Dear reader: Spoiler alert: before reading this blog post, you may want to read the associated chapter. You can buy the physical book, Turing’s Nightmares, at this link:
An earlier version of the chapter discussed below can be found at this link:
One of the issues raised by chapter 14 of Turing’s Nightmares is that the scenario presumes that, even in the post-singularity future, there will still be a need for government. In particular, the future envisions individuals as well as a collective. Indeed, the goals of the “collective” will remain somewhat different from the goals of various individuals. Indeed, an argument can be made that the need for complex governmental processes and structures will increase with hyper-intelligence. But that argument will be saved for another time.
This scenario further assumes that advanced AI systems will have emotions and emotional attachments to other complex systems. What is the benefit of having emotional attachments? Some people may feel that emotional attachments are as outdated as the appendix; perhaps they had some function when humans lived in small tribes but now they cause as much difficulty as they confer an advantage. Even if you believe that emotional attachments are great for humans, you still might be puzzled why it could be advantageous for an AI system to have any.
When it comes to people, they vary a lot in their capabilities, habits, etc.. So, one reason emotional attachments “make sense” is to prefer and act in the interest of people who have a range of useful and complementary abilities and habitual behaviors. Wouldn’t you naturally start to like someone who has similar interests, other things being equal? Moreover, as you work with someone else toward a common goal, you begin to understand and learn how to work together better. You learn to trust each other and communicate in short-hand. If you become disconnected from such a person, it can be disconcerting for all sorts of reasons. But exactly the same could hold true for an autonomous agent with artificial intelligence. There could be reasons for having not one ubiquitous type of robot but for having millions of different kinds. Some of these would work well together and having them “bond” and differentially prefer their mutual proximity and interaction.
Humans, of course, also make emotional attachments, sometimes very deep, with animals. Most commonly, people form bonds with cats, dogs, and horses, but people have had a huge variety of pets including birds, turtles, snakes, ferrets, mice, rabbits and even tarantula spiders. What’s up with that? The discussion above about emotional attachment was intentionally “forced” and “cold”, because human attachments cannot be well explained in utilitarian terms. People love others who have no possible way to offer back any value other than their love in return.
In some cases, pets do have some utilitarian value such as catching mice, barking at intruders, or pulling hay wagons. But overwhelmingly, people love their pets because they love their pets! If asked, they may say because they are “cute” or “cuddly” but this doesn’t really answer the question as to why people love pets. According to a review by John Archer published in the 1997 July issue of Human Behavior, “These mechanisms can, in some circumstances, cause pet owners to derive more satisfaction from their pet relationship than those with humans, because they supply a type of unconditional relationship that is usually absent from those with other human beings.”
However, there are also other hypotheses; e.g., Biophilia (1986) Edward O. Wilson
suggests that during early hominid history, there was a distinct survival advantage to observing and remaining close to other animals living in nature. Would it make more sense to gravitate toward a habitat filled with life…or one utterly devoid of it? While humans and other animals generally want to move toward similar things like fresh water, a food supply, cover, reasonable temperatures, etc. and avoid other things such as dangerous places, temperature extremes etc. this might explain why people like lush and living environments but probably does not explain, in itself, why we actually love our pets.
Perhaps one among many possible reasons is that pets reflect aspects of our most basic natures. In civilization, these aspects are often hidden by social conventions. In effect, we can actually learn about how we ourselves are by observing and interacting with our pets. Among the various reasons why we love our pets, this strikes me as the most likely one to hold true as well for super-AI systems. Of course, they may also like cats and dogs for the same reason, but in the same way that most of us prefer cats and dogs over turtles and spiders because of the complexity and similarity of mammalian behavior, we can imagine that post-singularity AI systems might prefer human pets because we would be more complex and probably, at least initially, share many of the values, prejudices and interests of the AI systems since their initial programming would inevitably reflect humans.
Another premise of chapter 14 is that even with super-intelligent systems, resources will not be infinite. Many dystopian and utopian science fiction works alike seem to assume that in the future space travel, e.g., will be dirt cheap. That might happen. Ignoring any economic scarcity certainly makes writing more convenient. Realistically though, I see no reason why resources will be essentially infinite; that is, so universally cheap that there will no longer be any contention for them. It’s conceivable that some entirely new physical properties of the universe might be discovered by super-intelligent beings so that this will be the new reality. But it is also possible that “super-intelligent beings” might be even more inclined to over-use the resources of the planet than we humans are and that contention for resources will be even more fierce.
Increasing greediness seems at least an equally likely possibility as the alternative; viz., that while it might be true that as humans gained more and more power, they became greedier and greedier and used up more and more resources but only until that magic moment when machines were smarter than people and that at that point, these machines suddenly became interested in actually exhibiting sustainable behavior. Maybe, but why?
Any way, it’s getting late and past time to feed the six cats.
Interested readers who can may want to tune into a podcast tonight, Monday, May 2nd at 7pm PST using the link below. I will be interviewed about robotics, artificial intelligence and human computer interaction.