round of complaints about how the press goes all gee-whiz over high tech and stops thinking critically, but I think this might be something more basic, something where the editors were being less ddulites and more dullards.

I was checking out the news stories on Yahoo when I came across this ominous headline linking to a Business Insider story:

By 2045 'The Top Species Will No Longer Be Humans,' And That Could Be A Problem

I say 'ominous' not because I was worried about the future of humanity but because I was steeling myself for some bad journalism. I was not, however, prepared for this:
"It won't be the 'Terminator' scenario, not a war," said [Louis] Del Monte. "In the early part of the post-singularity world, one scenario is that the machines will seek to turn humans into cyborgs. This is nearly happening now, replacing faulty limbs with artificial parts. We'll see the machines as a useful tool. Productivity in business based on automation will be increased dramatically in various countries. In China it doubled, just based on GDP per employee due to use of machines."

"By the end of this century," he continued, "most of the human race will have become cyborgs [part human, part tech or machine]. The allure will be immortality. Machines will make breakthroughs in medical technology, most of the human race will have more leisure time, and we'll think we've never had it better. The concern I'm raising is that the machines will view us as an unpredictable and dangerous species."

Del Monte believes machines will become self-conscious and have the capabilities to protect themselves. They "might view us the same way we view harmful insects." Humans are a species that "is unstable, creates wars, has weapons to wipe out the world twice over, and makes computer viruses." Hardly an appealing roommate.
If a stranger started saying this sort of thing to you on the street, you would probably start backing away while avoiding eye contact, but it's not like Business Insider and Yahoo Finance would put their names behind some flake. This guy (described in the article as  'physicist, entrepreneur, and author of "The Artificial Intelligence Revolution."') obviously had something in his resume that merited a little extra indulgence when his theories got a little out there.

Well, maybe not. As far as I can tell, Del Monte never worked as a physicist, at least not the theoretical kind. He has a master's in physics from Fordham and he appears to have had a very successful run as an engineer (particularly for Honeywell). Some time after that he started self-publishing general interest science books and making some fairly bold claims about new theories.

I don't want to dismiss someone for a lack of qualifications (Martin Gardner had a bachelor's in philosophy) or for self-publishing (I'm a blogger for crying out loud), but credentials do imply a certain level of vetting, which means that if someone uncredentialed is about to be published by a major media brand, the editors need to do their own vetting, perhaps by Googling that someone and checking out reactions to previous work. For example, the people at Business Insider might have taken a look at this review of an earlier Del Monte book.
“Unraveling the Universe’s Mysteries” is Louis A. Del Monte’s contribution to the world of science writing. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t be surprised. He’s not a prolific author or researcher, but worked in the development of microelectronics for the US companies IBM and Honeywell before forming a high-tech e-marketing agency.

The book lives up to its title and long subtitle: “Explore sciences’ most baffling mysteries, including the Big Bang’s origin, time travel, dark energy, humankind’s fate, and more.” It covers string theory, the Big Bang, dark matter, dark energy, time travel, the existence of God, and other mysterious aspects of our Universe. Del Monte also discusses artificial intelligence, the end of the Universe, and the mysterious nature of light. These subjects have all been covered in great detail by other authors in other books. How does Del Monte’s treatment of these subjects stand up in comparison?

Not great, in my opinion. The writing is somehow uninviting. The book reads more like a textbook or a lecture than it does a science book for an interested audience. It’s somewhat dry, and the writing is kind of heavy. After looking into Del Monte’s background, it becomes clear why. He’s an engineer, and his background is in writing technical papers.

This book is a bit of a puzzle, as is the author himself. I’ve mentioned the problems with the writing, but there are other issues. In one instance Del Monte references a study from the Journal of Cosmology. If you haven’t heard of that journal, it’s come under heavy criticism for its peer-review process, and isn’t highly regarded in science circles. The Journal of Cosmology seems to be a journal for people with an axe to grind around certain issues more than a healthy part of the science journal community. To be quoting studies from it is a bit of a black mark, in my opinion.

In another instance, he opens the chapter on Advanced Aliens with a quote from “Chariot of the Gods”, that old book/documentary from the 1970’s that just won’t seem to die, no matter how discredited it is. The main thrust of “Chariot of the Gods” is that human civilisation got a technological boost from visitations by advanced aliens. Readers can judge for themselves the wisdom of quoting “Chariot of the Gods” in a science book.
If anything, the reviewer goes a bit easy on the Journal of Cosmology -- Wikipedia has a very good rundown -- but it's the Chariot quote that really pushes things over the top.  This is the sort of information that a reader might have found useful when evaluating the threat of machines seeking to turn humans into cyborgs.

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