At the loom of history: the sley

The worst and most imminent danger of artificial intelligence is not that it will outstrip the mind of man, any more than we fear a steam locomotive for being more powerful, but that it will be used as a tool by some men to gain advantage over others. That is now the peril we face and it will be thus for the foreseeable future. Almost certainly, unless catastrophe strikes sooner than later, the digital mind of the machine will outstrip the analogue capacity of the maker, but the machine by itself has no purpose other than to facilitate its own activity. A worn part can be replaced. A mistake can be corrected. There is no self-consciousness because there is no inevitable end per se, whereas the most compelling impetus to human activity is life and death. As science fiction has long envisioned, machines like gods are oxymorons. They are morons at the least. They have no reason, only calculation. The admixture of the human element to the machine is the real matter. And this has already begun. How this particular bestiality manifests itself as a present danger to mankind can readily be seen in automation. With the superseding of individual rights by corporations—legal machines themselves with the same lack of self-consciousness that naturally inhibits any artificial intelligence—my own guess is that this time of danger is already well begun.

The several ‘Terminator’ movies, seen by hundreds of millions of people world-wide, imagined one potential of this horror decades ago. Yet, here we are, playing with the devil of it now. I think this turn of events is tied to other spheres of human ignorance and stupidity (which is only the exercise of ignorance and thus redundant). And there is yet another immediate danger manifest by this terrible evil. The reaction of government, itself a clumsily contrived political machine, to further restrict scientific and technological development. This very constraint will likely be the reason for our failure to stop what can only be a delayed suicide, while aiding the ongoing enslavement of the species to gods of our own making. A deus ex machina carried to extreme.

Those who benefit in the short term by the android fusion of human being to machine (apparently most computer geeks for instance) will argue that this fear is just luddism anew—that my fear is no better than that of Ned Ludd smashing the stocking frames to stop the textile mill from taking his livelihood. I accept the epithet. Nedd was on to something. He might not have had the intellect or education to deal more rationally with his fear, but what he saw before him was only what anyone today can readily see now in any office filled with human beings doing the work assigned by machines. And the fear that their jobs will one day be taken by machines is beyond irony and well into the absurd.

However, my argument is not that machines are bad. They are clearly a boon to mankind, just as fire is and was. My protest is that we have allowed ourselves to become the drudge. And I see this as a fundamental failure of philosophy and philosophers who have for the most part (by academic perk) divorced themselves from the mundane that determines the lives of everyone, including themselves. This is yet another manifestation of reducing the lives of human beings to fit specific purposes defined by others (or machines), as well as the hollow definition of philosophers as intellectuals whose interest is solely in the meanings of things and not the use of those meanings. It makes no difference that you define a dog if you have no dogs, and having dogs, you must deal with them and not your definition. This binding to task is inherent in the need of the corporation to achieve efficiency, but not to cooperate, and not necessary to the cooperative, or the partnership, much less the individual craftsman or artist.

Whatever we do, requires us to change. The first matter is not that change is good or bad. The matter is what we do. If what we do is good, the change that follows will more likely be for the better. If we fail, we have learned from the experience and can improve on our effort. And judging the good, the responsibility of each individual, is the province of philosophy.

The issues involved are not disassociated from the social problem of the corporation as a legal entity. The history of the modern corporation and the mechanization of industrial society are concurrent with the need for capitalization to fund industry. From the Eighteenth Century, in the process of protecting the investors of a given corporation from liability for the actions of the corporation, a legal fiction was created that the corporation was a person in and of itself and thus could be held responsible for any harm done, apart from the investors. Like paying a hitman but not having to go to jail when he is caught and tells on you. This balderdash was convenient to the moment, and permitted financial interests to grow exponentially by avoiding liability for their actions—a convenience not available to the individual—and the cause of much industrial harm as well as the good. Imagine if you or I could experiment with doing anything we thought might benefit us and reap the rewards for our genius but never have to pay the piper for our mistakes.

It has been observed that corporations are like governments with hired citizens as employees. Lacking political loyalty or the tribal fealty of a nation, corporations will act with the precision of their making to accomplish the deed they are given, without respect to any other human want or desire. They are essentially legal machines warranted for a purpose that may alter over time but is at any moment geared to a specific aim that is irrelevant to the human beings who maintain it, other than in the efficiency of their support. The corporation, by charter, must always put itself before all others.

My argument here is that maintaining this fiction of corporate liability will make the creation of artificial intelligence a time bomb. You may not hear the ticking. With no real loss but much to gain, the corporation will use artificial intelligence to whatever advantage the human mind can imagine. And the human being can imagine things no corporation can.

If our philosophers will not address this danger, then practical men must do it in practical ways. We cannot throw monkey wrenches around to break the looms, but we must act to break the cause of misusing the loom—the corporate law that places that device above our heads, like a guillotine.