Are robots going to make us pets?

If you want to talk about artificial intelligence, and you want to get a name for yourself, then make sure you paint it black. A recent BBC article epitomizes this trend – the doomsayers speak louder and more stridently than the more cautious, muted voices. The article asks if we should fear AI? The consensus opinion among the ‘experts’ quoted is yes. To quote one representative voice:

‘Elon Must, founder of Tesla motors and aerospace manufacturer Space X, has become the figurehead of the movement, with Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak as honorary members. Mr. Must who has recently offered 10 million pounds to projects designed to control AI, has likened the technology to “summoning the demon” and claimed that humans would become nothing more than pets for the super-intelligent computers that we helped to create’.

His apprehension is nothing new. Over thirty years ago, Marvin Minsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claimed that the next generation of robots will be so intelligent that we will be lucky if they decide to keep us as house hold pets. The quote is from John Searle’s book ‘Minds, Brains and Science’, which we will discuss shortly. Must, I think, is just as mistaken as Minsky was. But maybe this time it’s different?

I don’t think it is different this time and the reason I think that is re-reading John Searle’s collection of essays from 1984, ‘Minds, Brains and Science’, which were also delivered as the BBC’s Reith Lectures in the same year. The second lecture, ‘Can Computers Think?’ could well have been written to answer the sort of nonsense that the doom peddlers are espousing today. He wrote at a time when many assumed that it is ‘only a matter of time before computer scientists design the sort of hard and soft ware that are the equivalent of human brains.’ Pundits then, as they do now, assume that the human brain is a kind of digital supercomputer, and that developments in IT and AI are analogous to closer and closer approximations to it, and will eventually surpass it.

But we are not comparing like with like. Searle writes:

‘The reason that no computer programme can ever be a mind is simply that a computer programme is only syntactical, and minds are more than syntactical. Minds are semantical … they have a content.’

To illustrate this, he imagines a machine is programmed to simulate the understanding of Chinese. You feed in questions in Chinese and it gives answers in Chinese. It’s programmed so well that it looks like that it actually understands and speaks Chinese. But this impression misleads. Searle asks you to imagine that you are locked in a room with a basket of Chinese symbols. Someone outside the room feeds in Chinese symbols and in return you hand them symbols, according to a rule book, but you have no idea what the symbols mean. You are just following the rule book. You are in fact answering questions in Chinese but you neither speak nor understand Chinese. And neither does the computer. All you have, writes Searle, is ‘a formal programme for manipulating uninterpreted Chinese symbols’.

A computer has a syntax but no semantics – all form but no content:

‘Understanding a language, or indeed, having mental states at all, involves more than just having a bunch of formal symbols. It involves having an interpretation, or a meaning attached to those symbols.’

Let’s think of another example of our own to develop this insight further. Some have suggested that AI will even displace lawyers. Now, we know that in law, the words do not speak for themselves. Take the 2nd Amendment of the United States constitution:

‘All well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.’

In the United States, that phrase has split not only ink but blood. What is the argument about? Surely not over the formal, dictionary definition of each word in that phrase. It’s about the ideas that each word expresses, either standing alone or in combination with others. Different human minds scanning those words do not ‘see’ the same ideas in phrases like a ‘free state’. They mean different things to different people.

Now, imagine trying to settle this issue by referring the matter to two robot lawyers who try to argue the case in the presence of a robot judge. The robot concerned could simulate the formal structure of a legal argument by ‘knowing’ the formal meanings of words but underlying these words are mental concepts that no robot could ever know. How can you programme a robot lawyer to know what a ‘free state’ looks like? And how you programme a robot to ‘know’ that a law for gun control (or its absence) does or does not ‘violate’ the 2nd amendment? We are back to Searle’s distinction between syntax and semantics. Words like ‘this law violates the 2nd amendment’ are expressions of semantics, not syntax.

It is not only that the law does not speak for itself. It has to be interpreted. We also have to decide when it applies in certain cases. Armed robbery and shoplifting are both forms of theft. But do we apply the same rules in both cases? Of course we don’t. But why don’t we? Because we have different ideas about what constitutes a ‘just’ punishment each case. Try programming a robot judge to ‘let the punishment fit the crime’. Again, this is a phrase that is not reducible to its component parts. You cannot explain it merely by attaching a dictionary definition to each word in the phrase. A robot could certainly be programmed to utter such words but it would have no more content than a parrot’s mimicry. It could simulate words but it cannot duplicate the mental states words generate. Semantics again!

Much of the confusion around this issue rests on ignorance between the concepts of syntax and semantics. But it also overlooks something else. Information and Communications Technology is often conflated with Artificial intelligence. Being able to look up information quickly, as per Google, is not the same thing as AI, with robots or machines able to gather and process their own information independently of any human intervention or influence – like the way Skynet can do in the Terminator movies or like the malevolent Hal in 2001. Improvements in calculation and processing power speed does not necessarily lead to improvements in intelligence and sentience. Cockroaches are superior to any robot in terms of their ability to learn from and adapt to their environment.

Good public speakers – or rabble-rousers – know that it is not the words they use that inspire other minds to act. It is the ideas that words generate that do that. Ideas move people. Robots do not have ideas because they do not have mental states. Therefore, they are not motivated to do anything. Indeed, as a great fan of the Terminator movies, I have often asked the question that the plot never answers: why do the machines bother to fight the humans? Why do they care so much? But we don’t need to ask these questions about the humans’ motivations for fighting the machines. The answers are obvious.

If you have got this far, then you may be wondering what this has to do with moral conflict and politics. Hopefully, the answer has already become clear, with the discussion about the 2nd amendment of the US Constitution a clue: moral and political conflict is generated not by arguments over syntax but over semantics. The resolution of such conflicts depends on the political use of semantics to smooth out these conflicts, sometimes by using weasel words and half-truths. A robot would have no idea about the complex mental concepts involved when two warring parties down weapons and ‘agree to disagree.’

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Attlee Mark II?

Jeremy Corbyn has been compared to Clement Attlee. Is the comparison apt? After reading a solid if uninspiring biography of Attlee, by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, I can offer the following thoughts on the comparison.

Atlee was a man of high-minded principle, as Corbyn clearly is. If Atlee were alive today, many of us would call him ‘authentic’, as many of us call Corbyn. This word can be overused. It’s true that Attlee was and Corbyn is a million miles away from the spin and artifice of the Blair years. But Attlee’s notorious laconicism was an affectation as is Corbyn’s disheveled public presentation. Attlee carefully cultivated a public persona, as Corbyn does. That’s not to say Attlee was, or Corbyn is, a fake. It’s to say that public personas are edited, with selected characteristics emphasized for effect and other traits toned down. It’s something we all do as social animals and Attlee was no different and neither is Corbyn. Still, Corbyn’s persona is of his own devising, and not some spin doctor’s version. The same can be said about Attlee.

But, getting beyond the appearances, what about the substance of the two men? Attlee led the Labour Party for 20 years and for over half of that time he was in government, as Deputy Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945 in the wartime coalition government and as Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951. Attlee had power. Corbyn wants power. The question is, is there something in Attlee’s leadership style from which Corbyn could learn in his quest to take power? Attlee’s leadership style was that of a committee Chairman, who devolved important tasks to deputies and allowed them to get on with the job, intervening to trouble-shoot or fix disputes but very much aloof as a leader. This could not have been more different to the approach Blair took, with No.10 vetting all ministerial speeches before they were delivered.

This style no doubt has its attractions to Corbyn but he should also beware of its limitations. Attlee could be too remote in a crisis and during especially testing times of his administration, like the coal crisis in the freezing winter of 1947-8. Attlee took a calculated gamble in not explicitly supporting Bevan in his battles with the British Medical Association over the establishment of the National Health Service, something the BMA was fiercely opposed to at the time. It was as well that Bevan was a formidable operator in his own right. Attlee might have seen his administration’s flag ship sunk otherwise. There is a lesson to draw from this. It’s all very well making a song and dance about how high minded and principled you are but if your opponents are not prepared to reciprocate (as Corbyn is finding with David Cameron) then you are left with two choices: take the blows with dignity but risk looking weak or fight fire with fire, and risk sinking to your opponents’ level – but perhaps beat them in the process. If you are not prepared to do it, then you have to give the task to someone else. To survive, Corbyn is going to have to roll up his sleeves or let others do so.

Whatever the attractions or otherwise of Attlee’s personal and leadership styles, there is no reason to think that these alone won Labour power in 1945. Had the Second World War not broken out, the Conservatives would probably have won an election that would have been held in 1940. Labour’s victory in 1945 perhaps owed less to Attlee’s personality and leadership style than to the wider social changes afoot in the midst of the war and its aftermath. Thomas-Symonds’ book does not discuss this context in any depth at all. Therefore, one cannot answer the question, was Labour’s victory because of Attlee’s personality and leadership style or in spite of them? Perhaps some unforeseen social and political upheaval may propel Corbyn into power in 2020. If that happens that it may happen despite Corbyn, not because of him. Who knows? One thing is for certain: 1945 is not much guide to what might have in 2020, let alone 2025.

Attlee, like Corbyn, was not afraid to talk about social injustice and the poor, and identify the Labour party with the interests of the most disadvantaged. Here again, the contrasts between Labour of 1945, Labour as it now become, and Labour as it was under Blair, are stark. But there are notable differences. Attlee revered the monarchy, had no desire to abolish private and grammar schools or reform the House of Lords. In the First World War, he volunteered for service, seeing it as his patriotic duty and was proud to have served. And of course, Attlee took the decision to acquire nuclear weapons, striking not only for the fact that he did that, but also for how he did it, in secrecy, conferring only with a select cabal, a notable exception to his otherwise collegial leadership style. The Labour government of 1945-51 was in economics well to the left of Blair’s government but to the right of it in culture.

There is no doubt that Labour has shifted left. What will the rest of the country make of it? There is some evidence that some of Corbyn’s policies may enjoy broad public support, such as higher taxes on high earners, rent controls and railway nationalization. But it’s hard to get a clear picture because poll evidence is mixed. On the one hand, it suggests that the public is to the left of the Blairite Party on some issues but well to the right of it on others, such as immigration, welfare, national security and just how far we all have to shoulder a higher tax burden in order to pay for the sort of society Corbyn wants, the costs of which cannot be borne by the plutocrats alone. Indeed, on some issues the public is well to the right of Cameron.

In my view, if there is a substantial comparison to be made, then undoubtedly its Corbyn’s explicit advocacy of the poorest and most disadvantaged in our country. That however is no guide to whether he will win in 2020. Sincerity and authenticity are not enough. The most pressing question is whether Corbyn is going to be able to resolve what political historian David Marquand called the ‘Progressive Dilemma’, that is, if Labour is to win power, it has to appeal to the swing vote; but, in doing that, it risks alienating its core vote. It’s not a new dilemma. This was very much Attlee’s own dilemma as it is Corbyn’s. For a while, Attlee squared the circle, as Blair did. Corbyn and his supporters are interested in Attlee’s example and not Blair’s. Whether they will find anything in his example of practical, contemporary application is another matter altogether. After all, politics is not all about personalities and leaders.

Refugee or Migrant?

Many tedious political debates revolve around the correct definition and application of words. The current migration/refugee crisis in Europe is no exception. A person can both be a migrant – in search of a better life – and a refugee, fleeing from political persecution. The right insists that they are migrants hence undeserving of our political protection while the left insists otherwise.  Yet so much of the debate seems to assume that the two motives are mutually exclusive. The fact is, the mass of Syrian refugees escaping the hell hole Syria has become are both migrants and refugees. For the purpose of simplicity, I will use the term refugee rather than some clumsy compound or some neologism. Just bear in mind I am talking about people who want both to be safe and have a better life.

Many of these refugees are from camps in Turkey where they were perfectly safe. This is true but misses the point. The masses deserting the camps do not want to live a life of safe but stagnant exile, which is the fate that probably awaits them, even if the war in Syria ends tomorrow. For neither conceivable outcome can possibly entice them back. Either the Assad regime collapses and we end up with a Somalia on the shores of the Mediterranean or it triumphs, but at the cost of reducing the country to a wasteland. And, while the war still rages, there is absolutely no question of going back. In many cases, what is there actually to go back to?

It’s not just safety that refugees seek in Europe as I have said before but a better life and there is nothing wrong with seeking both. The right condemns the desire for material improvement as ‘selfish’ but this is unfair and hypocritical. It’s unfair because anyone who lives in a country so dysfunctional that it cannot even provide the prospect of material improvement is one anyone with the wit to do so will desert. The right lack the political imagination to place themselves in other people’s shoes. It’s hypocritical because the right tends to extol the desire for material improvement among some people but not others. It is fine for white people to want higher living standards but not anyone else.

But the left cannot be let off the hook so easily here for they likewise share the right’s distaste for refugees’ material motives, albeit from a different perspective. The left can only love people of darker hues if they are fleeing for noble reasons, like artists and writers fleeing an oppressive climate of censorship. The left feels comfortable carrying placards saying, ‘I love refugees’ rather than ‘I love migrants’ but ‘refugees’ are no more or no less deserving of our ‘love’ than ‘migrants’ are. The left loves the oppressed masses just so long as they don’t lower themselves by talking about wanting cars, bigger houses (preferably not in a municipal tower block) and flat screen TVs. For different reasons, left and right assume the natives can and should make do with less. People will risk their lives not only to escape barrel bombs.

The reason why Western European societies are such a lure for the world’s poor is because they offer better prospects of both safety and riches. They offer this because they are better governed. The operative word here is ‘better’. They are not perfect by any means but they are better. Although many contemporary pundits on both left and right can find nothing good to say about western democracies, the world’s poor disagree. It is patronizing to assume that the only reason they think so is that they have been brainwashed by western media propaganda. By far the greater lure is from friends and relatives who have already made the trip and seen and tasted it for themselves (such as Mexicans in the United States). As George Bernard Shaw once said, the lack of money is the root of all evil. The poor already knew that.