Lanier on the technological religion

Computer scientist and visionary Jaron Lanier has written an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times today.  His thesis is that the hype surrounding recent advances in computation and robotics is approaching religious zealotry where artificial intelligence is made out to be much more advanced and scary then it really is.  His argument is that even though he is not sitting around waiting for the Singularity,  he can still make progress in his work.  Unlike the fact that a belief in quantum mechanics (or at least band theory) is essential for work on electronics, a belief in strong artificial intelligence is not in computer science.  I saw Lanier speak at the Computational Neuroscience meeting a decade ago.  I found it ironic that although he was a leader in computer vision, his talk was mostly low tech and devoid of cool visuals.  Below is an excerpt from his piece.

WHEN we think of computers as inert, passive tools instead of people, we are rewarded with a clearer, less ideological view of what is going on — with the machines and with ourselves. So, why, aside from the theatrical appeal to consumers and reporters, must engineering results so often be presented in Frankensteinian light?

The answer is simply that computer scientists are human, and are as terrified by the human condition as anyone else. We, the technical elite, seek some way of thinking that gives us an answer to death, for instance. This helps explain the allure of a place like the Singularity University. The influential Silicon Valley institution preaches a story that goes like this: one day in the not-so-distant future, the Internet will suddenly coalesce into a super-intelligent A.I., infinitely smarter than any of us individually and all of us combined; it will become alive in the blink of an eye, and take over the world before humans even realize what’s happening.

Some think the newly sentient Internet would then choose to kill us; others think it would be generous and digitize us the way Google is digitizing old books, so that we can live forever as algorithms inside the global brain. Yes, this sounds like many different science fiction movies. Yes, it sounds nutty when stated so bluntly. But these are ideas with tremendous currency in Silicon Valley; these are guiding principles, not just amusements, for many of the most influential technologists.

It should go without saying that we can’t count on the appearance of a soul-detecting sensor that will verify that a person’s consciousness has been virtualized and immortalized. There is certainly no such sensor with us today to confirm metaphysical ideas about people, or even to recognize the contents of the human brain. All thoughts about consciousness, souls and the like are bound up equally in faith, which suggests something remarkable: What we are seeing is a new religion, expressed through an engineering culture.

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