Playing Robot Roulette
Expect surprises in the years ahead
By Bruce Deitrick Price
Elon Musk warns constantly about artificial intelligence. He feels the game is over and we lost. He believes “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” He predicts that “Intelligent AI would become everlasting authoritarians from which the world could never escape.” Ponder that.
Musk is obsessed with the coming brain gap. He thinks our own natural intelligence will soon be eclipsed by wayward artificial intelligence. That’s when we’ll wish we hadn’t funded all that clever new research.
Doomsday isn’t my big interest. I am more intrigued by the shock and drama that many people will feel, sooner than they think, when they have to deal with a new sort of people. They’ll be at the office, at a bar, in the street. Humans will experience many awkward, perhaps chaotic moments.
My robot romance started 40 years ago when I read about a talking robot designed for use at trade shows. I was dazzled by the alleged abilities. This robot could interact with humans?? This robot could understand?? I called the inventor and asked to interview him. A week later, on assignment from Esquire, I walked into a big warehouse in Newark. A large conical object intercepted me. There was definitely some conversation. It was disorienting. I wasn’t sure what was real.
When I got back to Manhattan, I called as many experts as I could find and asked their opinion on whether a robot could do what the inventor claimed. I was fascinated to find that the experts did not agree with each other, about anything.
A few years ago, in a short but vivid dream, I watched a pretty young woman on the other side of a minor highway. She was alone, wearing a raincoat, holding herself stiffly. There were many odd signals. I loved the ambiguous feelings. What is she? I woke up thinking I want to write about this confusion.
The culmination was Frankie, a novel published in May. The thesis is that the smarter the robots, the more likely that weird things will happen.
In the first chapter, an AI genius has built a lifelike female robot, named Frankie, and he brings it home to impress his wife. Do you think she’s impressed? No way. She regards Frankie as an invasive species. The story embraces the premise that some people will find robots charming; others will find them threatening.
Atavistic feelings may explain some hostility. But consider that humans often have trouble understanding each other. Now there will be more exotic difficulties, as humans try to communicate with non-human machines. Will it be like communicating with an octopus, with an eight-year-old child, or ET?
At the same time as that trip to Newark, I was reading a book called After Babel by George Steiner, a high-level scholar rattling everyone’s cage with his wit and paradoxy. His thesis was that understanding language is the same thing as translating it.
Steiner had a feud going with Noam Chomsky, who claimed that meaning resided in deep structure, whatever that is. Ludwig Wittgenstein is another player, famous for saying that What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence, as if that’s an answer.
And my point is? All these esoteric theories about language might have a rerun now that AI has joined the conversation.
There’s a wonderful article in the April Wired, AI is my Copilot. Apparently, coders speak of code having a “theory of mind,” just as people do.
“There is a little bit of an art to it,” says an AI guru. “It’s a very foreign intelligence, right? It’s not something you’re used to. It’s not like a human theory of mind. It’s like an alien artifact that came out of this massive optimization.”
What in the world is this guy talking about? He’s discussing a specific AI, something he and his team created. He wants to explain how it is similar to and different from human intelligence. In other words, a chunk of code might now have that level of complexity and originality. This is so creepy.
Let’s remember that when Isaac Asimov coined his Three Laws for Robotics, he was seeking an arrangement whereby they can’t kill us. The truth, can you handle the truth? There has been a pattern for many decades, the government hides most information about UFOs. Why? They don’t think we can deal with the truth. AI, as it’s fast evolving, is perhaps best understood as a whole new world of UFOs. I’m merely suggesting that our AI adventures might be more strange and unpredictable than you guess.
Frankie is meant to be literary entertainment but I think it is also educational, giving readers a sense of this New World rising.
Bruce Deitrick Price is a novelist, poet, artist, and education reformer. He calls Frankie “a unique mystery.” For example: Many people are dying in a university town. A robot has escaped but it is mild-mannered and does not want to hurt anyone. The medical people can’t figure out a cause of death; this almost never happens. Many people love the robot. (For more info about the book, visit Frankie.zone )