As Spock would say, fascinating

The Atlantic channels Spock:

the technological advance that most altered the course of modern history was the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which allowed the search for empirical knowledge to supplant liturgical doctrine, and the Age of Reason to gradually supersede the Age of Religion. Individual insight and scientific knowledge replaced faith as the principal criterion of human consciousness. Information was stored and systematized in expanding libraries. The Age of Reason originated the thoughts and actions that shaped the contemporary world order.

But that order is now in upheaval amid a new, even more sweeping technological revolution whose consequences we have failed to fully reckon with, and whose culmination may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms…at a conference on transatlantic issues, the subject of artificial intelligence appeared on the agenda. I was on the verge of skipping that session—it lay outside my usual concerns—but the beginning of the presentation held me in my seat.

The speaker described the workings of a computer program that would soon challenge international champions in the game Go. I was amazed that a computer could master Go, which is more complex than chess. In it, each player deploys 180 or 181 pieces (depending on which color he or she chooses), placed alternately on an initially empty board; victory goes to the side that, by making better strategic decisions, immobilizes his or her opponent by more effectively controlling territory.

The speaker insisted that this ability could not be preprogrammed. His machine, he said, learned to master Go by training itself through practice. Given Go’s basic rules, the computer played innumerable games against itself, learning from its mistakes and refining its algorithms accordingly. In the process, it exceeded the skills of its human mentors. And indeed, in the months following the speech, an AI program named AlphaGo would decisively defeat the world’s greatest Go players.

As I listened to the speaker celebrate this technical progress, my experience as a historian and occasional practicing statesman gave me pause. What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines — machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? How would choices be made among emerging options? Was it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them?

The most unusual thing about the piece is that the author is 94 years old. So that’s what the humans are up to here. But there are an awful lot of heres. The universe has 200 billion galaxies, maybe more, and the Milky Way alone has 100 billion planets. (Our family had a 1963 galaxie convertible, which as far as we know, stayed on earth; we enjoy the Milky Way, but prefer Snickers.)

So there are something like 20,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets, give or take. So if a mere one in a billion planets is habitable, that’s 20,000,000,000,000 planets that may have life on them. (Our math may be off by a few zeroes but what the heck?) So there are quite a few space aliens, enough to easily inhabit the outer limits. No doubt quite a few of these space aliens have already visited earth. If you doubt that, consult Scott Johnson.

In any event, we don’t have any specific thoughts on AI, except that we thought we saw evidence of it over fifty years ago.

2 Responses to “As Spock would say, fascinating”

  1. feeblemind Says:

    Scientists believe alien life may exist in other universes after discovering a mysterious ‘force’

  2. feeblemind Says:

    We didn’t watch the Outer Limits. My Dad wasn’t into Sci-Fi, and we watched what he watched, so I only recall one Outer Limits episode.

    In that episode there was one guy whose eyes looked like bulging fried eggs because he had been exposed to radioactive rain (IIRC). It also made him nuts.

    Anyhow it was all pretty scary to a 7 year old and I never made another effort to watch it. Not having cable, I have never seen it in reruns.

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