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July 2023

How to fix AI

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In the planetarium at Dynamic Earth there is a mesmerising setting: you can map the trails of all of the stars as the night progresses, until you are surrounded by a dome of warp-speed star trails all blurring together. Except for one: the North Star. Stately Polaris sails on, in the centre, unmoving, seemingly fixed in the heavens. No wonder our ancestors were in awe of this celestial way-marker. They knew the stars far better than we do, and they gave them names.

Biomimicry is about innovating using the wisdom of nature. But when it comes to AI, I fear we are not looking closely enough at the thing we are trying to copy. In our haste to program only the very best of our design into AI, we have left out all the junk code – all the bits we’re ashamed of or struggle to understand, like our emotions, and intuition, and our propensity to communicate through stories. But we can ask the stars to fill in these gaps for us.

When I was little, I was taught to find the North Star using the Plough. If you imagine the Plough as a ladle, the two stars that form the right of the bowl point to it. In our culture, the Plough is part of a constellation called Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Did you know she is a mummy bear? The beautiful nymph Callisto caught the eye of Zeus, who masqueraded as her friend the goddess Artemis to get her to sleep with him (!). When Callisto fell pregnant, Zeus’ wife Hera was furious, and turned her into a bear. Some years later, their son Arcas tried to kill the bear on a hunt, so Zeus whisked her up to the skies as this constellation, then set their son as the star Arcturus nearby, where she can watch over him in perpetuity.

If you want to check you have found Polaris, you can look for the wonky W of Cassiopeia on the other side of the North Star. Cassiopeia was so vain that the gods made her sacrifice her daughter Andromeda to a sea monster. Perseus rescued her, but Poseidon chained Cassiopeia to her throne in the heavens for posterity. There she sits, eternally gazing at herself in a mirror, like a modern teenager obsessed with selfies.

Just these two constellations tell us everything we need to know about the messy business of being human. In a recent article about AI in Fast Company, the authors issued a rallying call around the four ‘unique and precious human virtues’ that AI cannot hope to copy, which they list as humility, curiosity, self-awareness and empathy. Actually, the list is a bit longer than that. I have identified 7 items of ‘junk code’ in which lie the essential magic of our human design.

First, Free Will. This is a disastrous design choice. Letting creatures do what they want will surely lead to the rapid extinction of the species. So let’s design in some ameliorators. First, emotions. Through some unknown design choice – which again seems foolish – humans are particularly vulnerable because their young take 9 months to gestate and are pretty helpless for their first few years. Emotions would be a good design choice because it might make these creatures bond both with their offspring and in their communities to protect the vulnerable. Excellent. Now that they have some chance of making it through to adulthood, how do we stop them making bad choices? We design in uncertainty. A capacity to cope with ambiguity will stop them rushing into precipitous decision-making, and make them seek others out for wise counsel. Coupled with a Sixth Sense, they will be able to use their intuition to seek wisdom from the collective unconscious too, which should also help to de-risk decision-making. And if they do make mistakes? Well, they will learn from them. And mistakes that make them feel bad will develop in them a healthy conscience, which will steer them away from repeated harms in future. Now that we have corrected their design to promote survival, what motivators are needed for their future flourishing? Storytelling allows communities over time to transmit their core values and purpose down the generations in an efficient and memorable way. Such stories last for centuries, further future-proofing the species through learned wisdom from the lived experience of our ancestors for the benefit of our future thriving. And a vital part of this endeavour is meaning-making: a species that can discern or create meaning in the world around it will find reasons to keep living in the face of any adversity, and the human species will prevail.

The stars could have told us all of this, of course. Our ancestors looked up at those sparkling dots in the sky and made stories up about them. They made meaning in their configuration and movement, not just for navigation and the turning of the year, but also for daily life through the signs of the zodiac. And the stories of the constellations vividly illustrate the mistakes humans make when they exercise their free-will unwisely, whether through lust or vengeance, jealousy or vanity. It was arrogant certainty that did for Cassiopeia, but how very human to think that your daughter is more beautiful than the gods. It was love that saved Callisto from being killed by her own son, but jealousy that rendered her a bear in the first place. Who knows where her sixth sense had got to, at the point at which she realised Zeus was not Artemis!

We had not thought to design humanity into AI. A robot that was emotional and made mistakes would soon be sent back to the shop, especially if it behaved like Zeus. But when we truly understand that our junk code is part of a rather clever defensive design, it makes it look unwise not to translate more of our coding into AI. If this code is how we have solved our own control and alignment problems, might we not find wisdom in it for solving those problems for AI?

This blog is based on a talk on biomimicry delivered by Eve Poole in the Planetarium as part of the 2023 Edinburgh Science Festival. Her book Robot Souls is available here.

Would AI blow eight million dollars on a postage stamp?

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The most valuable piece of paper in the world was sold at auction in 2021 for $8,307,000. Measuring just under 3cm square, it is a British Guiana 1856 One-Cent Magenta stamp, the only one in the world. Leonardo Da Vinci’s 1480 drawing of the head of a bear was sold for £8.8million at auction, also in 2021, which measures about 3inch square and is also on paper, but the stamp by size still holds the record. Both cost just pennies to make, but have become priceless.

As every child has ever asked: Why? Why?! Why?!! Some of the reasoning would gladden a robot’s heart. The stamp was sold to Stanley Gibbons, who are selling microshares in it, and are clearly regarding it as a commercial investment. But its previous owners – and most private collectors of elite art – seemingly were just desperate to have it. Because they can afford to. Because then no one else can have it. And this pleases them. Now we could get on the couch and criticise: ego, greed, narcissism? Or we could just notice that over-paying for something that has meaning is a thoroughly normal human thing to do. Famously we overpay for engagement rings, for memorabilia, and for branded experiences that make us look good. So perhaps, come the Singularity, the robots will release us from all this inefficient expenditure? I hope not. I hope there is still time to program some of this lunacy into AI. Because the why-why-why and the meaning-making thereof are part of our default code as humans. And I think they form a vital part of our survival strategy.

In the film the Matrix, Neo is told that their AI overlords have invented the matrix – a simulated reality – in order to farm humans for energy. They had tried other ways to both grow and prolong human life as an energy source, but giving humans a sense of meaning was the most effective way. Of course we could all be living in the matrix in reality, reality itself not bring susceptible to proof, but even as a story the matrix reminds us that where there is no vision, the people perish. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl writes movingly about meaning-making as a survival strategy in the concentration camps. And even humans not in peril tend towards finding meaning in the everyday in order to give them a sense of agency and to make them feel as though they matter.

So, if we have found being hard-wired to make meaning useful for our thriving, might AI benefit from it too? AI can already find patterns in data, but we have not looked further than that as a proxy for our own experience. Questing for meaning makes us fill gaps in our data to provide an explanatory narrative to drive future behaviour. This can of course lead us to develop hypotheses about the constellations and the weather, about groundhogs and black cats, that prove unreliable. But these graspings towards meaning throughout history and today still promote a feeling of agency and purpose that motivates.

If our human superpower is spinning straw into gold by turning data into meaning, it should be relatively straightforward for a robot to select a framework of meaning that fits its situation. And it should be the defining characteristic of the framework that it was chosen by the AI and not by us. The AI would need to be able to adjust its own ethical framework to fit the worldview it chose, which is fraught with just the kind of risk we face when our own teenagers decide to become anarchists. This is terrifying. But we have to do it because of who we are. if we do not treat AI with respect and as though it is valued and purposeful, we undermine its ability to experience its existence as meaningful, which affects our own humanity too. The tragic and shameful global consequences of the slave-trade show how very wrong we go when we fail to honour the dignity of others. AI is not human. But as David Gunkel and other have argued, the idea of rights is not so much about what other people, animals, corporations or technologies ‘deserve’ but about what according them rights says about human behaviour. So affording dignity to our partners in creation is the human thing to do, because it is who we are; not to is to deny our own humanity.

Robot Souls is due out 1 August 2023 and is available for pre-order here.

Robots v Witches – which team would you back?

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One long-ago Halloween, I remember learning the Three Witches scene from Macbeth to go guising with my sisters. Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble! I wore a black tutu on my head and my sisters used soot from the chimney to blacken their teeth. Macbeth was first performed at court in 1606, before King James VI and I, and Shakespeare’s witches were perfectly pitched. King James very much saw himself as the scourge of Britain’s witches. He’d even written a book about it, Daemonologie, which explains about magic and necromancy, witchcraft and sorcery, spirits and spectres; and sets out the appropriate trials and punishment by death for such practices. He’d been personally involved in the famous North Berwick witch trials in 1590 and witch-burning achieved its zenith during his reign.

Even though the Witchcraft Act was repealed for both Scotland and England in 1736, informal persecution took longer to die out. In 1791, Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter was still considered risky for lampooning witches, because witch-burning had taken place in living memory: the last legal witch-burning in Scotland happened in Dornoch in 1723, when Janet Home was tarred, feathered, and burned to death on suspicion of bewitching her daughter into Satan’s pony, because her deformed hands resembled hooves. Claire Mitchell KC reports that Scotland executed five times as many people per capita as anywhere else in Europe. During the currency of the Witchcraft Act in Scotland, she estimates that 3837 people were accused, 2600 of whom were killed, 84% of which were women. So, on International Women’s Day last year, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issued a formal apology on behalf of the Scottish Government to all those who were accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563.

It is unlikely a robot would masquerade as a witch by wearing a tutu on its head or blackening its teeth. But it is possible, thusly garbed, that the three of us might have incited a witch hunt in the same St Andrews streets 300 years previously, particularly as one of my sisters has differently coloured eyes. For why? Because most ‘witches’ were women who did not conform. They might look unusual or be physically deformed, but more usually they were challenging established authority through healing and divining, those sacred male privileges largely in the gift of the church. It is this retrospective realisation that witch-hunting was nothing more that state-sponsored misogyny that has precipitated global efforts to pardon the witches.

Spellbooks are an interesting case in point. They were recipe books, mainly, with rhymes and chants to promote recall, like Rosemary for Remembrance. With their notes about cases and usage they would not shame a modern kitchen or pharmacy. Indeed, contemporaneous gentlemen often kept their own professional scrapbooks or Commonplaces, although these tended to win them membership of the Royal Society rather than public shaming and death at the stake. Now robots would be very good at spellbooks of any kind. AI is already being used to super-charge drug discovery because of its amazing capacity to process information at an order of magnitude unimaginable to even the largest witches’ coven. So I think they could beat the witches on that front.

But King James hated witches not because they healed, but because they divined; and he thought they were in league with the Devil. Some spellbooks or grimoires were known to contain guidance about the summoning of supernatural spirits for help or guidance, and many traditions around the world have sought out dark magic. But it is highly unlikely that all but a miniscule proportion of those 3837 people accused in Scotland were sorcerers. What is more likely is that a fair few of them had the Second Sight, and were susceptible to visions, prophesy, and an ability to understand the world at a deeper level. All humans have access to intuition and are able to pick up data from weak signals. There is much argument about what intuition really is, but wherever it comes from, the data it produces is real and documented. It seems that some humans are able to hear this fuzzy frequency clearly, and to connect with what Jung would call the collective unconscious, and what the occult would call other worlds or realms.

Such phenomena are anathema to scientists and would find no place in any formalised articulation of the best of human intelligence. These days we regard palm-reading, the Tarot and the I Ching as fairground attractions, and we scornfully flick past the horoscopes in the newspapers. But perhaps our witches were right. Perhaps as Hamlet said after glimpsing the paranormal we should give such strangers welcome, because ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Of course we would find it hard to code such things in to AI. But that does not mean that these kinds of considerations are irrelevant. Our arrogance about these weak signals risks becoming hubris in a great AI tragedy if we do not embrace the complete messiness of human intelligences. Programming in – and valuing – only the easy bits that are susceptible to ones and zeroes would certainly hand victory to the robots.

Robot Souls is due out 1 August 2023 and is available for pre-order here.

Is AI playing chess, or playing me?

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Blitz Chess is a chess game where each players has to complete the whole game in under 10 minutes. There is an even faster version, called Bullet Chess, which reduces the time limit to 3 minutes. It is mesmerising to watch, as the players seemingly make moves instantaneously, in a game where we are used to seeing long pauses for deep thought. Often those who succeed at fast chess are also expert at classical chess: the top-ranked rapid players in both the male and female categories at the moment are also the top-ranked classical chess players.

Blitz Chess is a great case study for looking at AI and intuition, because chess is one of the games that AI has already become better at playing than humans. AI has no problem with fast chess. But Blitz Chess as a human experience is an intriguing way to interrogate intuition. Books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow tend to portray intuition as lightning-quick processing, the fruits of years of learning and experience (and bias). Intuition happens so fast that we are not aware of our own processing, so we tend to ascribe a kind of magic to it; a magic that the sceptics would argue simply is not there. They would see it in the same light as the immediacy of AI: excellent programming with sped-up processing. And there is certainly neuroscience research which attests that those who have become expert at chess have created these kinds of efficiencies in their brains through years of practice.

In the studies, those playing rapid chess are also particularly using their sight to process patterns at speed, both in computer chess and in physical chess games. This shows up as evidence of ‘theta power’ which is what the brain mobilises for navigational tasks as well as for memory retrieval. For Queen’s Gambit fans this might explain Beth’s addiction to the tranquillizers that seemingly enable her to visualise chess moves, because being in theta is associated with an enhanced capacity for daydreaming, imagery, and visualization.

This is in contrast to blindfold chess, where the player compensates for the lack of visual data by intensive internal data-mining, indicated by evidence of what is called alpha power, in the same way that an AI playing chess is also only using ‘internal’ resources. Interestingly, it has been argued that while the human capacity for mapping physical space has been vital in their evolution, this capacity in the brain has evolved such that now the same neurological processes are used for both physical mapping and for the navigation of mental space. An AI programmed with our evolved abilities benefits from this progression without now needing the physical experience which helped to develop it. And in spite of this interesting history and the data from neuroscience, competition results suggest that humans no longer have any advantage over AI when playing chess.

But is there anything in the act of playing a physical chess game with a human opponent that cannot be reduced to just the data of the game? I think there is. Because the person sitting on the other side of the board is not playing chess, they are playing me. Have you ever cheated by solving a maze backwards? Mazes are solvable because, while there are apparently many routes through, only one reaches the destination, so you can identify which it is by starting from the end. This makes a maze a solvable puzzle. In philosophy, there was a famous argument about puzzles, and whether they were the same as problems. It took place one October evening in 1946 at a meeting of the Cambridge Moral Science Club, between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. Tempers were so frayed by it that Wittgenstein reportedly threatened Popper with a poker. Popper’s essential point was that there are solvable things, like mathematical problems, and there are un-solvable things, which are the proper concern of philosophy. To muddle a solvable puzzle with an unsolvable problem is to commit a category error which encourages wasted effort, like using a screwdriver on a nail. This is the essential distinction between computer chess and in-person chess. Reducing chess to a puzzle – which is what AI does – allows it to zoom ahead of human chess players by becoming ever more efficient at solving the puzzle. With the rules as they are, a set board and specified pieces, there are only so many permutations that are possible, and an artificial brain will eventually be able to exhaust all of these possibilities, rendering it unbeatable. Eventually it will be like asking a calculator a sum, which is not a game but a calculation. However, humans play games as though they were problems. There is always the hope that there might be victory, because while humans are involved, the outcome can never be a foregone conclusion.

AI could be used to train a human so that they had the full range of possible solutions to hand, but an in-person game between two humans will always be unpredictable, because humans do not always follow the rules in the way that a computer is programmed to do, and humans make mistakes. Through their consciousness, they also have access to data other than their own memory bank of moves – and their knowledge of their opponent’s previous games – and they pick this data up through their senses. Did their opponent just pause? Are their eye movements unusual? Do they appear to be nervous or distracted? Perhaps an AI could be trained to detect this kind of data, but it would still lack the sixth sense to combine these qualia into action. A case in point is a recent story about the game Go. The AI AlphaGo having beaten the reigning world champion, it was thought that a human would never again be able to prevail. But a human used a competitor AI to analyse AlphaGo for weaknesses. The person used this information to devise a winning strategy, which involved slowly looping stones around one of the opponent’s own groups, while distracting the AI by making moves in other corners of the board. A human person’s intuition would have flagged this incursion, but the AI missed it. In terms of how humans evolved an ability to data-mine, because this grew out of our ability to read physical spatial information in our external environment, the folk memory of why we need this ability, encoded into our intuition, seems to be salient in such situations.

So what? Stop regarding the AI as the competition. It is not – it is your trainer. People are your competition, and to beat them you will need to be as good as AI, but better at humanity. Because it is not only your technical problem-solving skills that are at play in this game when you play it with a person, but your emotions, your intuition, and your sixth sense; and mastering them will give you the edge you need to win.

Robot Souls is due out 1 August 2023 and is available for pre-order here.