Wednesday, July 4, 2012

After Automation: Purpose

Here's a very interesting interview with Stephen Wolfram, the brilliant mathematician/ computer scientist who, among other things, founded the company that makes the math program Mathematica, and the Wolfram Alpha search engine. He wrote a major book, A New Kind of Science some years back about cellular automata and how nature is more like a program than an equation. (I haven't read it, just the reviews).

He thinks most expert opinion can be automated, and his company is working on it. What then, though?

But the question remains what we humans should do if everything became automated. The answer, I think, is that we figure out what we should do. Let’s assume that everything is automated and wonderful. What do you choose to do in that case? As humans and as individuals, we have certain purposes that we are trying to achieve and which cannot be automated. Highly advanced artificial intelligence can be programmed to have a particular purpose but it cannot answer the question of what’s the right purpose to have. I find it highly interesting to figure out how human purposes evolved and how technology might affect them. At different times in history, we have said that our purpose is religion, or maximizing pleasure, or maximizing money. Some of the purposes we have today would seem rather bizarre from a historical perspective. Imagine a paleolithic ancestor trying to figure out why someone would walk on a treadmill indoors! So when lots of things are automated and possible, what purposes will we value? My personal and rather bizarre answer is that future generations will return to the wisdom of the ancients. The times we live in right now mark the first time in human history that data is permanently recorded on a large scale, so future generations can study us and say: “These people lived finite lives and had to make tough choices. So maybe those choices can tell us something about what it means to be human, and about what endpoints our idea of progress should aspire to.

That is of course highly relevant to the issues of purpose I often discuss here on this blog.

He also believes (on a quite different note) that computational irreducibility - when you just have to wait and see what a program produces - is a way to solve the ancient dilemmas about free will versus determinism.

(h/t AI Daily)


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