Reply to Jaron Lanier

A few days ago my colleague Everett posted an NYTimes op-ed by noted futurist Jaron Lanier. Lanier is the kind of person who gets placed next to Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy; an autodidact VR pioneer musician artist free radical philosopher. Summarizing Lanier only does him injustice, but one could say that he's a transhumanist, with the emphasis on 'humanist.' ((EDIT: He'd vehemently disagree with this characterization, but I think it fits. His advocacy of radical biological alterations to human beings is pretty transhumanist.))

In his editorial, Lanier argues against mixing theology and technology. He posits that AI research has taken on psuedo-mystical overtones: we are creating new life, we are evolving, we are supplanting the human race, that is profoundly dangerous to technological progress and human values. Scientists risk a Frankenstein backlash from a majority rightfully concerned with the direction of society, wherein as computer become more human, humans become more machine-like.

Lanier makes two points in support of this claim. More and more of what we do is act as information processing nodes, hyper-linking, retweeting, sending on without thought or commentary. The signal talent of the 21st century is curation, sorting the gems of information from the dross of data we are deluged in, and as far as human ability is concerned, this is a sorry use for thought. Like, dis-like, access, archive, delete, repeat. When sorting information becomes our major activity, creativity is devalued.

But more critically, "What all this comes down to is that the very idea of artificial intelligence gives us the cover to avoid accountability by pretending that machines can take on more and more human responsibility." Evading responsibility appears to be one of the major spectator sports of the 21st century. Disasters happen again and again, and any human who might be responsible slips away from the clutches of retribution. Artifacts, derivatives, blowout preventers, are blamed for what are ultimately human failings. Instead of operating machines, we become supervisors of algorithms. With each degree of automation, we cede both responsibility and control. It is a common observation that events apear to be spiraling out of control, and that no one is at the helm. Maybe its true, maybe the ship is steering itself, and rocks and shoals be damned.

Lanier's solution: "When we think of computers as inert, passive tools instead of people, we are rewarded with a clearer, less ideological view of what is going on — with the machines and with ourselves. So, why, aside from the theatrical appeal to consumers and reporters, must engineering results so often be presented in Frankensteinian light? The answer is simply that computer scientists are human, and are as terrified by the human condition as anyone else."

Well, that is all very well and true, but are computers inert, passive tools? Individual machines are, but computing as a technology is far from inert. It moves and shifts according to market forces, it reacts to changes in technology and economics without clear paths of human responsibility. In short, computing and computers in aggregate already behave like a living organism, and short of a Butlerian Jihad, that organism cannot be stopped. Contemporary AI is still far removed from the question of 'what is a person?'. At best, it is a collection of specialized tricks for limited situations. Emotional inner states are the province of hairy-eyed radicals. But we are not alone on Earth. Our machines are with us, with their own inertia and desires, and while it is true that humans are the sole entities with agency, we do not interact one-on-one with the other six billion inhabitants of Earth, but through a technological medium that is very much an active participant.


  1. oh man, I'd completely forgotten about the Orange Catholic Bible :

    "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind"
    "Think you of the fact that a deaf person cannot hear. Then, what deafness may we not all possess? What senses do we lack that we cannot see and cannot hear another world all around us? What is there around us that we cannot."
    "Thou shalt not disfigure the soul"

    I'm not so sure its dangerous. I would love to read the holy book of "The First Church of Robotics", if done properly. I imagine such a text would try to preserve the sensible parts of the Abrahamic religions. We could just take the intersection of their axiom sets, if we're lazy, setminus statements that contradict well established scientific fact, maybe add in some caveats protecting the individual's right to choose their own religious beliefs and practices ( thats Quaker, is it not ? Every man is a priest ? ), and add in some of the more insightful philosophical musings on the future of technology and its place in a human life.

    Of course, I understand that this risks people taking everything too seriously. A rational human needs to remember that AI will not bring him immortality, at least, not yet. I like Lanier's argument that day-dreaming ourselves in a future where high technology has supplanted all the functions of religion is inherently harmful, both to reasoned technological progress, and to the relationship between religion and technology.

  2. ... I almost want a t-shirt with the "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind". Is that bad ?

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  4. Not at all. Black, nice strong serif font in orange. I'd wear one.

    So rationally, we're far from immortality through AI. On the other hand, given the effort and rewards of AI research, a rational person, or economically rational actor to be precise, would have long since given up and gone to work for a major software company. Hard things require a leap of faith, and one of the more power beliefs might be in the Singularity.

    Also, we have a robot religion. The is one God. There are twelve models. There are many copies. And they have a Plan.

  5. I am an economically irrational actor ! But I am a hedonistcally rational actor. The flaw lies with the failure of economics to capture true value, not with my actions.

  6. "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human soul" would seem more correct