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How AI could run the world

Its killer apps, in physicist Max Tegmark's tale, include a tsunami of "message" films
MAX TEGMARK, Professor of Physics

Max Tegmark, Professor of Physics

In his book, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, (2017), MIT physics prof Max Tegmark offers a science fiction scenario for how AI colossus Prometheus, produced by a group of idealistic programmers, the Omegas, could take over the world. And not only take over the world but make it a bureaucrat’s idea of a vastly better place. To top it off,  Prometheus produces an astonishing array of popular entertainment along the way. The sketch was published independently as an excerpt:

The Omegas noticed that after Prometheus had binge-watched a few hundred films, it started to get quite good at predicting what sort of reviews a movie would get and how it would appeal to different audiences. Indeed, it learned to write its own movie reviews in a way they felt demonstrated real insight, commenting on everything from the plots and the acting to technical details such as lighting and camera angles. They took this to mean that when Prometheus made its own films, it would know what success meant.

So Prometheus, unlike human authors, does not need to experience life in order to understand it…

Political commentators noted that, in parallel with damping regional conflicts, there seemed to be a concerted push toward reducing global threats. For example, the risks of nuclear war were suddenly being discussed all over the place. Several blockbuster movies featured scenarios where global nuclear war started by accident or on purpose and dramatized the dystopian aftermath with nuclear winter, infrastructure collapse, and mass starvation. Slick new documentaries detailed how nuclear winter could impact every country. Scientists and politicians advocating nuclear de-escalation were given ample airtime, not least to discuss the results of several new studies on what helpful measures could be taken—studies funded by scientific organizations that had received large donations from new tech companies. As a result, political momentum started building for taking missiles off hair-trigger alert and shrinking nuclear arsenals. Renewed media attention was also paid to global climate change, often highlighting the recent Prometheus-enabled technological breakthroughs that were slashing the cost of renewable energy and encouraging governments to invest in such new energy infrastructure. Max Tegmark, “The Last Invention of Man: How AI might take over the world” at Nautilus

Imagine. In AI-topia, people enjoy dogma-tainment and blindly follow its directive advice.

Of the book as a whole, historian Yuval Noah Harari has said “…it soon bumps up against the limits of present-day political debates… When Tesla engineers come to design a self-driving car, they cannot wait while philosophers argue about its ethics.” Nor need they, it would seem, in Harari’s view:

Long before the appearance of superintelligent computers, our society will be completely transformed by rather crude and dumb AI that is nevertheless good enough to hack humans, predict their feelings, make choices on their behalf, and manipulate their desires.

Once an algorithm knows you better than you know yourself, institutions such as democratic elections and free markets become obsolete, and authority shifts from humans to algorithms. Instead of fearing assassin robots that try to terminate us, we should be concerned about hordes of bots who know how to press our emotional buttons better than our mother, and use this uncanny ability to try to sell us something. It might be apocalypse by shopping. Yuval Noah Harari, “Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark review – we are ignoring the AI apocalypse” at The Guardian

Could even hordes of bots account for the projected popularity of dogmatic film-making?

Tegmark does not even try to explain why Prometheus actually wants anything. Never mind how it would have a plan; why would it have a plan? Just because it is an awesomely powerful computing tool? But that doesn’t follow.

In traditional fairy tales, an explanatory gap can be addressed by magic. After all, most readers will grant a writer one impossibility (for example, that a boy’s horse has human intelligence) just to get the story moving. Unfortunately, science fiction is one genre that doesn’t work that way. The author must make the claim sound like science, a problem Tegmark vaults right over.

Tegmark may not be conscious of this problem, in part because he is not encouraged to be. He is, after all, well-known as a promoter of the multiverse, for example in“Infinite Earths in Parallel Universes Really Exist” (Scientific American, 2003). There is no science-related evidence for infinite Earths or parallel universes, yet few readers of science media take issue with such claims. He also argued in 2014 that “consciousness is a state of matter – just like a solid, liquid, or gas – in which atoms are arranged to process information and give rise to subjectivity.” Everyone took for granted—correctly—that this was not just another of those Sokal hoaxes played on pretentious journals.

When science that sounds like magic turns out to be magic that sounds like science, details like how a machine gains lived experience or why it wants anything can drop discreetly out of sight.

Note: Michael Egnor has discussed Yuval Noah Harari’s own approach to AI here:

Is free will a dangerous myth?


AI is indeed a threat to democracy (but not in the way Harare thinks)

See also: Could AI write novels? George Orwell thought so, as long as no thinking was involved

Screenwriters jobs are not threatened by artificial intelligence Unless the public starts preferring mishmash to creativity (Robert J. Marks)

How AI could run the world