Kevin Kelly recently wrote an article in Wired, “The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World.” One of the themes he explores the the fact that AIs are increasingly “like Amazon Web Services—cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off.” He goes on to argue that this industrial-grade smartness is not consciousness, but something different, something alien.
The chief virtue of AIs will be their alien intelligence. An AI will think about food differently than any chef, allowing us to think about food differently. Or to think about manufacturing materials differently. Or clothes. Or financial derivatives. Or any branch of science and art. The alienness of artificial intelligence will become more valuable to us than its speed or power.
This alienness is what I was interested in exploring in Sea of Dreams through the data miners. While they were programmed by humans, they have a very different view of the world with different limits and abilities. Through their interaction with humans, particularly Wong Anming, they begin to ‘become more like us’, but from their own particular starting point. Their starting point is, however, different from humans because the data miners do not have same intellectual, emotional and physical framework that humans have. As a result, even though Tu, one of data miner avatars, says she cares for Anming, Tu does nothing to protect Anming when she is accused of leaking data about the taikonauts.
Returning to Kelly’s article, while one could argue about the whether or not his premise is valid, I think that the ‘alienness of artificial intelligence’ is only as valuable if we can understand the alien intelligence. For that to occur, we will need to be open to exploring the fruits of that intelligence, in the same way Kelly was willing to try the Swiss/Thai asparagus quiche that IBM’s Watson developed from “a culinary database comprising online recipes, USDA nutritional facts, and flavor research on what makes compounds taste pleasant.”
This openness also requires us to see the ‘truths’ that we have about the world are not universal, but are, instead, one interpretation of the data at hand. In this way, AI becomes a mirror, reflecting back on us our assumptions, beliefs and received memories. If something as logical as an AI can represent the world in an entirely different way, Swiss/Thai asparagus quiche, how certain can we be that what we believe is real?