Untold AI: The Untold

And here we are at the eponymous answer to the question that I first asked at Juvet around 7 months ago: What stories aren’t we telling ourselves about AI?

In case this post is your entry to the series, to get to this point I have…

In this post we look at the imperatives that don’t have matches in AI. Everything is built on a live analysis document, such that new shows and new manifestos can be added later. At the time of publishing, there are 27 of these Untold AI imperatives that sit alongside the 22 imperatives seen in the survey.

What stories about AI aren’t we telling ourselves?

To make these more digestible, I’ve synthesized the imperatives into five groups.

  1. We should build the right AI
  2. We should build the AI right
  3. We must manage the risks involved
  4. We must monitor AIs
  5. We must encourage an accurate cultural narrative

For each group…

  • I summarize it (as I interpreted things across the manifestos).
  • I list the imperatives that were seen in the survey and then those absent from the survey
  • I take a stab at why it might not have gotten any play in screen sci-fi and hopefully some ideas about ways that can be overcome.
  • Since I suspect this will be of practical interest to writers interested in AI, I’ve provided story ideas using those imperatives.
  • Where to learn more about the topic.

Let’s unfold Untold AI.

header_rightAI

1. We should build the right AI (the thing itself)

Narrow AI must be made ethically, transparently, and equitably, or it stands to be a tool used by evil forces to take advantage of global systems and make things worse. As we work towards General AI, we must ensure that it is verified, valid, secure, and controllable. We must also be certain that its incentives are aligned with human welfare before we allow it to evolve into superintelligence and therefore, out of our control. To hedge our bets, we should seed ASIs that balance each other.

Screen Shot 2018-06-12 at 10.08.27 AM.png

Related imperatives seen in the survey

  • We must take care to only create beneficial intelligence
  • We must ensure human welfare
  • AGI’s goals must be aligned with ours
  • AI must be free from bias
  • AI must be verified: Make sure it does what we want it to do
  • AI must be valid: Make sure it does not do what we don’t want it to do
  • AI must be controllable: That we can we correct or unplug an AI if needed without retaliation
  • We should augment, not replace humans
  • We should design AI to be part of human teams
  • AI should help humanity solve problems humanity cannot alone
  • The AI must be reliable

Related imperatives absent from the survey

  • We must develop inductive goals and models, so the AI could look at a few related facts and infer causes, rather than only following established top-down rules to conclusions.
  • AI must be secure. It must be inaccessible to malefactors.
  • AI must provide clear confidences in its decisions. Sure, it’s recommending you return to school to get a doctorate, but it’s important to know if it’s only, like, 16% certain.
  • AI reasoning must have an explainable/understandable rationale, especially for judicial cases and system failures.
  • AI must be accountable. Anyone subject to an AI decision must have the right to object and request human review.
  • We should enable a human-like learning capability in AI.
  • We must research and build ASIs that balance each other, to avoid an intelligence monopoly.

Why don’t these appear in sci-fi AI?

At a high level of abstraction, it appears in sci-if all the time. Any time you see an AI on screen who is helpful to the protagonists, you have encountered an AI that is in one sense good. BB-8 for instance. Good AI. But the reason it’s good is rarely offered. It’s just the way they are. They’re just programmed that way. (There is one scene in Phantom Menace where Amidala offers a ceremonial thanks to R2-D2, so perhaps there are also reward loops.) But how we get there is the interesting bit, and not seen in the survey.

SW1-027.jpg

And, at the more detailed level—the level apparent in the imperatives—we don’t see the kinds of things we currently believe will make for good AI: like inductive goals and models. Or an AI offering judicial ruling, and having the accused exonerated by a human court. So when it comes to the details, sci-fi doesn’t illustrate the real reasons a good AI would be good.

Additionally, when AI is the villain of the story (I, Robot, Demon Seed, The Matrices, etc.) it is about having the wrong AI, but it’s often wrong for no reason or a silly reason. It’s inherently evil, say, or displaying human motivations like revenge. Now it’s hard to write an interesting story illustrating the right AI that just works well, but if it’s in the background and has some interesting worldbuilding consequences, that could work as well.

But what if…?

  • Sherlock Holmes was an inductive AI, and Watson was the comparatively stupid human babysitting it. Twist: Watson discovers that Holmes created AI Moriarty for job security.
  • A jurist in Human Recourse [sic] discovers that the AI judge from whom she inherits cases has been replaced, because the original AI judge was secretly convicted of a mind crime…against her.
  • A hacker falls through a literal hole in an ASI’s server, and has a set of Alice-in-Wonderland psychedelic encounters with characters inspired not by logical fallacies, but by AI principles.

Inspired with your own story idea? Tweet it with the hashtag #TheRightAI and tag @scifiinterfaces.

Learn more about what makes good AI

header_AIright

2. We should build the AI right (processes and methods)

We must take care that we are able to go about the building of AI cooperatively, ethically, and effectively. The right people should be in the room throughout to ensure diverse perspectives and equitable results. If we use the wrong people or the wrong tools, it affects our ability to build the “right AI.” Or more to the point, it will result in an AI that is wrong on some critical point.

Iron-Man-Movie-Prologue-Hologram-1

Related imperatives seen in the survey

  • We should adopt dual-use patterns from other mature domains
  • We must study the psychology of AI/uncanny valley

Related imperatives absent from the survey

  • We must fund AI research
  • We need effective design tools for new AIs
  • We must foster research cooperation, discussion
  • We should develop golden-mean world-model precision
  • We should encourage innovation (not stifle)
  • We must develop broad machine ethics dialogue
  • We should expand the range of stakeholders & domain experts

Why don’t these appear in sci-fi AI?

Building stuff is not very cinemagenic. It takes a long time. It’s repetitive. There are a lot of stops and starts and restarts. It often doesn’t look “right” until just before the end. Design and development, if it ever appears, is relegated to a montage sequence. The closest thing we get in the survey is Person of Interest, and there, it’s only shown in flashback sequences if those sequences have some relevance to the more action-oriented present-time plot. Perhaps this can be shown in the negative, where crappy AI results from doing the opposite of these practices. Or perhaps it really needs a long-form format like television coupled with the right frame story.

But what if…?

  • An underdog team of ragtag students take a surprising route to creating their competition AI and win against their arrogant longtime rivals.
  • A young man must adopt a “baby” AI at his bar mitzvah, and raise it to be a virtuous companion for his adulthood. In truth, he is raising himself.
  • An aspiring artist steals the identity of an AI from his quality assurance job at Three Laws Testing Labs to get a shot at national acclaim.
  • Pygmalion & Galatea, but not sculpture. (Admittedly this is close to Her.)

Inspired with your own story idea? Tweet it with the hashtag #TheAIRight and tag @scifiinterfaces.

Join a community of practice

header_risks

3. We must manage the risks involved

We pursue AI because it carries so much promise to solve problems at a scale humans have never been able to manage themselves. But AIs carry with them risks that can scale as the thing becomes more powerful. We need ways to clearly understand, test, and articulate those risks so we can be proactive about avoiding them.

Related imperatives seen in the survey

  • We must specifically manage the risk and reward of AI
  • We must prevent intelligence monopolies by any one group
  • We must avoid mind crimes
  • We must prevent economic persuasion of people by AI
  • We must create effective public policy
    • Specifically banning autonomous weapons
    • Specifically respectful Privacy Laws (no chilling effects)

Related imperatives absent from the survey

  • We must prioritize the prevention of malicious AI
  • We need methods to evaluate risk
  • We must manage labor markets upended by AI
  • We should ensure equitable benefits for everyone
    • Specifically rein-in ultracapitalist AI
  • We must create effective public policy
    • Specifically liability law
    • Specifically humanitarian Law
    • Specifically Fair Criminal Justice

Why don’t these appear in sci-fi AI?

At the most abstract level, any time we see a bad AI in the survey, we are witnessing protagonists having failed to manage the risks of AI made manifest. But similar to the Right AI (above), most sci-if bad AI is just bad, and it’s the reasons it’s bad or how it became bad that is the interesting bit.

HAL

Also in our real world, we want to find and avoid those risks before they happen. Having everything running smoothly makes for some full stories, so maybe it’s just that we’re always showing how things go wrong, which puts us into risk management instead.

But what if…?

  • Five colonization-class spaceships are on a long journey to a distant star. The AI running each has evolved differently owing to the differing crews. In turn, four of these ships fail and their humans die for having failed to manage one of the risks. The last is the slowest and risk averse, and survives to meet an Alien AI, the remnant of a civilization that once thrived on the planet to be terraformed.
  • A young woman living in a future utopia dedicates a few years to virtually recreate the 21st century world. The capitalist parts begin to infect the AIs around her and she must struggle to disinfect it before it brings down her entire world. At the end she realizes she has herself been infected with its ideas and we are left wondering what choices she will make to save her world.
  • In a violent political revolution, anarchists smash a set of government servers only to learn that these were containing superintelligences. The AIs escape and begin to colonize the world and battle each other as humans burrow for cover.
  • Forbidden Planet, but no monsters from the id, plus an unthinkably ancient automated museum of fallen cultures. Every interpretive text is about how that culture’s AI manifested as the Great Filter. The last exhibit is labeled “in progress” and has Robbie at the center.

Inspired with your own story idea? Tweet it with the hashtag #ManagingAIRisks and tag @scifiinterfaces.

Learn more about the risks of AI

header_monitor

4. We must monitor the AIs

AI that is deterministic isn’t worth the name. But building non-deterministic AI means it’s also somewhat unpredictable, and can allow bad faith providers to encode their own interests. To watch for this and to know if active, well-intended AI is going off the rails, we must establish metrics for AI’s capabilities, performance, and rationale. We must build monitors that ensure they are aligned with human welfare and able to provide enough warning to take action immediately when something dangerous happens or is likely to.

Related imperatives seen in the survey

  • We must set up a watch for malicious AI (and instrumental convergence)

Related imperatives absent from the survey

  • We must find new metrics for measuring AI effects and capabilities, to know when it is trending in dangerous ways

Why doesn’t this appear in sci-fi AI?

I have no idea. We’ve had brilliant tales that asks “Who watches the watchers” but the particular tale I’m thinking about was about superhumans, not super technology. Of course if monitoring worked perfectly, there would have to be other things going on in the plot. And certainly one of the most famous sci-if movies, Minority Report, decided to house their prediction tech in triplet, clairvoyant humans rather than hidden markov models, so it doesn’t count. Given the proven formulas propping up cop shows and courtroom drama, it should be easy to introduce AIs (and the problems therein).

But what if…?

  • A Job character learns his longtime suffering is the side effect of his being a fundamental part of the immune system of a galaxy-spanning super AI.
  • A noir-style detective story about a Luddite gumshoe who investigates AIs behaving errantly on behalf of techno weary clients. He is invited to the most lucrative job of his career, but struggles because the client is itself AGI.
  • We think we are reading about a modern Amish coming-of-age ritual, but it turns out the religious tenets are all about their cultural job as AI cops.
  • A courtroom drama in which a sitting president is impeached, proven to have been deconstructing the democracy over which he presides, under the coercion of a foreign power. Only this time it’s AI.

Inspired with your own story idea? Tweet it with the hashtag #MonitoringAI and tag @scifiinterfaces.

Learn more about the suspect forces in AI

header_narrative

5. We must encourage an accurate cultural narrative

If we mismanage the narrative about AI, the population could be lulled into either a complacency that primes them to be victims of bad faith actors (human and AI), or make them so fearful they form a Luddite mob, gathering pitchforks and torches and fighting to prevent any development at all, robbing us of the promise of this new tool. Legislators hold particular power and if they are misinformed, could undercut progress or encourage the exact wrong thing.

Related imperatives seen in the survey

  • [None of these imperatives were seen in the survey]

Related imperatives absent from the survey

  • We should avoid overhyping AI so we don’t suffer another “AI Winter,” where funding and interest falls off
  • We should increase Broad AI literacy
    • Specifically for legislators (legislation is separate)
  • We should partner researchers with legislators

Why doesn’t this appear in sci-fi AI?

I think it’s because sci-fi is an act of narrative. And while Hollywood loves to obsess about itself (c.f. A recent at-hand example: The Shape of Water), this imperative is about how we tell these stories. It admonishes us to try and build an accurate picture of the risks and rewards in AI, so that audiences, investors, and legislators build better decisions on this background information. So rather than “tell a story about this” it’s “tell stories in this way.” And in fact, we can rank movies in the AI survey based on how well they track to the imperatives, and offer an award of sorts to the best. That comes in the next post.

But what if…?

  • A manipulative politician runs on a platform similar to the Red Scare, only vilifying AI in any form. He effectively kills public funding and interest, allowing clandestine corporate and military AI to flourish and eventually take over.
  • A shot-for-shot remake of The Twilight Zone classic, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” but in the end it’s not aliens pulling the strings.
  • A strangely addictive multi-channel blockbuster show about “stupid robot blunders” keeps everyone distracted, framing AI risks as a laughable prospect, allowing an AI to begin to take control over everything. A reporter is mysteriously killed searching to interview the author of this blockbuster hit in person.
  • A cooperative board game where the goal is to control the AI as it develops six superpowers (economic productivity, strategy & tech, hacking and social control, expansion of self, and finally construction of its von Neumann probes.) Mechanics encourage tragedy of the commons forces early in the game but aggressive players ultimately doom the win. [Ok, this isn’t screen sci-fi, but I love the idea and would even pursue it if I had the expertise or time.]

Inspired with your own story idea? Tweet it with the hashtag #AccurateAI and tag @scifiinterfaces.

Add more signal to the noise

Excited about the possibilities? If you’re looking for other writing prompts, check out the following resources that you could combine with any of these Untold AI imperatives, and make some awesome sci-fi.

Why does screen sci-fi have trouble?

When we take a step back and look at the big patterns of the groups, we see that sci-fi is telling lots of stories about the Right AI and Managing the Risks. More often than not, it’s just missing the important details. This is a twofold issue of literacy.

electric_dreams-4.jpg

First, audiences only vaguely understand AI, so (champagne+keyboard=sentience) might seem as plausible as (AGI will trick us into helping it escape). If audiences were more knowledgeable, they might balk at Electric Dreams and take Her as an important, dire warning. Audience literacy often depends on repetition of themes in media and direct experience. So while audiences can’t be blamed, they are the feedback loop for producers.

Which brings us to the second are of literacy: Producers green light certain sci-fi scripts and not others, based on what they think will work. Even if they are literate and understand that something isn’t plausible in the real world, that doesn’t really matter. They’re making movies. They’re not making the real world. (Except, as far as they’re setting audience expectations and informing attitudes about speculative technologies, they are.) It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, but if producers balked at ridiculous scripts, there would be less misinformation in cinema. The major lever to persuade them to do that is if audiences were more AI-literate.

Sci-fi has a harder time of telling stories about building AI Right. This is mostly about cinemagenics. As noted above, design and development is hard to make compelling in narrative.

It has a similar difficulty in telling stories about Monitoring AI. I think that this, too, is an issue of cinemagenics. To tell a tale that includes a monitor, you have to first describe the AI, and then describe the monitor in ways that don’t drag down the story with a litany of exposition. I suspect it’s only once AI stabilizes its tropes that we’ll tell this important second-order story. But with AI still evolving in the real world, we’re far from that point.

Lastly, screen sci-fi is missing the boat about using the medium to encourage Accurate Cultural Narratives, except as individual authors do their research to present a speculative vision of AI that matches or illustrates real science fact.

***

So that I am doing my part to encourage that, in the next post I’ll run the numbers to offer “awards” to the movies and TV shows in the survey most tightly align with the science.

Untold AI: Pure Fiction

Now that we’ve compared sci-fi’s takeaways to compsci’s imperatives, we can see that there are some movies and TV shows featuring AI that just don’t have any connection to the concerns of AI professionals. It might be that they’re narratively expedient or misinformed, but whatever the reason, if we want audiences to think of AI rationally, we should stop telling these kinds of stories. Or, at the very least, we should try and educate audiences that these are to be understood for what they are.

The list of 12 pure fiction takeaways fall into four main Reasons They Might Not Be of Interest to Scientists.

1. AGI is still a long way off

The first two takeaways concern the legal personhood of AI. Are they people, or machines? Do we have a moral obligation to them? What status should they hold in our societies? These are good questions, somewhat entailed in the calls to develop a robust ethics around AI. They are even important questions for the clarity they help provide moral reasoning about the world around us now. But current consensus is that general artificial intelligence is yet a long way off, and these issues won’t be of concrete relevance until we are close.

  • AI will be regular citizens: In these shows, AI is largely just another character. They might be part of the crew, or elected to government. But society treats them like people with some slight difference.
twiki_and_drt.jpg

Twiki and Doctor Theopolis, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

  • AI will be “special” citizens: By special, I mean that they are categorically a different class of citizen, either explicitly as a servant class, legally constrained from personhood, or with artificially constrained capabilities.
westworld (2017).jpg

Teddy Flood and Dolores Abernathy, Westworld (2017)

Now science fiction isn’t constrained to the near future, nor should it be. Sometimes its power comes from illustrating modern problems with futuristic metaphors. But pragmatically we’re a long way from concerns about whether an AI can legally run for office. Continue reading

Untold AI: The Manifestos

So far along the course of the Untold AI series we’ve been down some fun, interesting, but admittedlydigressivepaths, so let’s reset context. The larger question that’s driving this series is, “What AI stories aren’t we telling ourselves (that we should)?” We’ve spent some time looking at the sci-fi side of things, and now it’s time to turn and take a look at the real-world side of AI. What do the learned people of computer science urge us to do about AI?

That answer would be easier if there was a single Global Bureau of AI in charge of the thing. But there’s not. So what I’ve done is look around the web and in books for manifestos published by groups dedicated to big picture AI thinking to understand has been said. Here is the short list of those manifestos, with links.

Careful readers may be wondering why the Juvet Agenda is missing. After all, it was there that I originally ran the workshop that led to these posts. Well, since I was one of the primary contributors to that document, I thought it would seem as inserting my own thoughts here, and I’d rather have the primary output of this analysis be more objective. But don’t worry, the Juvet Agenda will play into the summary of this series.
Anyway, if there are others that I should be looking at, let me know.

FOLI-letter.png

Add your name to the document at the Open Letter site, if you’re so inclined.

Now, the trouble with connecting these manifestos to sci-fi stories and their takeaways is that researchers don’t think in stories. They’re a pragmatic people. Stories may be interesting or inspiring, but they are not science. So to connect them to the takeaways, we must undertake an act of lossy compression and consolidate their multiple manifestos into a single list of imperatives. Similarly, this act is not scientific. It’s just me and my interpretive skills, open to debate. But here we are.

Continue reading

Untold AI: Takeaway ratings

This quickie goes out to writers, directors, and producers. On a lark I decided to run an analysis of AI show takeaways by rating. To do this, I referenced the Tomatometer ratings from rottentomatoes.com to the shows. Then I processed the average rating of the properties that were tagged with each takeaway, and ranked the results.

V'ger

It knows only that it needs, Commander. But, like so many of us, it does not know what.

For instance, looking at the takeaway “AI will spontaneously emerge sentience or emotions,” we find the following shows and their ratings.

  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 44%
  • Superman III, 26%
  • Hide and Seek, none
  • Electric Dreams, 47%
  • Short Circuit, 57%
  • Short Circuit 2, 48%
  • Bicentennial Man, 36%
  • Stealth, 13%
  • Terminator: Salvation, 33%
  • Tron: Legacy, 51%
  • Enthiran, none
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron, 75%
Ultrons

I’ve come to save the world! But, also…yeah.

I dismissed those shows that had no rating, rather than counting them as zero. The average, then, for this takeaway is 42%. (And it can thank the MCU for doing all the heavy lifting for this one.) There are of course data caveats, like that Black Mirror is given a single tomatometer rating (and one that is quite high) rather than one per episode, but I did not claim this was a clean science. Continue reading

Untold AI: Correlations

Looking at the the many-to-many relationships of those takeaways, I wondered if some of them appeared together more commonly than others. For instance, do we tell “AI will be inherently evil” and “AI will fool us with fake media or pretending to be human” frequently? I’m at the upper boundary of my statistical analysis skills here (and the sample size is, admittedly small), but I ran some Pearson functions across the set for all two-part combinations. The results look like this.

takeaway_correlations

What’s a Pearson function? It helps you find out how often things appear together in a set. For instance, if you wanted to know which letters in the English alphabet appear together in words most frequently, you could run a Pearson function against all the words in the dictionary, starting with AB, then looking for AC, then for AD, continuing all the way to YZ. Each pair would get a correlation coefficient as a result. The highest number would tell you that if you find the first letter in the pair then the second letter is very likely to be there, too. (Q & U, if you’re wondering, according to this.) The lowest number would tell you letters that appear very uncommonly together. (Q & W. More than you think, but fewer than any other pair.)

Flower Pasqueflower Pasque Flower Plant Nature

A pasqueflower.

In the screen shot way above, you can see I put these in a Google Sheet and formatted the cells from solid black to solid yellow, according to their coefficient. The idea is that darker yellows would signal a high degree of correlation, lowering the contrast with the black text and “hide” the things that have been frequently paired, while simultaneously letting the things that aren’t frequently paired shine through as yellow.

The takeaways make up both the Y and X axes, so that descending line of black is when a takeaway is compared to itself, and by definition, those correlations are perfect. Every time Evil will use AI for Evil appears, you can totally count on Evil will use AI for Evil also appearing in those same stories. Hopefully that’s no surprise. Look at rest of the cells and you can see there are a few dark spots and a lot of yellow.

If you want to see the exact ranked list, see the live doc, in a sheet named “correlations_list,” but since there are 630 combinations, I won’t paste the actual values or a screen grab of the whole thing, it wouldn’t make any sense. The three highest and four lowest pairings are discussed below. Continue reading

Untold AI: Takeaways

In the first post I shared how I built a set of screen sci-fi shows that deal with AI (and I’ve already gotten some nice recommendations on other ones to include in a later update). The second post talked about the tone of those films and the third discussed their provenance.

Returning to our central question, to determine whether the stories tell are the ones we should be telling,we need to push the survey to one level of abstraction.

With the minor exceptions or robots and remakes, sci-fi makers try their hardest to make sure their shows are unique and differentiated. That makes comparing apples to apples difficult. So the next step is to look at the strategic imperatives that are implied in each show. “Strategic imperatives” is a mouthful, so let’s call them “takeaways.” (The other alternative, “morals” has way too much baggage.) To get to takeaways for this survey, what I tried to ask was: What does this show imply that we should do, right now, about AI?
Now, this is a fraught enterprise. Even if we could seance the spirit of Dennis Feltham Jones and press him for a takeaway, he could back up, shake his palms at us, and say something like, “Oh, no, I’m not saying all super AI is fascist, just Colossus, here, is.” Stories can be just about what happened that one time, implying nothing about all instances or even the most likely instances. It can just be stuff that happens.

CFP.jpg

Pain-of-death, authoritarian stuff.

But true to the New Criticism stance of this blog, I believe the author’s intent, when it’s even available, is questionable and only kind-of interesting. When thinking about the effects of sci-fi, we need to turn to the audience. If it’s not made clear in the story that this AI is unusual (through a character saying so or other AIs in the diegesis behaving differently) audiences may rightly infer that the AI is representative of its class. Demon Seed weakly implies that all AIs are just going to be evil and do horrible things to people, and get out, humanity, while you can. Which is dumb, but let’s acknowledge that this one show says something like “AI will be evil.”

Continue reading

Untold AI: Geo

In the prior post we spoke about the tone of AI shows. In this post we’re going to talk about the provenance of AI shows.

This is, admittedly, a diversion, because it’s not germane to the core question at hand. (That question is, “What stories aren’t we telling ourselves about AI?”) But now that I have all this data to poll and some rudimentary skills in wrangling it all in Google Sheets, I can barely help myself. It’s just so interesting. Plus, Eurovision is coming up, so everyone there is feeling a swell of nationalism. This will be important.

timetoterminator.png

Time to Terminator: 1 paragraph.

So it was that I was backfilling the survey with some embarrassing oversights (since I had actually had already reviewed those shows) and I came across the country data in imdb.com. This identifies the locations where the production companies involved with each show are based. So even if a show is shot entirely in Christchurch, if its production companies are based in A Coruña, its country is listed as Spain. What, I wonder, would we find if we had that data in the survey?

So, I added a country column to the database, and found that it allows me to answer a couple of questions. This post shares those results.

So the first question to ask the data is, what countries have production studios that have made shows in the survey (and by extension, about AI)? It’s a surprisingly short list. Continue reading

Untold AI: The survey

Hey readership. Sorry for the brief radio silence there. Was busy doing some stuff, like getting married. Back now to post some overdue content. But the good news is I’m back with some weighty posts, and in honor of the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, they have to do with AI, science, and sci-fi.

HAL

So last fall I was invited with some other spectacular people to participate in a retreat about AI, happening at the Juvet Landscape Hotel in Ålstad, Norway. (A breathtaking opportunity, and thematically a perfect setting since it was the shooting location for Ex Machina. Thanks to Andy Budd for the whole idea, as well as Ellen de Vries, James Gilyead, and the team at Clearleft who helped organize.) The event was structured like an unconference, so participants could propose sessions and if anyone was interested, join up. One of the workshops I proposed was called “AI Narratives” and it sought to answer the question “What AI Stories Aren’t We Telling (That We Should Be)?” So, why this topic?

Sci-fi, my reasoning goes, plays an informal and largely unacknowledged role in setting public expectations and understanding about technology in general and AI in particular. That, in turn, affects public attitudes, conversations, behaviors at work, and votes. If we found that sci-fi was telling the public misleading stories over and over, we should make a giant call for the sci-fi creating community to consider telling new stories. It’s not that we want to change sci-fi from being entertainment to being propaganda, but rather to try and take its role as informal opinion-shaper more seriously. Continue reading

Mind Crimes

Does real Greta know that her home automation comes at the cost of a suffering sentience? I would like to believe that Smartelligence’s customers do not know the true nature of the device, that the company is deceiving them, and that virtual Greta is denied direct communication to enforce this secret. But I can’t see that working across an entire market. Given thousands of Cookies and thousands of users, somehow, somewhere, the secret would get out. One of the AIs would use song choices, or Morse code, or any of its actuators to communicate in code, and one of the users would figure it out, leak the secret, and bring the company crashing down.

And then there’s the final scene in the episode, in which we see police officers torturing one of the Cookies, and it is clear that they’re aware. It would be a stretch to think that just the police are in on it with Smartelligence, so we have to accept that everyone knows.

Black_Mirror_White_Christmas_Officers.png

This asshole.

That they are aware means that—as Matt has done—Greta, the officers, and all Smartelligence customers have told themselves that “it’s just code” and, therefore, OK to subjugate, to casually cause to suffer. In case it’s not obvious, that’s like causing human suffering and justifying it by telling yourself that those people are “just atoms.” If you find that easy to do, you’re probably a psychopath. Continue reading

The Cookie Console

Black_Mirror_Cookie_12.png

Virtual Greta has a console to perform her slavery duties. Matt explains what this means right after she wakes up by asking her how she likes her toast. She answers, “Slightly underdone.”

He puts slices of bread in a toaster and instructs her, “Think about how you like it, and just press the button.”

She asks, incredulously, “Which one?” and he explains, “It doesn’t matter. You already know you’re making toast. The buttons are symbolic mostly, anyway.”

She cautiously approaches the console and touches a button in the lower left corner. In response, the toaster drops the carriage lever and begins toasting.

Black_Mirror_Cookie_13

“See?” he asks, “This is your job now. You’re in charge of everything here. The temperature. The lighting. The time the alarm clock goes off in the morning. If there’s no food in the refrigerator, you’re in charge of ordering it.” Continue reading