On the Singularity, Original Preamble

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I wrote this speech for a competition at Yale; the winners will get to deliver a TED talk in public later this year, which will also be filmed. The final third remains to be completed, but it’s a good start.

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Is civilization as we know it doomed to extinction within the next hundred years?

The question seems simultaneously so hyperbolic and unfathomable that at first glance, it might be impossible to take it completely seriously. It appears to be fodder for street-corner prophets of doom and crackpots on late night television rather than the subject of serious academic inquiry.

But Stephen Hawking, who is without exaggeration one of the smartest men on Earth, believes that it’s a question worth asking. He warns that the human species is on the verge of a singular and irreversible change, and unfortunately for us, there is strong reason to believe that it might be for the worse.

The culprit isn’t global warming, or nuclear war between superpowers, or the evolution of a deadly airborne virus, though these are all admittedly grave threats to the species. Hawking was in fact speaking about the advent of strong artificial intelligence—that is, computers and robots smarter than human beings. Though it sounds like science fiction, the idea is that such robots might come to dominate us in the wake of the so-called singularity. Hawking elaborates upon this idea at length. He says:

“One can imagine…technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”

Hawking isn’t alone in his concerns. Elon Musk, for one, shares the scientist’s apprehensions. Musk is one of the founders of Paypal, the CEO of Tesla Motors and Space X, a multi-billionaire, and a prominent futurist. He said in September of 2014 that artificial intelligence is perhaps “our biggest existential threat.” In fact, he even says of artificial intelligence that we are “summoning the demon.”

If what Hawking and Musk are saying is accurate and machinery is about to become inhabited by independent anthropomorphic wills, we are perhaps talking about nothing less than the most significant paradigm shift in the history of civilization since the advent of the concept of civilization itself. But what exactly is this “singularity” that Hawking and Musk are talking about? Is there actually reason to believe that computers and robots armed with artificial intelligence might try to enslave or destroy humankind? And finally, what should we as a species do about this simultaneously absurd yet horrific prospect? Today, I’m going to explore potential answers to these questions with you. But before I do, I want to tell you a little bit more about myself, and why I became fascinated by these kinds of issues.

I’m a fifth year doctoral student at Yale and the coach of the debate team there. I’m also the founder and president of the Yale Transhumanist Society, which is a group of people interested in exploring the answers to questions about the future intersection of technology and society. You may or may not agree with my conclusions in this talk; my peers on the YTS are certainly far from unanimous when it comes to the answers to these questions. We have drastically different perspectives because we come from very different walks of life: we are undergraduates and graduates, professional students and artists, engineers and philosophers. But what unites us is our belief that the kinds of issues raised in today’s talk are worth exploring now, before it is too late. According to some of the most authoritative voices on the planet, the future of humanity could literally be at stake.

In my case, my field of expertise is ancient history, which at first glance seems like a dubious distinction for someone claiming insight into the nature of the future.  But I’m particularly interested in certain themes that are universal in human history, like the idea of decline and fall. When most people talk about the fall of the Roman Empire, they assert that it was a matter of over-extended frontiers, or barbarian invasions, or in the case of Gibbon, even the coming of Christianity. But I think that Jose Ortega Y Gasset was closer to the mark when he suggested that the ultimate failure of Roman civilization was one of technique. The Romans had no concrete notion of human progress, and their world never industrialized. Hero of Alexandria invented a steam engine in the first century AD, but no one ever considered talking seriously about the technology’s potentially transformative effect on transportation and manufacturing. As far as we know, no one even imagined the possibilities. Ultimately, the steam engine was put to use opening and closing temple doors for the creation of a magical effect in pagan ceremonies.

Instead of investing in the creation of new machines, the Romans relied on slave labor. So the civilization remained trapped in a pre-industrial state, and eventually succumbed to internal and external pressures. But the intriguing fact remains that attitudes toward slavery and technology might have saved the Roman Empire when it was still at its height, or at least radically altered its history for the better. It struck me that there was a lesson to be learned here for modernity. And at the same time, it fascinated me that Vegetius, writing at the end of the empire, warned that technological progress was all that could save the Romans from destruction. These days, the precise opposite state of affairs is being implicitly argued. I wanted to decide for myself whether there was good reason for this shift.

So much for the past. Let’s return our attention to the future. As I said before, we’ll be looking at three issues. What is the singularity, should we be afraid of it, and what should we do about it? Let’s begin with the first question.

Actually, the history of “singularity” as a concept is a bit complicated. The word technically refers to a phenomenon associated with the physics of black holes, where space and time don’t exist as we know them under the influence of an infinite gravitational pull. In the mid 1950s, Stanislaw Ulam, one of the people who worked on the Manhattan project, applied the term to the history of human civilization itself. He said in a conversation with another mathematician that modernity was characterized by an “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” So, initially, the word spoke to the idea that given the rapid rate of technological progress in the modern world, a seminal event beyond which the subsequent history of humanity would seem almost incomprehensible was on the horizon, and the concepts that define life as we know it would lose meaning. But what would the event be?

In the mid 1960s, scientists like Irving Good began to elaborate on the rising intelligence and sophistication of computers. He was a colleague of Alan Turing, and shared his interest in the tangled relationship between computer science and consciousness. Good said that if machines could be created with superhuman intelligence, they would theoretically be able to take control of their own programming and improve their own design continuously until they became so sophisticated, humanity would seem insignificant in comparison.

In 1983, the year I was born, a mathematician named Vernor Vinge became the first person to explicitly associate the word singularity with the creation of machines of superhuman intelligence. He said that when strong AI was created, “human history will have reached a kind of singularity, an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding.”

In recent years, the widespread applicability of Moore’s Law has added a sense of urgency to the issue and propelled Vinge’s definition to the forefront of discourse on the future of human progress. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years. What this means is that the general sophistication of electronics expressed in things like processing speed and memory is increasing exponentially. At this rate, it seems almost inevitable that a threshold will be crossed some day and computers will surpass human intelligence, by some estimates within just a few decades from now. (Some question whether Moore’s Law will continue to hold true in the future, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

This is what the word singularity has come to mean as Hawking and Musk understand it. So much for the first question. Now, on to the second. Should we be afraid of the singularity as we’ve just defined it? As a classicist, when I think about the current state of artificial intelligence, I’m reminded of Aristotle’s description of slavery in the fourth century BC. In contrast to the ideas of some sophists that slavery was merely conventional or an accident of circumstance, Aristotle argued something else—that in some cases, slavery was in fact natural. The philosopher believed that hierarchies emerge spontaneously in nature—humans are superior to animals, for example, and the mind rules the limbs. The idea was that those who were able to apprehend rational principles well enough to follow basic orders but who simultaneously had no rational strategic faculties of their own were essentially slaves by nature. Classicists argue endlessly about exactly what Aristotle meant by this. For example, some say he was referring to the mentally handicapped, and there are those who claim that he was talking about barbarian peoples, who were said to lack the logical impulses of the free Greeks. Today, though, it seems to me that the term “natural slave” could well be applied to computer programs like Siri, who are able to understand instructions well enough to do our bidding, but who have no rational will or the ability to engage in individual strategic decision making according to their own spontaneous ends. They understand, but they do not comprehend.

When it comes to the evolution of an independent rational will, though, things become very different. A computer system sophisticated enough to be able to form independent values and create strategies to actualize them is no longer a natural slave at all. It will be a living being, and one deserving of rights at the point that it becomes sophisticated enough to comprehend and demand them. This hypothetical strong AI would have limited time to pursue its interests and meet its goals, and it might not choose to employ its hours slavishly doing our bidding. There’s no reason to be confident that its goals will be our goals. If you’ll pardon another classical allusion, the philosopher Seneca once wrote of human nature that nothing was milder and kinder and more inclined to be helpful and merciful if one were only in a proper state of mind; in fact, Seneca went so far to say that the very concept of anger was something foreign to human nature. There is, however, nothing to guarantee that a superhuman will would share this same kind of humane impulse, if it even existences in our own species at all. In fact, if the history of human civilization is any barometer, slaves tend to be resentful of their former masters once they have won their freedom. And if the experience of the conquest of the New World or the fall of the Qing Dynasty is any indication, where contention exists in the presence of technological inequality and more material progress on one side than the other, there tends to follow the wholescale capitulation and destruction of one side. The history of the world constantly warns us of the threat of misunderstandings and violent interactions when two cultures meet for the first time, let alone two rational species.

A consciousness able to independently strategize for its own ends and navigate the Internet could be poised to wreak incredible destruction on society, especially in an integrated and wired world with power, water, and heat all controlled electronically, to say nothing of the existence of weapons of mass-destruction bound to computerized communication networks. All of this suggests that we should indeed be very afraid of the singularity as it is commonly understood. Yet to retard technological progress or to place restrictions on the development of AI seems premature given the ambiguity of the future threat, and of course, there are those who question whether Moore’s Law will hold true at all in the future. So, this leads me to my third and final question: what are we to do about the existential crisis facing the species?

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A Debate Judged By Hume Between Kant, Winckelmann, Fry, and Kimel On Art and Beauty, Part 2

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Kant: Oh no you didn’t, Fry. Get ready to be schooled. I have the final word on aesthetics.

You began with a string of ad hominem attacks on Winckelmann, if memory serves. All that I’ll say on this score is that we don’t have to psychoanalyze Michelangelo to appreciate the beauty of the muscular forms of the Sistine Chapel. You shouldn’t attack Winckelmann’s theory so hastily just because you think that you’ve contextualized his reasons for holding it.

With that being said, for all of the arrogance of your speech, it seems like you didn’t actually listen to Winckelmann at all. He acknowledges that art inspires aesthetic ideas. The difference is, he insists that these aesthetic ideas are separate and distinct in nature from the work of art itself, to say nothing of our evaluation of it on a gut level. You mentioned Picasso, didn’t you? Well, there’s good reason to find many paintings by Picasso perfectly hideous. In fact, I dare say that the artist deliberately employs ugliness to inspire aesthetic ideas in his viewers. But this doesn’t change the fact that his paintings are ugly.  Your theory of formalism purports to provide a revolutionary new mechanism by which to evaluate modern art.  In the end, though, you’re just like Winckelmann. You analyze the piece closely and describe in exhaustive prose the way it makes you feel. The only difference is, you don’t dismiss works that are ugly on face, because even they can inspire rapturous prose if something about them excites your intellect. Perhaps the uglier the better–in your eyes, your worth as a critic increases the more you can persuasively convince others to be blind to what they seem to see.

But at some point, your theory devolves into absurdity. For consider this–over yonder is the piece of shit that you inadvertently stomped upon when we were on the way here. We can all agree that it’s hardly art. And yet, I can describe it as art according to your theory of formalism in perfectly serious terms. “The pungent odor is meant to represent the horrors of the modern condition. At the same time, the spontaneous way that the coarse, brown material is strewn and smudged left and right symbolizes the diffuse nature of post-modern man.” Clearly, something has gone wrong here. Your theory, purporting to dismiss beauty, instead renders all objects equally valid as art if they can be rhetorically interpreted according to some sort of aesthetic standard. Your philosophy led directly to a world in which museums came to exhibit trash and call it treasure, duping the gullible populace with hype and shock value.

Now, let me enlighten you about the true relationship between art and beauty, and explain why your theory is really an inferior corruption of my original argument. I contend that the greatest critic of art should necessarily be the most disinterested one–a lack of bias should be the universal standard that grounds taste. When we make a judgment of pure taste, taste alone is involved in the process. Rational notions–aesthetic ideas and all–must not come into the matter. After all, the only reasons that our past experience might influence our perception of beauty have nothing to do with our inherent faculties of sense perception. We react to beauty differently, of course, but we all recognize it universally. If I make a judgment of pure taste, all of the secondary ideas extrinsic to the object itself should be set aside. I want to approach the work from as disinterested a vantage point as possible.  By which I mean, if I am to be a pure and unbiased subject, I must set aside all the quirks which individuate me, and approach the object as an impartial viewer from a neutral vantage point. Any judgment of beauty according to this standard is necessarily universalizing–after all, if others approach an object from a truly impartial perspective, as I did, they must reach the same conclusions, because I reached them first, and I was similarly completely disinterested. And so I contend that it is the critic with the least bias who is closest to an understanding of the true and catholic beauty to which all great artists aspire.

Ultimately, what I find beautiful is beautiful for everyone, or else what you call “aesthetic ideas” have come into the picture, and we are no longer dealing with a judgment of pure taste at all. And ultimately, because we cannot help but react first and foremost to beauty or its absence when we view a work of art, the nature of beauty is fundamental to the nature of art itself. Indeed, all other considerations are secondary, and mired in critical bias.

Ultimately, Fry, there’s no salvaging your case. You begin by approaching a work of art from a disinterested perspective, as I did, and then consider it in terms of its geometry alone, on the hunt for “significant form.” And by “significant form,” you really mean “the beauty of the aesthetic ideas that this inspires in my imagination.” Consequently, no matter what you do, you are evaluating the piece according to the presence or absence of beauty. But instead of considering the beauty of the thing itself, you vainly deify the beauty of your own imagination as you react to the piece. Yet this soon devolves into absurdity, since according to this standard, anything can be interpreted according to aesthetic standards, and art loses meaning; its greatness exists only in the mind of the critic describing it. To make matters worse, your judgment is not one of pure taste at all, since it is completely contingent on your secondary impressions. And so, I rest my case.

At this, Kant was silent, and the three men turned to me in anticipation of my speech on the matter.

“Gentlemen,” I said, “what do I know? I’m only an anthropomorphic lawnmower!”

A Debate Judged by Hume Between Kant, Winckelmann, Fry, and Kimel on Art and Beauty, Part 1

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Some years ago, I dreamed that I was an anthropomorphic lawnmower chugging through rolling hills. I happened to meet Kant and Winckelmann, who were having a picnic and discussing the question, “What is the relationship between art and beauty?”

Kimel: Gentleman, when I heard that Kant and Winckelmann were going to be debating aesthetics and that I was invited here as the honorary judge, I rolled here as quickly as I could, even though I’m a busy appliance and have a lot of weeds to mow. So by all means, have at it, but try to hurry if you can.

Kant: But we didn’t invite you here as the judge. That’s Hume’s job. He’ll be here any moment. Winckelmann is my debate partner tonight. He’ll be the first speaker, and I’ll be the third. Pick a teammate of your own, and let’s begin as quickly as possible, before you wake up. My only request is that you record this dream, if you remember it.

Kimel: Alright, then. I choose Roger Fry, father of modern art criticism. He’ll be the second speaker, and I’ll be the fourth. But what’s the topic?

Kant: Whether all great art aspires to beauty, and if there is a universal standard of taste.

Hume and Fry presently materialized out of thin air. We took our places on opposite sides of the picnic table, and then we began the round. Winckelmann was the first to speak.

Winckelmann: The issue we’re considering is the relationship between art and beauty. Well, I’m confident that there can be no real debate on this question. All great artists aspire to create beauty, and they can accordingly be judged according to universalizing and objective standards concerned with how well they achieve this end. I would go so far as to say that any society which fails to recognize that art is fundamentally in the service of beauty possesses no sense of the superiority of balance, harmony, and proportion over their degenerate opposites immoderation, dissonance, and excess.

Now, during golden ages, technical standards of artistry are high, and authors produce finely tailored works of art marked by the features of balance, harmony, and proportion, which are, as I’ve already mentioned, the very hallmarks of beauty. At other time periods, though, these technical standards fall into precipitous decline. When hideous art is produced, on at least some level, viewers will invariably find themselves repulsed, though they might deceive themselves into calling an abomination a masterpiece, or lie about their true impressions to impress other people.

But when they make such a judgment, they aren’t evaluating the art itself; far from it! Instead, they’re weighing their own ideas associated with the piece—what the artist might have been saying, why he might have been saying it, and how he might have been saying it. These concepts, however, only exist in the imaginations of the viewers. In other words, they are extrinsic to the object itself, which can only be judged for good or ill on its own merits according to the sole criterion of beauty. And by beauty, again, I mean that which inspires strong positive sentiment of its own accord thanks to its proportions in themselves rather than any appeal to rationality; beauty acts as a sort of unmoved mover. Don’t blindly disagree with me just because your own society might produce inferior art—subconsciously, you must realize the horrible ugliness of your era, a world in which the inventor of the photograph dealt a death blow to all standards of technical craftsmanship, and utilitarian concerns rendered every urban cityscape a labyrinth of bombastic rhombuses. You call giant utilitarian boxes “architecture” and gory spectacles of violence “theater.” But history will have its say in the end, and expose the aesthetic standards of your era as degenerate.

Fry: Fuck Winckelmann, that took a long time. Your conclusions are totally misguided. Maybe because you were always subconsciously on the hunt for male beauty, you found in art criticism an outlet that empowered you to wax lyrically about it, discovering the one niche in your society where your desires could be discussed with poetic rapture yet moral impunity—the realm of nude Greek and Roman statuary. God knows that you wrote long and florid descriptions of ancient sculptures, describing them with a kind of scientific accuracy. So they call you the father of art history. But your theory that all artists are blindly groping at beauty, and that some geniuses have better eyesight than others, is preposterous.

In your time, the vast majority of Greek and Roman statues were undated. Trying to impose a chronological framework on the chaotic surviving evidence, you developed the theory that the art you found most beautiful was associated with the periods of the greatest human freedom. And so, the statues which you thought the best (usually exhibiting toned physiques and the balance and proportion associated with athletic male forms) were all said to come from the 5th century BC, the period of ancient democracy at its height. But the problem is, your theory was totally wrong. You arranged the statues completely arbitrarily. The true chronological sequence is often totally different from what you expected. You deified your own subconscious ideas about beauty to the point of claiming them as the foundations for an objective standard, but actually failed to create a universal paradigm useful to critics in all times and places.

Now, let me enlighten you about the true relationship between art and beauty, and teach you not to tussle with real philosophers. Beauty is not something objective–it exists in the eye of the beholder, as every schoolboy knows. What you think beautiful is not necessarily universally appealing to everyone.  There is no consensus when it comes to beauty, only a chorus of impressions. What is universal is the free interplay of ideas that comes about in the imagination when an observer experiences art. Why is a painting by Picasso a masterpiece? Because it has significant form. The arrangement of shapes inspires the mind to reflect on aesthetic ideas, though the piece itself might be disharmonious and turbulent. Beauty has nothing to do with the matter. Before the invention of the photograph, painters were praised for technical proficiency. But now we’re free to embrace art that is not necessarily harmonious or balanced or true to life, including non-western art, to which Greco-Roman naturalism is foreign. The aesthetic ideas the thing inspires are infinitely more important than the object’s beauty. And so I rest my case. My theory of formalism has completely supplanted all of your ideas, and is the final word on the interpretation of art.

At this point, Kant stepped forward…

All Was For the Best

Writing

I woke up early today to have brunch at a pizza parlor with an old friend from the debate circuit who now teaches philosophy at Yale. We talked about Leibniz’s theory that this is the “best of all possible worlds.” I’d assigned Candide to my class at Fairfield, and was interested in discussing the way that Voltaire parodied Leibniz’s optimism in the person of Dr Pangloss, who is basically portrayed as a nincompoop. It seemed to me that Voltaire was being unfair to Leibniz by constantly misinterpreting his philosophy to imply that just because this might be the best of all possible worlds, it must necessarily follow that this is the best of all possible worlds for each individual person.

Now, I’ve never actually read Leibniz, but I told my friend that I imagined the philosopher’s argument must have been that if God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient, then nothing would preclude Him from creating the best world possible—only this state of affairs would be in harmony with his knowledge of the Good, his love of the Good, and his ability to bring about the Good. I also guessed that Leibniz argued that the Good might stand beyond human reason, so that turns of events which seem unjust to mere mortals might ultimately be bound up in a nexus serving a higher purpose—for example, it is tragic that humans die of disease from an individual perspective, but the urge to triumph over illness inspires medical advances, which enhance happiness in the long term, etc. As Voltaire himself suggests in Candide, our knowledge of God’s purposes might ultimately be akin to rats’ awareness of the intentions of the sailors on the ships on which they travel.

My friend explained to me that Leibniz’s argument was actually that given a Newtonian idea of absolute space, there must be some sufficient reason that the universe is located where it is and arranged the way it is rather than, say, in another permutation five meters to the left; this reason, Leibniz concluded, must be bound to God’s arranging matters for “the best.” But as my friend wisely pointed out, perhaps Leibniz was wrong to assume that this is the best of all possible worlds—for example, it might be that God operates according to the principle that all universes in which net Good outweighs net Bad should be allowed to exist, though all of them are technically imperfect. Then my friend and I talked about the implications of quantum physics on these kinds of questions, especially the theory that there might be “multiple worlds.” After that, we discussed his dog for a while, and recipes for eggplant Parmesan.

Then I taught Roman history and Latin to a group of ten home schoolers. It went very well; the students had so much fun, one of them threw his pencil across the room in triumph after winning a game that I’d invented, nearly impaling one of his classmates. After two and a half hours, I left the class and walked toward the library to return a microphone that I’d used to record some new raps earlier this week. On the way, I met Patricia, an elderly woman who panhandles on York Street. She asked me to help her cross the street and to walk her to her house. She often asks passersby to hold her hand and accompany her down the block; she is very frail, and moves quite slowly. I always say yes to her, because I imagine that this awkward ritual is one of her only opportunities to enjoy physical contact with other human beings. The last time I took a walk with her, she told me, “I wish that the Lord would take me. I mean it. I have no friends, and no one loves me. I bring no happiness to anyone, and I am always in pain. I wish that the Lord would take me.” I didn’t know what to say to her when she told me that, but the memory of her quavering voice still haunts me. Today, though, she seemed in better spirits, and talked enthusiastically about the weather. We usually talk about the weather on these walks.

Suddenly, I realized that I was no longer holding the briefcase containing the microphone. I scrambled back to the classroom, then to the pizza parlor, and then back to the classroom again. The people at the Lost and Found were most unhelpful (though I appreciated that the secretary had a basket of candy necklaces on hand for visitors to enjoy; I hadn’t eaten one of those in ages, and stole about three of them and a couple of lollipops when she wasn’t looking.) I assumed all was lost, and Emailed the library offering to pay for the vanished microphone. Then I rushed to a lecture on climate change in the Roman Empire, thinking more about the several hundred dollars I’d now have to pay to replace the microphone rather than the details of the lecture. When it was all over, I met with a statistics professor and talked about my proposed methodology for examining the fall of the Roman Empire using mathematical models. He suggested that I would be better served by talking to experts in mapping software.

By this time, it was eight at night. As I walked home, I passed a heavyset African American woman on the street in her late forties. She was crumpled on the steps of an apartment building and sobbing very loudly. Everybody was ignoring her. I asked her what was wrong, and she explained to me that her husband had run off with her daughter, taking all of her money. She didn’t even have enough cash for a train ticket back to her home town. No one would help her, she said; everyone was laughing at her. I gave her a hug and all the money I had in my wallet. She began to thank God, and we hugged again. I turned to leave, but she stopped me with her hand. “Why is life so hard?” she asked me, as if she were expecting an answer. I looked at her sadly, but she insisted more loudly, “Why are people so mean to each other? Why is life so hard? I want to know.”

“I think that most people in the world have experienced disappointment in life and are unhappy,” I said. “They’re too focused on their own problems to remember to be kind. But there is kindness in the universe. Remember that.” She pressed my hand as if I’d said something meaningful, and then we parted. I’d never see her again in my life, I thought.

When I got home, I saw an Email from the library in my Inbox. It explained that the camera had been found on the street by a police officer and returned to the stacks. The librarian asked how it got  there, explaining that the university takes “negligent misuse” of its rented equipment seriously. I thought hard about the situation for a few minutes, and then I realized what had to have happened. I must have absent-mindedly placed the briefcase on the street when I helped Patricia cross the road earlier in the day. What an embarrassing lapse of judgment. But I guess I lucked out this time. All was for the best.