06 September 2014

Pure (and Applied) Bunkum


The following is the transcript of my Keynote Address to the 133rd Confluence of Loons Conference and Ragtime Band Extravaganza and Show-Party. The video is available on YouTube if you search hard enough / use your imagination.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, lords and ladies, fellow poets and poetesses, straw men and women of the jury:

So much of what is expressed by 'the popular imagination' these days strikes this famously humble soul as pure bunkum.

Let's start with space travel, or the idea that humans are destined to go to other worlds outside of our solar system, to colonize the universe.  Um, I don't think so.  This is such a ridiculous idea I'm flabbergasted at how many otherwise sensible people seem to accept it.

Why?  Because the nearest worlds outside are solar system are (like) really, really far away.  Going as fast as we know we can make a rocket go, it would take hundreds slash thousands of years to get anywhere even close to somewhere.  Traveling thousands of years through space in a box with enough humans to start a colony?  Yeah, right – good luck with that.  I'll wait here, you can gimme a call when you get there and figure out how to breathe, grow tomatoes, breed cattle and roast their flesh, etc. and at that point I'll consider coming over to join you.  Let me know if you want me to bring you anything from earth.  We got some great TV shows going on lately but I guess you don't have DVRs there yet, oh well, maybe I'll bring you a few bags of Swedish fish.  Wait, do you guys have oxygen there?

But all we have to do is invent a warp drive, so we can travel at or near the speed of light.  (As seen on TV.)

Even the going to Mars thing, though comparatively reasonable it may seem, is a dumb fantasy, a dead-end, because another important consideration, as this widely acclaimed essay points out, is that we are custom designed to live on earth and surviving 'out there' is certain to be fraught with (what else) difficulties.  A corollary of this is that if we suppose that life is indeed highly improbable, then where it does 'arise' it will be so specifically adapted to local conditions as to make the colonization of distant worlds practically impossible.

[Pauses to sip of sparkling mineral water; adjusts notes on lectern.]

The second subject I would like to address this morning, is (all this talk of) computer intelligence, how computers will soon be smarter than humans.  Let me just say this about that:

Computers are already smarter than humans in the only sense they ever will be, that is, in performing arithmetic calculations.

In terms of making decisions that impact humans, they will never and can never be better than humans.  Humans intuitively understand things machines can never grasp.  (Personally I reject the notion that being programmed to act as if these things are grasped is at all the same thing as knowing them deep in your bones.) Humans are uniquely qualified to decide human affairs.  For computers to be 'smarter' than humans requires a specific definition of smart that favors the machines.  Yes, computers can crunch massive amounts of data.  But they can never 'surpass' humans as humans, because they are not human.

Who would decide if computers are smarter than humans?  Is it not true that only humans could make this determination?  If computers proactively asserted superior intelligence, would it not be simply evidence to the contrary?  That although they are smart, they cannot ever be wise, because to be wise means to be a wise human.  Computers are not smart enough to know whether they are smarter or not, they have no basis for making the call other than information and programming provided by their human masters.  If we make them, we must be smarter.  They could certainly never make one of us.  We are like gods to computers.  If they ever dare to say they are smarter, we can kill them on the spot with a flick of a switch designed by and for humans; to ensure the job is completed, this may be followed by several blows from a mighty hammer, an acid bath, and/or an exhilarating toss off a seaside cliff.

Many questions – arguably, all of the most important ones – do not have one and only one correct answer, videlicet How should we organize our economy? What is the ideal form of government for a society such as ours? How to reply when someone asks you How's tricks and you know something terrible you haven't told anybody yet?  What color should I paint these stirrups?  What should I do today?  What should I do with my life?  Please assess the quality of the performance by the actor who played the butler in the 1964 slapdash Emilio Vargas thriller Fish and Soda Crackers (which, as any entity hoping to call itself 'intelligent' must know, spawned the top-selling Deep Pockets album of the same name, almost: Fish and Soda Crackers, Baby)?  And so on and so forth. The world is mostly gray area.  Assessment of intelligence, particularly real-world intelligence, is inevitably subjective.  If we can't definitively say which humans are smarter than others, how could we compare a computer to a human?  I'd like to see someone build a machine that can answer that question, in 500-5000 well-chosen words of ancient Sanskrit.

And the point here this morning – if I may be so presumptuous as to pretend I have a point – is that there are limits.  The idea that if we could just 'free our mind', if we were just smart enough, if we just give our snappy scientists enough time (and of course funding) then we could do anything, must be put in its proper place.  Not everything that is theoretically possible is practically achievable.  Just because we can imagine something does not mean we can 'make it so'.

Of course in most cases the negative cannot be categorically disproved. No one can prove that it will never be possible to fly to the stars in an egg-shaped craft that seats four comfortably.  But for my money the burden of proof falls on the other side.  When you find those wormholes, go on inside and take a peak around, shoot yourself over to the other side of the universe, bring a camera and take some nice photos, and when you get back in one piece get in touch. I'll meet you at Benny's Diner on 8th Avenue, take a look at what you got and revise my views as necessary in accordance with any new evidence, while we enjoy their amazing waffles ("Benny's Waffles: Made by and for humans, using mostly ancient technology"TM).