As my sorry excuse of an Internet provider has been unable to fix my broken connection for several days, I had more time to read and enjoy the latest Significance I received last week. Plenty of interesting entries, once again! Even though, faithful to my idiosyncrasies, I must definitely criticise the cover (but you may also skip till the end of the paragraph!): It shows a pile of exams higher than the page frame on a student table in a classroom and a vague silhouette sitting behind the exams. I do not know whether or not this is intentional but the silhouette has definitely been added to the original picture (and presumably the exams as well!), because the seat and blackboard behind this silhouette show through it. If this is intentional, does that mean that the poor soul grading this endless pile of exams has long turned into a wraith?! If not intentional, that’s poor workmanship for a magazine usually apt at making the most from the graphical side. (And then I could go on and on about the clearly independent choice of illustrations by the managing editor rather than the author(s) of the article…) End of the digression! Or maybe not because there also was an ugly graph from Knowledge is Beautiful about the causes of plane crashes that made pie-charts look great… Not that all the graphs in the book are bad, far from it!
“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.’ S. Hawkins
The central theme of the magazine is artificial intelligence (and machine learning). A point I wanted to mention in a post following the recent doom-like messages of Gates and Hawking about AIs taking over humanity à la Blade Runner… or in Turing’s test. As if they had not already impacted our life so much and in so many ways. And no all positive or for the common good. Witness the ultra-fast codes on the stock market. Witness the self-replicating and modifying computer viruses. Witness the increasingly autonomous military drones. Or witness my silly Internet issue, where I cannot get hold of a person who can tell me what the problem is and what the company is doing to solve it (if anything!), but instead have to listen to endless phone automata that tell me to press “1 if…” and “3 else”, and that my incident ticket has last been updated three days ago… But at the same time the tone of The Independent tribune by Hawking, Russell, Tegmark, and Wilczek is somewhat misguided, if I may object to such luminaries!, and playing on science fiction themes that have been repeated so many times that they are now ingrained, rather than strong scientific arguments. Military robots that could improve themselves to the point of evading their conceptors are surely frightening but much less realistic than a nuclear reaction that could not be stopped in a Fukushima plant. Or than the long-term impacts of genetically modified crops and animals. Or than the current proposals of climate engineering. Or than the emerging nano-particles.
“If we build systems that are game-theoretic or utility maximisers, we won’t get what we’re hoping for.” P. Norvig
The discussion of this scare in Significance does not contribute much in my opinion. It starts with the concept of a perfect Bayesian agent, supposedly the state of an AI creating paperclips, which (who?) ends up using the entire Earth’s resources to make more paperclips. The other articles in this cover story are more relevant, as for instance how AI moved from pure logic to statistical or probabilist intelligence. With Yee Whye Teh discussing Bayesian networks and the example of Google translation (including a perfect translation into French of an English sentence).