Dick Meyer: AI may be a problem

It is the great philosophic debate of the computer age: Artificial intelligence — good or evil?

The optimists, some might call them utopians, argue that the computational power of machines — their intelligence — inevitably will become greater than human intelligence.

Intelligence this powerful may be hard to imagine now, but it will be able to solve problems we think are unsolvable. It will improve the lives of humans and ultimately save the species, even if the planet is a goner.

Some AI believers call this mega-intelligence by a godly name — The Singularity.

The dystopians don’t disagree that AI might have superhuman intelligence some day, but they think it is irrational and mystical to believe it inevitably will be a force of good.

It could be neutral, like most technology. Or it could be evil. The Singularity could control us dumb humans in mean and nasty ways. Volumes and volumes of science fiction play with this nightmare scenario.

Obviously, my natural and wholly organic intelligence is too tiny to really understand any of this, much less have a strong opinion. But there is a third camp, I’ve discovered, that I am tempted to join. Their great worry isn’t artificial intelligence; it’s artificial stupidity, or AS.

An example of AS might be faulty programming that crashes the US power grid. Seems plausible, almost likely, right? An example of artificial super-stupidity, or ASS, would be a global Internet crash – no Web, nowhere, no way can we survive that for long.

Everything in my personal history with computers and smart devices leads me to paranoia about AS. It’s scarier when you factor in interaction with us featherless bipeds and our limited computational capacities. The logarithm is something like: AS x IQ = hot mess.

As a case study, let’s look at a common technological device: the “smart thermostat.” In my house, we actually call it the “dumb thermostat.”

I read with great interest a story in The Washington Post recently about an important new study in the journal Energy Research and Social Science.

If I may summarise: most people don’t know how to use their programmable (smart) thermostat, use it improperly, or have given up trying. Homeowners tend to leave them in the “hold” position, rendering them dumb, not smart.

As I understand it, the smart thermostat is a less complex system than, say, the computers that control nuclear plants and air traffic. Yet interactions between the devices (AS) and their human masters (IQ) succeed little more than half the time.

We recently installed what was billed as the simplest of all the smart thermostats. The instruction booklet was terrific unless you require pictures that match the actual thermostat and sentences that use words in some type of syntax.

I waddled through all that and eventually the little screens indicated it was all set to minimise our energy use. The system then did what the screens said – fairly often. Sometimes.

The thermostat’s interactions with other members of our homestead were somewhat less successful. Casting no blame at all, the combination of AS and IQ appeared to be less than the sum of the two.

It is possible, as the company’s customer service people suggested, that a nefarious hacker ring had infiltrated our thermostat. But I think it is an AS issue.

I find this ample cause to worry about the future of the species and the planet.

Case Study II: The TV. (I know, I know — there really isn’t such a thing as a TV anymore, sadly.)

I’ve pitted my peace of mind against two home renovations in recent years. The only abject failures in each project (the thermostat is a semi-failure) were the TVs. TVs are now controlled by AI though IQs are the only ones who watch them.

We begged for the simplest setups and were assured that’s what we got. Maybe we did. We didn’t even try to programme them ourselves.

Bottom line: Most of the time we eventually can watch what we want. But it’s always an adventure. The buttons do what the guys said they would most of the time. When they don’t, we hit off and on a lot and pray to The Singularity.

Sometimes the DVD player goes on strike for a couple of weeks. I counted, and there are roughly 475 viewing options and enhanced features that I have never considered using.

We only need to bring in the specialists to help a couple times a year; they press the same buttons we do, sometimes for a minute, sometimes for two hours. They said we weren’t especially inept IQs.

But AS is mopping the floor with us. And this, too, reaffirms my pessimism.

I’m going to avoid pondering the distant future too much. But I don’t really believe that the ratio of smart to stupid is going to change a whole lot in the natural or artificial realms.

It is worth remembering, though, that often “stupid but kind” has served humankind better than “smart but mean.” Artificial emotions, however, aren’t in the chips.

Tribune News Service

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