Creature Or Technology

When people think about artificial intelligence — not things like chess computers, but the full-blown human-equivalent kind that doesn’t currently exist — they often think of each AI design as an individual creature.

A more enlightening way to see things is to consider each AI design as a technology, a way to arrange matter to produce some desired result. Just like the technology called “the wheel” is a way to turn a thing that just sits there into a thing that rolls, an AI design is a way to turn any sufficiently powerful computer into a thing competent at figuring out truths and motivated toward achieving certain goals.

Most science fiction is misleading on this point. It’s as if stone age people had stories about the future where one of them invented a Wheel and another of them invented another Wheel and another really smart one invented two different Wheels, so they could put their life’s work together and build a cart and have it go on wondrous adventures through an otherwise wheelless world.

Once we’ve built our HAL-9000 or Data or KITT or GSV Ravished By The Sheer Implausibility Of That Last Statement (leaving aside fictional AI realism problems), it doesn’t just mean we now have a novel individual mind, or a small group of such minds representing different versions. It means we have once and for all discovered the secret of transmuting stupid into smart.

Just Another Artifact?

Here are some academic writings arguing AI (or “robots“, a word that I feel misses the point and creates an atmosphere of bad sci-fi) isn’t as big a threat as you might think:

I might try a serious rebuttal later. In the mean time I’ll say this.

Earth is a little village. Time after time, the villagers have looked into the forest of the future and cried “wolf”. Sometimes it was a hamster. Sometimes it was an old shoe. Sometimes it was a piece of celery. Sometimes it was even an actual wolf.

Now, on the horizon, we can see things that are to wolves what MechaGodzilla is to a 5cm lizard. And the villagers are crying, “Lol, free farming equipment”. It would be one of funny and tragic if it weren’t the other.

Robots, Computers, AIs: Bodies, Brains, Minds

Keep them straight!

A robot is a mechanical body. It’s a device that manipulates external reality broadly like biological organisms do — a car isn’t a robot, but a car with controllable arms and legs and twin flamethrowers is. You could call biological machines like human bodies robots, or not. It doesn’t matter as long as you stick to your choice.

A computer is a mechanical brain. It’s a device that processes information. Computers are useful, not because, like robots, they can directly change the world, but rather because their states can correspond to it.

An AI is a mechanical mind, or something even stranger. It’s a particular kind of program — a pattern in a computer. As the name suggests, an AI isn’t an AI unless it’s artificial and intelligent.

The robot:computer:ai::body:brain:mind analogy misses two important things. First, you can run any program on a typical computer, but you can’t run any human mind on a typical human brain. Not being as much of a brains aficionado as I should be, I don’t understand the details, but rumor has it that in biological brains, there is no clean distinction between hardware and software. Second, we’re used to each human body coming with one human brain and (is this even true?) one human mind. This need not be true of artificial beings. One robot or one computer could house multiple AIs, or a single AI could control multiple robots and live in multiple computers.

If a robot is the body of an AI, then talking about “rights for robots” and “robot friendliness” is like talking about “body rights” and “body friendliness”. But it’s even worse. If a single AI has many robots as its “body”, then talking about “rights for robots” and “robot friendliness” is like talking about “rights for feet” and “foot friendliness”. Things like rights apply to artificial minds, not artificial bodies.

Likewise, if singularilitarilitataralarianism is a cult, then it’s an AI cult, not a robot cult.

There is a final complication. Objects can be virtual, if they inhabit a virtual world to which they stand in the same relation as physical objects stand to the physical world. So robots, human bodies, computers, and human brains can all be virtual and yet really exist. These would still be distinct from AIs and human minds. For example, brain uploading and mind uploading are different scenarios — in one, we transfer a physical object with its physical structure, and in the other, we transfer just the functional structure.