Saturday, March 6, 2010

"You Are Not A Gadget"--Jaron Lanier Seeks to Restore Humans To the Top of the Food Chain

What happens when we humans bestow agency, personhood and infallibility upon computers and doubt ourselves? That’s one of the questions Jaron Lanier explores in his fabulous and alarming new book, “You Are Not A Gadget.”

He was one of the original Silicon Valley warriors. The term “virtual reality” is often attributed to him. He believed in democratization of the internet, the wisdom of the cloud/crowd, the ideology that “information wants to be free”, that the voice and creativity of the individual has nothing on the “hive mind” of billions of anonymous bits working in unison. In this book which he calls a “manifesto”, he’s made a 180. I haven’t read the entire thing but I certainly will and report back.

He talks about the Turing test. Alan Turing, a mathematician who used computers to crack the Nazi Enigma code during World War II, was a true hero but flawed, as we all are.

Lanier describes the Turing Test as a thought experiment, a Victorian parlor game:

A man and a woman hide, and a judge is asked to determine which is which by relying only on the texts of notes passed back and forth.

Turing replaced the woman with a computer. Can a judge tell which is the man?

From the elegance and brevity of Lanier's definition to Wikipedia, a true example of confusing the "hive mind" of millions of anonymous netizens with wisdom (particularly since Wikipedia editors seem to be almost exclusively male and under 30; that fact may disturb the idea of "objectivity"):

The Turing test is a proposal for a test of a machine's ability to demonstrate intelligence. It proceeds as follows: a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with one human and one machine, each of which tries to appear human. All participants are placed in isolated locations. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. In order to test the machine's intelligence rather than its ability to render words into audio, the conversation is limited to a text-only channel such as a computer keyboard and screen.

Of course, Wikipedia disdains the idea of individual expertise. That's so last century. I know because I wrote an entry about Raymond Chandler, who I can quote by heart, and some anonymous shithead edited it out without a trace. When I sought out this supposed "expert" (why was his 'individual expertise' greater than mine?), he claimed I wrote opinion instead of fact. Yet within the entry, the writer claimed Chandler was the template for hard-boiled detective fiction. If that isn't opinion (what about Hammett, to whom Chandler bowed down), I don't know what is.

Maybe Wikipedia is trying to mimic the Turing test. We're supposed to think all those anonymous male youngsters glued to the machine are actually the machine: infallible, remote, untouchable.

I guess the idea behind the Turing test is that the mind can be reproduced physically, therefore if you can construct a computer duplicating the physical representation of a mind, then a computer can think.

I do not have a PhD from MIT in mathematics. I am, however, a writer , reader and social animal. If a human is the one determining whether or not a computer is intelligent by matching its written answers to a MALE’s written answers to the same questions, then the determination is human. Why not have a computer decide what is human intelligence?

Lanier describes Kasparov losing a chess game to a computer he had won against previously because he was psyched out by the machine. He viewed it anthropomorphically. Kasparov attributed stone-faced implacability and infallibility to a giant machine. He bluffed himself. You might as well imagine that your dishwasher is determined to scrub your dishes clean and crestfallen when crumbs cling to them as opposed to simply operating in a mechanical way like a souped-up vacuum cleaner.

Humans are rational and emotional. To quote from Lanier’s book, “[Turing] commited suicide by lacing an apple with cyanide in his lab and eating it.” Turing was gay when it was a crime. British authorities convinced him to go to a quack and get treated with massive doses of female hormones. He developed breasts and became extremely depressed. No wonder he replaced the woman with a machine in his test. And he paid homage to Eve in his method of dying.

Attributing agency to computers can lead to tragedy. Walt Bogdanich of the New York Times authored a series of articles where medical personnel assumed the computer software regulating radiation therapy was infallible. Never dreamed it was faulty and human intelligence was required to judge whether or not people were being given massive doses incorrectly. And often the machine was operating badly, killing sick people faster. If humans unthinkingly assume the computer acts on its own as opposed to being programmed and run by people, we’ve got cognitive dissonance. Isn't that what happened to Robbie the Robot on Forbidden Planet? He was programmed to kill yet told not to kill. Cognitive dissonance!

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