Soap or Dirt?

Books like Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom have made graphic the potential calamities of developing machine intelligence. A cautious-to-pessimisitic view on the impact of technological progress is not new, and even the strongest of technophiles among us have to agree that there exists a chance for unintended consequences and deviations from intended use with any technology. Unfortunately, there is always dirt in the soap.

This theme, that all good comes with some bad, is a very natural phenomenon. It is ubiquitous, in our careers, our relationships, and our biology. The Economist recently ran a piece on how the very source of our mental capacity, in certain cases, can cause Huntingdon’s disease. I admit, I sometimes fall into the mode of thinking that all things natural are somehow error-free, designed with omniscient purpose or adapted to perfect form over centuries of survival (of the fittest). That is not true, good enough to last is not synonymous with perfect.

If the research the Economist cites is correct, I’d be willing to bet that most people would not trade the intellectual power of our entire species for a reduction in the risk of Huntingdon’s disease (though just typing that makes me feel harsh and unempathetic - I assure you that is not the case). What does this say about the arguments of the technophobes? Is it unnatural and abnormal to fight against artificial intelligence? Do they ignore that technological advancement simply mimics how biological enablers of our success have drawbacks? 

While it is interesting to note the parallel between technology and biology, the two are very different and the questions above are misleading. Technology advances at a rate much faster than does biology. Genetic deviations introduce incremental change that gains broader prevalence gradually if and only if it exhibits more favorable survival characteristics. It’s hard to see how any single change would wipe out an entire species, whereas that is not true of technological development. Technology exhibits exponential growth that can outpace our ability to react.

Our inability to quantify the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ is why this debate exists in the first place. So don’t dismiss books like Superintelligence entirely. Discussions about the future state of our world and the role of technology are fascinating, diverse, and worth having. While we all may agree that no soap is pure, we need to know when we should just start calling it dirt.