Artificial intelligence as a philosophical endeavour

It’s true that artificial intelligence will quickly disrupt the economy and society, but not necessarily in ways that are beneficial. To dismiss the potentially adverse consequences of AI demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what it will be capable of. Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) — a machine or system that cannot only learn, but also teach itself to learn — would quickly outpace human intellectual ability in scope and scale, something referred to as an “intelligence explosion”. Unless an AGI’s goals are aligned with our own, the economic and ethical risks posed by this scenario are obvious.

This is why many experts have predicted that moral philosophy will soon become part of the tech sector. So, while the federal government may see AI as a path to reverse stalled economic growth, it needs to remember that it isn’t just a technical or economic endeavour — it’s also a philosophical one. The very people who are developing AI — those trained in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) — should also have a better foundation in the humanities.

Plato for Plumbers

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[Note: This essay appeared in Issue #13 of New Philosopher magazine and was chosen as the winner of New Philosopher Writers’ Award XI ‘technology’.]

“To be an engineer and nothing but an engineer means to be potentially everything and actually nothing.”

José Ortega y Gasset, History as a System (1934)

It’s a truism to remark how much our world is becoming increasingly technological, exponentially complex. The pace of change is evident in our everyday experience. From the grand feats of transcontinental flight to the mundane tasks of flushing the toilet to the seemingly miraculous joy of accessing the world’s knowledge through the smartphone in your pocket, we are at once passive and active participants in a landscape that has become progressively mechanised, digitised, and automated.

Behind the scenes, this technical infrastructure is being planned, designed, constructed, and maintained largely by one type of person: the engineer. Whether we realise it or not, it is the humble engineer who now forms the clay which moulds not only our external environment, but also our mind’s interior realm. As we enter the geological era known as the Anthropocene, the engineer has also become, perhaps unwittingly, an ecological force on a planetary scale.

There’s just one problem: at almost no point in their education, training, or practice are engineers given the proper intellectual tools with which to reflect, in any meaningful way, on themselves, each other, or their world-transforming enterprise. Engineers, and the general public, rarely stop to ask: “Should we do this, simply because we can? Is this actually good for the betterment of humanity or for the planet?” Continue reading

An Eco-moo-dernist Manifesto: Technology, meat, and the future of food

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Humans are naturally novelty-seeking animals. Whether it be music, art, fashion, even human relationships, most people, most of the time, are rarely satisfied with the status quo. We want new, and we want it often. The mantra of “new is better” is assumed to be a foregone conclusion and often passes unchallenged.

This is particularly true for technology. Many of us become reflexively obsessed with any and all new technologies and new ways of doing things, regardless of the utility or actual benefit they provide. The latest iPhone can be revealed to the world with giddy enthusiasm, and not 24 hours later people become dissatisfied, asking, “When can I get one that’s even better?” It’s a constant grasping for more, an anticipation of what’s next, a hope for something more fulfilling. It’s a symptom of all human minds Continue reading

Our Last Invention

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Many people — specialists and laypeople alike — celebrate the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) as a means to render work as we know it obsolete. While AI has the potential to provide many labour-saving benefits, not to mention the ability to solve many of our current problems related to economics and ecology, it also holds many ethical – and potentially existential – risks. Continue reading

Facts and values: On science, ethics and climate

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As someone who has greatly admired Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog at the New York Times, I very much enjoyed reading the story about his life’s journey in the world of journalism and science communication that was recently published in Issues in Science and Technology. However, I took issue with one of the claims he makes about science.

Revkin claims, as if it were self-evident, that a major hurdle in our response to climate change is that “science doesn’t tell you what to do”. He then invokes the “is-ought” problem coined by the 18th-century philosopher David Hume which states that no description about the way the world is (facts) can tell us what we ought to do (values). I would argue, however, that this separation between facts and values is a myth. Values are reducible to specific kinds of facts: facts related to the experience and well-being of conscious creatures. There are, in fact, scientific truths to be known about human values (a view defended most notably by the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values). Continue reading

Nature is Enough

The Chirp Heard Across the Universe” (editorial, Feb. 16), about the recent discovery of the gravitational waves that were predicted by Einstein a century ago, asks, “Does science, or knowledge, really need a justification?”

The answer, of course, is no. But in a culture that has become saturated with the idea that only commercial value matters, we’ve become afraid of expressing an impulse as natural and basic as this.

Much like literature, music, philosophy and art, enjoyment of the natural sciences — and of nature itself — has intrinsic value. No further justification is required. Curiosity, wonder and beauty are enough.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Can’t put a price on the wonder of nature

I share George Monbiot’s concern about attempts by some to “put a price on nature” by introducing financial tools such as “biodiversity offsetting” and by monetising ecosystem services (Nature Studies, 17 November). The term “ecosystem services” presumes that natural systems and processes can be quantified merely by the extent with which they provide a service to Homo sapiens.

These metrics can be useful in the proper context; but reducing the living world to its monetary value runs the risk of diminishing its intrinsic value, one that cannot be quantified. I think most people would agree that they aren’t moved to protect the living world because of what it will do to their bank account; they care about it because of love, wonder, and beauty.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The Independent.