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Considerations of “Turing’s Nightmare’s” Chapter Four: Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe.




In this chapter, we consider the interplay of four themes. First, and most centrally, is the issue of what constitutes “reality.” The second theme is that what “counts” as “reality” or is seen as reality may well differ from generation to generation. The third theme is that AI systems may be inclined to warp our sense of reality, not simply to be “mean” or “take over the world” but to help prevent ecological disaster. Finally, the fourth theme is that truly super-intelligent AI systems might not appear so at all; that is, they may find it more effective to take a demure tone as the AI embedded in the car does in this scenario.

There is no doubt that, artificial intelligence and virtual reality aside, what people perceive is greatly influenced by their symbol systems, their culture and their motivational schemes. Babies as young as six weeks are already apparently less able to make discriminations of differences within what their native language considers a phonemic category than they were at birth. In our culture, we largely come to believe that there is a “right answer” to questions. Suppose an animal is repeatedly presented with a three-choice problem, let’s say among A, B, and C. A pays off randomly with a reward 1/3 of the time while B and C never pay off. A fish, a rat, or a very young child will quickly only choose A thus maximizing their rewards. However, a child who has been to school (or an adult) will spend considerably more time trying to find “the rule” that allows them to win every time. Eventually, most will “give up” and choose only A, but in the meantime, they do far worse than a fish, a rat, or a baby. This is not to say that the conceptual frameworks that color our perceptions and reactions are always a bad thing. They are not. There are obvious advantages to learning language and categories. But our interpretations of events are highly filtered and distorted. Hopefully, we realize that that is so, but often we tend to forget.

Similarly, if you ask the sports fans for two opposing teams to make a close call; for instance, as to whether there was pass interference in American football, or whether a tennis ball near the line was in or out, you tend to find that people’s answers are biased toward their team’s interest even when their calls make no influence on the outcome.

Now consider that we keep striving toward more and more fidelity and completeness in our entertainment systems. Silent movies were replaced by “talkies.” Black and white movies and television were replaced by color. Some TV screens have gotten bigger. There are more 3-D movies and more entertainment is in high definition even as sound reproduction has moved from monaural to stereo to surround sound. Research continues to allow the reproduction of smell, taste, tactile, and kinesthetic sensations. Virtual reality systems have become smaller and less expensive. There is no reason to suppose these trends will lessen any time soon. There are many advantages to using Virtual Reality in education (e.g., Stuart, R., & Thomas, J. C. (1991). The implications of education in cyberspace. Multimedia Review, 2(2), 17-27; Merchant, Z., Goetz, E, Cifuentes, L., Keeney-Kennicutt, W., and Davis, T. Effectiveness of virtual reality based instruction on student’s learning outcomes in K-12 and higher education: A meta-analysis, Computers and Education, 70(2014),29-40). As these applications become more realistic and widespread, do they influence the perceptions of what even “counts” as reality?

The answer to this may well depend on the life trajectory of individuals and particularly on how early in their lives they are introduced to virtual reality and augmented reality. I was born in a largely “analogue” age. In that world, it was often quite important to “read the manual” before trying to operate machinery. A single mistake could destroy the machine or cause injury. There is no way to “reboot” or “undo” if you cut a tree down wrongly so it falls on your house. How will future generations conceptualize “reality” versus “augmented reality” versus “virtual reality”?

Today, people often believe it is important for high school students to physically visit various college campuses before making a decision about where to do. There is no doubt that this is expensive in terms of time, money, and the use of fossil fuels. Yet, there is a sense that being physically present allows the student to make a better decision. Most companies similarly only hire candidates after face to face interviews even though there is no evidence that this adds to the predictive capability of companies with respect to who will be a productive employee. More and more such interviewing, however, is being done remotely. It might well be that a “super-intelligent” system might arrange for people who wanted to visit someplace physically to visit it virtually instead while making it seem as much as possible as though the visit were “real.” After all, left to their own devices, people seem to be making painfully slow (and too slow) progress toward reducing their carbon footprints. AI systems might alter this trajectory to save humanity, to save themselves, or both.

In some scenarios in Turing’s Nightmare the AI system is quite surly and arrogant. But in this scenario, the AI system takes on the demeanor of a humble servant. Yet it is clear (at least to the author!) who really holds the power. This particular AI embodiment sees no necessity of appearing to be in charge. It is enough to make it so and manipulate the “sense of reality” that the humans have.

Turing’s Nightmares