Friday, September 25, 2015

Artificial intelligence: the rise of the machines - and of humans?

"The creation of robots has influenced a large number of industries, including the automation of journalism, of which some fundamental writing can be accomplished with certain algorithms." - John Ward

Machines recognise faces, and play pinball 25 times better than humans.

But they can write financial reports, too: "Before this program was implemented, the AP estimates it was doing quarterly earnings coverage for about 300 companies. Now it automates 3,000 such reports each quarter."

And research and compile technical guidebooks, and more "creative" works: "He has extended his technique to crossword puzzles, rudimentary poetry and even to scripts for animated game shows.
And he is laying the groundwork for romance novels generated by new algorithms. “I’ve already set it up,” he said. “There are only so many body parts.”

When I was at college in the early '70s and computing was far less developed, a graduate medical researcher amused himself by compiling a program to write porn using phrases randomly selected from a series of lists - "Painfully they peeled a grape for twenty minutes," etc.

George Orwell foretold this in "1984": "Julia was twenty-six years old... and she worked, as he had guessed, on the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department. She enjoyed her work, which consisted chiefly in running and servicing a powerful but tricky electric motor... She could describe the whole process of composing a novel, from the general directive issued by the Planning Committee down to the final touching-up by the Rewrite Squad. But she was not interested in the final product. She "didn't much care for reading," she said. Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces."
The link just given above refers us to an even earlier prognostication in the third part (Voyage to Laputa) of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" (1726): "Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study..." Following successive links leads us to the 13th century Franciscan philosopher Raymond Llull, himself possibly inspired by mediaeval automated Arab astrology.

Now it's entering the mainstream - I couldn't have written the above without the Internet, Wikipedia etc - and just as automation has undermined the labouring class, it is storming the gates of the middle class who until recently thought they were safe and superior in their cerebral citadels. Accountancy uses software, but so does the legal profession - we went last weekend to the 60th birthday party of a friend who retired early on the back of programming for lawyers.

As our work by hand and brain is increasingly performed by Illich's "energy slaves" (pdf), it may become harder to defend material inequality.

And we will have to return to philosophical questions relating to the purpose of our existence. Perhaps we will rediscover what it is to be human.


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Paddington said...

The work we are being asked to do in Mathematical modeling is growing, not shrinking, as more software is used.

Sackerson said...

But you are not a hewer of wood, a drawer of water, a counter of beans or sower of dissension.

Paddington said...

I might be the last. I also have to cut wood and haul water this weekend.

James Higham said...

But can tech find some way of extracting sunlight from cucumbers?

Paddington said...

I want to extract useful energy from stupidity, which appears in abundance.

Sackerson said...

I think you found a gusher at your University.