Monday, August 09, 2010

Computation and the tragedy of cognition

In an op ed calling for separation of computer science and religion, Jaron Lanier writes:
What bothers me that by allowing artificial intelligence to reshape our concept of personhood, we are leaving ourselves open to the flipside: we think of people more and more as computers, just as we think of computers as people.

In one recent example, Clay Shirky...has suggested that when people engage in seemingly trivial activities like “re-Tweeting,” relaying on Twitter a short message from someone else, something non-trivial — real thought and creativity — takes place on a grand scale, within a global brain. That is, people perform machine-like activity, copying and relaying information; the Internet, as a whole, is claimed to perform the creative thinking, the problem solving, the connection making. This is a devaluation of human thought.
There is a parallel to Shirky's argument in Dawkins's Selfish Gene (although Shirky's reductionism is 'upwards', perhaps, instead of 'downwards'):
Now [genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.
The physiologist Denis Noble argues in The Music of Life that this passage is largely a rhetorical trick not a statement of empirical fact and can be rewritten with equal validity as:
Now [genes] are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.
Lanier thinks that computer scientists tend towards cultism because they are "as terrified by the human condition as anyone else." But what is really needed, he says, is to get on with the everyday tasks of making life better by creating new technologies that serve people.

No comments: