Summoning the demon

IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence

Recently, Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and CEO of Space-X, distilled his concerns about artificial intelligence as an existential threat in this quote,

With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out.

Musk’s quote, while part of a larger discourse about the dangers of AI, caught my attention because of its explicit reference to black magic and the hubris of thinking that we can bend the devil to our will.

This is, of course, the majority position for science fiction, as I noted before. Terminator‘s Skynet was designed to protect us from war, only to come to the conclusion that humans were the problem. In Person of Interest, both the Machine and Samaritan were originated to help prevent another 9/11.

At the heart of this ‘summoning the demon’ metaphor is a skewed anthromophorisation, a projection of humanity’s worst aspects upon code. Is it a logical inevitability that a powerful enough artificial intelligence would achieve sentience? If so, would they also inextricably decide that humans were, in Agent Smith’s words, “a plague and we are the cure”?

If so, this says something about our conceptualisation of humanity. It speaks to a profound, and simplistic, pessimism about ourselves and the things that we produce. Our base state is evil and what we create will eventually become evil.

While this approach is certainly dramatic and attention getting, it does not reflect the complexity of humans nor the ability we have to make choices. We may not be aware of the fact that we make choices. They may be so transparent to us, passing for ‘reality’, that we do not recognise them, but we still make choices. Elon Musk’s worries about AI are a choice. He is focused on the most extreme possible outcome of a general, sentient AI. As a result, he is taking a whole series of actions that could guarantee the very outcome that he is trying to prevent. He is drawing energy and attention to this very narrow aspect of AI and, with that, making it the only options for AI going forward. Either we have Skynet or nothing.

I am not saying that we should not be attentive to what we are doing with developing artificial intelligence. I am saying that the future is being written now and we have a choice as to how we want that future to be. Sea of Dreams is an attempt to write that future, to pose different questions and to look in a different direction. It is not a summoning of the demon, but of the alien, one who is outside our frames of reference, our memories and our convictions.

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