Just a decade ago, Silicon Valley pitched itself as a savvy ambassador of a newer, cooler, more humane kind of capitalism. It quickly became the darling of the elite, of the international media, and of that mythical, omniscient tribe: the “digital natives”. While an occasional critic – always easy to dismiss as a neo-Luddite – did voice concerns about their disregard for privacy or their geeky, almost autistic aloofness, public opinion was firmly on the side of technology firms.Silicon Valley was the best that America had to offer; tech companies frequently occupied – and still do – top spots on lists of the world’s most admired brands. And there was much to admire: a highly dynamic, innovative industry, Silicon Valley has found a way to convert scrolls, likes and clicks into lofty political ideals, helping to export freedom, democracy and human rights to the Middle East and north Africa. Who knew that the only thing thwarting the global democratic revolution was capitalism’s inability to capture and monetise the eyeballs of strangers?
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Vladimir Putin ha almeno una qualità, parla senza peli sulla lingua. La settimana scorsa ha detto chiaro e tondo quello che la maggior parte del mondo mormora sottovoce: “Il paese che sarà leader nel campo dell’intelligenza artificiale, dominerà il mondo”.Di solito l’intelligenza artificiale (Ia) è evocata nell’ambito di cambiamenti positivi, per esempio nella sanità o nella regolazione del traffico, o negativi, come il suo impatto sull’occupazione o la possibilità che l’Ia sviluppi un giorno una “coscienza” capace di imporsi ai suoi creatori, gli esseri umani.Ma è raro che se ne parli in termini geopolitici come ha fatto in modo così diretto il presidente russo. La cosa più strana è il contesto di questa dichiarazione: non una grande conferenza strategica come quella di Monaco – dove nel 2007 Putin aveva denunciato “l’unilateralismo americano” – ma una teleconferenza seguita da più di un milione di studenti russi in occasione dell’inizio dell’anno scolastico!Dopo questa dichiarazione Elon Musk, il padrone di Tesla e di SpaceX, ha subito postato un tweet: “Si comincia…”.
Elon Musk is launching a new company, and the idea sounds totally crazy. That sentence could have been written in 2002, when he founded SpaceX; in 2004, when he joined Tesla; or even in 1999, when he founded X.com. All three of those ventures sounded insane at the outset. All three, in different ways, led to tremendously successful businesses. This time, we’re told, the concept may be his craziest yet. Confirming a Wall Street Journal report from last month, the explainer site Wait But Why on Thursday laid out Musk’s vision for a company called Neuralink whose goal is nothing less grandiose than to change the fundamental nature of human communication forever. Its plan is to embed computer chips in our brains that will eventually facilitate what Musk calls “consensual telepathy” between people. This could make possible an era in which people beam thoughts and images directly into one another’s minds, obviating the need for language. And that’s a good thing, Musk tells Wait But Why’s Tim Urban, because superintelligent A.I. is coming, and we’re going to need to be way smarter if we want to stop the machines from taking over the world and subjugating the human race. Whew!
Sometime in the coming decades, an external system that collects and analyzes endless streams of biometric data will probably be able to understand what’s going on in my body and in my brain much better than me. Such a system will transform politics and economics by allowing governments and corporations to predict and manipulate human desires. What will it do to art? Will art remain humanity’s last line of defense against the rise of the all-knowing algorithms?In the modern world art is usually associated with human emotions. We tend to think that artists are channeling internal psychological forces, and that the whole purpose of art is to connect us with our emotions or to inspire in us some new feeling. Consequently, when we come to evaluate art, we tend to judge it by its emotional impact and to believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
People often ask me whether human-level artificial intelligence will eventually become conscious. My response is: Do you want it to be conscious? I think it is largely up to us whether our machines will wake up.
Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. Many new professions are likely to appear: virtual-world designers, for example. But such professions will probably require more creativity and flexibility, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old unemployed taxi drivers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual-world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). And even if the ex-insurance agent somehow makes the transition into a virtual-world designer, the pace of progress is such that within another decade he might have to reinvent himself yet again.The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.The same technology that renders humans useless might also make it feasible to feed and support the unemployable masses through some scheme of universal basic income. The real problem will then be to keep the masses occupied and content. People must engage in purposeful activities, or they go crazy. So what will the useless class do all day?
In the brightly lit robotics workshop at Abyss Creations’ factory in San Marcos, California, a life-size humanoid was dangling from a stand, hooked between her shoulder blades. Her name was Harmony. She wore a white leotard, her chest was thrust forward and her French-manicured fingers were splayed across the tops of her slim thighs.Harmony is a prototype, a robotic version of the company’s hyper-realistic silicone sex toy, the RealDoll. The Realbotix room where she was assembled was lined with varnished pine surfaces covered with wires and circuit boards, and a 3D printer whirred in the corner, spitting out tiny, intricate parts that will be inserted beneath her PVC skull. Her hazel eyes darted between me and her creator, Matt McMullen, as he described her accomplishments.Harmony smiles, blinks and frowns. She can hold a conversation, tell jokes and quote Shakespeare. She’ll remember your birthday, McMullen told me, what you like to eat, and the names of your brothers and sisters. She can hold a conversation about music, movies and books. And of course, Harmony will have sex with you whenever you want.
I first read Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, in 2006, a few years after I dropped out of Bible school and stopped believing in God. I was living alone in Chicago’s southern industrial sector and working nights as a cocktail waitress. I was not well. Beyond the people I worked with, I spoke to almost no one. I clocked out at three each morning, went to after-hours bars, and came home on the first train of the morning, my head pressed against the window so as to avoid the spectre of my reflection appearing and disappearing in the blackened glass.
At Bible school, I had studied a branch of theology that divided all of history into successive stages by which God revealed his truth. We were told we were living in the “Dispensation of Grace”, the penultimate era, which precedes that glorious culmination, the “Millennial Kingdom”, when the clouds part and Christ returns and life is altered beyond comprehension. But I no longer believed in this future. More than the death of God, I was mourning the dissolution of this narrative, which envisioned all of history as an arc bending towards a moment of final redemption. It was a loss that had fractured even my experience of time. My hours had become non-hours. Days seemed to unravel and circle back on themselves.
Can machines think – and, if so, can they think critically about race and gender? Recent reports have shown that machine-learning systems are picking up racist and sexist ideas embedded in the language patterns they are fed by human engineers. The idea that machines can be as bigoted as people is an uncomfortable one for anyone who still believes in the moral purity of the digital future, but there’s nothing new or complicated about it. “Machine learning” is a fancy way of saying “finding patterns in data”. Of course, as Lydia Nicholas, senior researcher at the innovation thinktank Nesta, explains, all this data “has to have been collected in the past, and since society changes, you can end up with patterns that reflect the past. If those patterns are used to make decisions that affect people’s lives you end up with unacceptable discrimination.”
It was just a friendly little argument about the fate of humanity. Demis Hassabis, a leading creator of advanced artificial intelligence, was chatting with Elon Musk, a leading doomsayer, about the perils of artificial intelligence.They are two of the most consequential and intriguing men in Silicon Valley who don’t live there. Hassabis, a co-founder of the mysterious London laboratory DeepMind, had come to Musk’s SpaceX rocket factory, outside Los Angeles, a few years ago. They were in the canteen, talking, as a massive rocket part traversed overhead. Musk explained that his ultimate goal at SpaceX was the most important project in the world: interplanetary colonization.Hassabis replied that, in fact, he was working on the most important project in the world: developing artificial super-intelligence. Musk countered that this was one reason we needed to colonize Mars—so that we’ll have a bolt-hole if A.I. goes rogue and turns on humanity. Amused, Hassabis said that A.I. would simply follow humans to Mars.This did nothing to soothe Musk’s anxieties (even though he says there are scenarios where A.I. wouldn’t follow).