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For Progress, There is no Cure

I have been reading a lot lately about artificial intelligence; what it is and isn’t, where it comes from and where it’s going. I am a Luddite, confirmed, and my contempt for a lot of the technologies that we wade through everyday is totally inflamed by contemplation of the cruelties, scams, and delusions that fall under the rubric of AI.

I just finished a novel of sorts by Chilean author Benjamin Labatut called “The MANIAC’, which is a fictionalized true story mostly about the life of the scientist and mathematician John von Neumann. Von Neumann was a Hungarian Jew who worked on the Manhattan Project, and is frequently and unironically referred to as one of the most intelligent people of the Twentieth Century. His intelligence is often described as an alien force, something that set him apart from the rest of humanity, that made his priorities and his choices seem to emerge from a realm of thought totally foreign to most of the rest of us.

He worked on the complicated equations that described how explosive forces could compress a sphere of plutonium into the critical mass necessary for a nuclear blast. He designed the basic architecture of the modern computer. He also worked on descriptions of mathematical systems that could approximate, impersonate, then embody the intelligence of living organism. His ultimate goal with the latter project was to surpass that intelligence and create something new and strange, something with new desires and new ways of fulfilling them.  He didn’t really care what happened to what was left behind in the wake of the mind he wanted to build out of numbers, but seeing it burnt to ashes like a rocket scorches the ground beneath it probably wouldn’t have made him shrug.

Late in his life, as the cancer that the bomb gave him started to eat its way through his tissues, he wrote an essay entitled “Can We Survive Technology?” which was published in Fortune magazine. In it he looked at the swelling tide of nuclear technology and the advances in computation that he had helped create and he used his strange, vast intelligence to imagine the future it would summon. He saw an inevitability to the additive process that technological achievements would produce, bringing the world of human and nonhuman life forward through time into an arena in which our minds would be dwarfed by the monsters that would emerge from our machines, intellects “vast, cool, and unsympathetic” like those of the Martians in H.G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds”.

“For progress” he wrote, “there is no cure.”

The thing about AI that von Neumann wouldn’t live to be disappointed by is that it isn’t intelligent; in fact it can never be so. What AI is more than anything is fake. A tedious system of correlation that produces results based solely on referential similarities, the intelligence it represents is that of the lazy, cruel bureaucrat managing the budget of a refugee camp full of desperate people struggling against the inhumanities of capitalism. It can never understand anything, only tell you if it looks like something else. In our world at the moment, there are an awful lot of people who are willing to let that be good enough, and to let the deeply stupid similarity engines of artificial intelligence dictate our daily policies- with the inevitable result of a world even more idiotic, venal and dire than we can currently imagine.

We must smash it, burn it, and shit in its ashes. The world we want is real, and it will take all of us to build it.