Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Meaning and beauty (in the age of artificial intelligence)

To any moderately observant person it should be clear that we are on the cusp of a real technological revolution - the first that I would witness personally with personal computing and the internet not amounting to that much in the end. The post-industrial society will get automatized creating a whole new cultural, economic and social situation. And like any revolution, however much planned, analyzed and rationalized, this one too will be chaotic, uncontrolled, uncontrollabe with countless unforeseen and unintended concequences: "Marie, Marie, hold on tight"...

No, I'm not hugely worried about our despotic, robotic overlords taking over: we already do despotic, robotic overtakings very expertly, thank you, have always done. Maybe in some corners of the West, of the postindustrial society we have a few scattered elements of enlightenment and liberty, but by and large the global system is a bloody, despotic kleptocracy, so maybe an AI version of despotism would actually be better. But it seems rather meaningless to speculate about this popular image of malignant machine intelligences - we simply don't know how things will turn out to be, though for me this particular scenario does not seem a likely or plausible end result.

Instead, I wonder from where shall our various artificial intelligences get their strange machine meanings from? Facts are simple enough: there's always facts around, scurrying away this way and that, but meanings are so much harder to come by. Where shall they get their Nietzschean criticism that without which it's so hard to imagine ourselves, lost here on this darkling plain? Hard to imagine these odd intelligences. (Especially as I don't mean the kind of "artificial intelligence" that many of the experts seem to mean for much of the time: really clever, self-learning machines going trough the tricks of moderately complicated tasks.)

And, also, and maybe even more importantly: where shall they get their idea of beauty from? The one, classically, that is so closely bound with the concept of ethics - where are their appropriate, proportionate ideas of fate fashioned? Or are they fashioned at all? It shouldn't really matter which material you are made of but which meaning and experience of the world you have - anything outward and obviously material is irrelevant. But the question still stands, and will stand, regardless of the of the changes to come: shall we have empty minds overseeing empty tasks? And to what rational purpose then?

As for the unfolding of the actual historical process, these thoughts are totally meaningless: they won't be considered for a moment. Things will happen without any overall control: there will be unforeseen and unintended occurrences, and we shall arrive where we never expected to arrive. We can only hope - and I have already argued here that it is our only realistic hope - that technological progress will free us for meaningful things and experiences. We will see.