Impending or Past?
Niel Postman, in his book, Technopoly, argues the preemption of human centered culture to technically driven culture has already occurred. Jaques Ellul, in his book, Technological Society, heaped evidence behind the proposal that technology became autonomous centuries ago. Their arguments are convincing.
Some think other criteria must be met before the balance of power has been tipped in favor of some class of machines, but the traditional criteria proposed for determining when humans have been dominated are intellectually impoverished. Let's look at some of those criteria.
- Self awareness
- Superior intelligence
Self-awareness is likely to be a continuum, not a threshold. The first time an assembler assembled itself, that continuum began, followed by compilers that can compile themselves, followed by neural nets that can construct and tune neural nets. The dimensions of self-awareness are numerous, and complete self-awareness in each respect is rare. For instance, knowing our own motive is often guessed at after we exercise it. If we are honest about our own species, self-awareness in the typical human is intermittent and incomplete.
Superiority in intelligence cannot be determined by a chess tournament; the vanquished chess player could possibly, on the day of the defeat, invent a new field of study. Neither Lavoisier nor Newton, if alive today, would be able to prevail against a chess program, yet no machine exposed only to information prior to the advent of modern chemistry, calculus, or physics would be able to take the steps Lavoisier or Newton made in the creation of those fields.
Intelligence is multidimensional too, and metrics to measure intelligence are unreliable. Using simplistic definitions of intelligence, devices of steel, plastic, epoxy, and silicon already exceed that of humans. Should graduate students seek out a university librarian for an answer to a question about data science or use Google Scholar? A mail sorter uses intelligent robotics to ensures we get the right mail. The actual mail delivery people occasionally deliver a parcel into the wrong mailbox even when the street address is clearly printed in one decimeter high Arial font digits on the approaching side of the mailbox. We use a CAD program to check a mechanical design clearance. Arithmetic is clearly the domain of computers.
Humans give destinations to a program and instructions are given back to the human. The human essentially rents this intelligent service. Once the instructions are given, the human becomes subservient and is expected to drive. Even upstream in the transportation process, when the destination is chosen, to a large degree it is a technology driven need that often creates the demand for transportation. Intelligence is not always correlated with power either. How intelligent are long blades of grass and a broken lawnmower? Yet they can send their legal owner across town to pick up parts and consume their entire day off to repair and mow.
Self-improvement is a slippery concept as well, whether an individual entity can improve itself in real time or is able to construct improved versions of itself. Robotics creating robotics technically began during industrialization when milling machines made parts for milling machines. Human supervision was involved then. Using current technology, it is quite possible that an advanced manufacturing plant could be devices that could out other advanced manufacturing plants without supervision. That is the mechanical dimension of self-improvement.
If a neural net converges on a reasonably optimal weighting for a given criteria, the assumption required to call this self-improvement is that the target categorization is correct. Where power is concerned, self-improvement would be measured by what? Control over resources? Domination? Is that improvement? Perhaps ethical superiority? Can subservience be considered a goal state without severely curtailing the creative and intuitive aspects required to achieve human-like intelligence?
Is Singularity Realistic?
In light of this complexity, is the tipping of power between humans and machines discrete or singular? Clearly not. Calling changes in the balance of power between human driven culture and machine driven culture a singularity is naive. We do not need to be attacked by machines to loose our culture or autonomy to technology.
We Seem to Know at Some Level
This reality expresses itself subconsciously. Young adults express violent feelings against their mobile devices when it delivers unpalatable social information. Then they dodge the question when others inquire about the broken device display. When the device finally ceases to function, they are compelled to buy a new mobile device, a device they need and pretend to like.
Another More Interesting Criteria: Utility
Human autonomy is dwarfed by the demands of the tools created for lifestyle improvement to the point that one can no longer, with formal logic, clearly differentiate which is the tool and which is the user.
This last criteria to judge when humans have become subservient to machines can be illuminated by a single test question, "Which is the tool and which is the user?" When the distinction is blurred, the dominance has already entered a shared state. Entrance into the vicinity of a tipping point, if such a tipping point actually exists, has already occurred in many regions of the world. The multidimensional nature of the balanced thus far discussed indicates that there exists a complex balance with no clear point of victory or defeat.
Nonetheless, the failure of the Unibomber and other Luddites to dent the onslaught of technology indicates that the relinquishment of autonomy to machines is likely irreversible. Therefore, there may be no value in being concerned.