Henry Kissinger — the war-criminal who abetted Pinochet's coup in Chile, supported the genocide of Bangledeshis by Pakistan, and architected the US's secret bombing campaigns in Indochina — is worried about AI.
Kissinger's critique opens with a bit of get-off-my-lawn rhetoric: in his day, smart people embraced the Enlightenment by "contextualizing or conceptualizing" the "meaning" of information; today all we care about is "retrieving and manipulating information." When you do this, "truth becomes relative" (because we see tailored search engine results) and "information threatens to overwhelm wisdom" (I think this is war-criminalese for "reality has a well-known left-wing bias").
But this isn't what worries Kissinger about AI; it's what worries him about the entire 21st century. The problem with AI is…well…the problem with AI that everyone is pretty much in agreement about: machine learning algorithms produce models whose reasoning is hard or impossible to follow, and computer science curriculum doesn't spend enough time talking about ethical reasoning.
Also, Kissinger thinks that the Singularity is coming and robots will become our overlords as soon as general intelligence is achieved and then harnessed to Moore's Law.
This is a fascinating piece, but not because of its insights (which are anodyne, poorly argued, grounded in monumental ignorance of his subject, and years out of date — your basic high-paid management consultant, recycling five-year-old ideas for CEOs who are ten years out-of-date), but because of who they're coming from.
Kissinger is a living fossil, a monster of the 20th century that has staggered into the 21st, one of the last survivors of the cohort of genocidal authoritarians who included Pol Pot and Stalin. His doctrine once held that the state should gather its smartest (which is to say, "most Kissingerian") elements inside of secret rooms where they would decide who would live and who would die, in the name of humanity's greater good. They could do this because they had been through elite educational institutions that taught them about Greek, Roman and German philosophers.
Today, a new breed of technocrats is upending the world without accountability: techbros who get to write a few lines of code that can destroy your life (or, possibly, improve it). The companies these coders work for use laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to felonize any attempt to interrogate their algorithms, much less to fix them by inserting protective layers of code between users and algorithmic prediction systems that chaff the AIs with fake data or otherwise attempt to escape their surveillance nets. The companies themselves are so enormous that they are effectively monopolists, with no disciplining competition, and with the power to terrorize or ignore the lawmakers who are supposed to hold them to account.
All of this is the direct outcome of the policies that Kissinger himself architected and saw to fruition: the contraction of antitrust oversight, the expansion of corporate power, the fusion of giant corporations and the state.
And of course Kissinger is terrified of Skynet: like so many corporate execs, he has mistaken a metaphor about corporate dominance for a prediction about machine dominance.
The Enlightenment started with essentially philosophical insights spread by a new technology. Our period is moving in the opposite direction. It has generated a potentially dominating technology in search of a guiding philosophy. Other countries have made AI a major national project. The United States has not yet, as a nation, systematically explored its full scope, studied its implications, or begun the process of ultimate learning. This should be given a high national priority, above all, from the point of view of relating AI to humanistic traditions.
AI developers, as inexperienced in politics and philosophy as I am in technology, should ask themselves some of the questions I have raised here in order to build answers into their engineering efforts. The U.S. government should consider a presidential commission of eminent thinkers to help develop a national vision. This much is certain: If we do not start this effort soon, before long we shall discover that we started too late.
How the Enlightenment Ends [Henry Kissinger/The Atlantic]
(via Beyond the Beyond)
(via Cryteria, CC-BY)