Friday, March 29, 2013

Love and the Singularity

One of the milestones of the singularity is a computer capable of passing the Turing test: can you tell the difference between a computer and a real human using only text messages? It manages to be both subjective and definitive in that you cannot continue to maintain you prefer humans to machines if you can no longer tell them apart, much like the Pepsi Challenge.

In the context of the singularity, the Turing test is a canary in the coalmine. It is not practical as such, although I've always felt it would make an amusing stage in the Miss World contest, instead it signifies that computers have stormed the last fortress of human uniqueness (interestingly a synonym of singularity), and that they are now likely to be capable of our most precious gift: original thought.

But where is love? That most powerful part of the human experience and the driver for so much of what we do (both good and bad). A computer may become powerful and creative enough to cure malaria, but what is its motivation to do so? A human scientist does so for a mixture of love for his fellow humans, a love of the terrible beauty of biology, and a love of doing something he or she is good at. I expect all of these things are an important part of the creative process, possibly even essential, but I am not suggesting the capacity for love is somehow uniquely human and that this will prevent the singularity - it's not that kind of essay - I'm simply pointing out that truly intelligent computers may require the capability for love. Personally I find it harder to imagine a computer writing an ode than one beating me at chess; a feat already achieved by my treacherous cell phone.

If computers could love humans, or even if they couldn't, could we love them? This has significant consequences and shares some of the traits of the Turing test: love is the ultimate subjective emotion, but loving a computer would be a definitive step and a harbinger of societal change. It is hard to feel that computers are soulless automatons bent on destroying humanity if you are in love with one.

There are many types of love of course. Some of us already love our computers as we might love a treasured slide rule or sports car. It is not hard to imagine loving a computer as we love a pet: a condescending love of unequals. It is conceivable that we could love one as we love a colleague possessed of great insight and ability. But could we love a computer as we love a friend, a child, or a partner? If a computer were both lovable and orders or magnitude superior to us, would we not love them as gods? Each of these represents a different level of acceptance of the singularity and they represent increasing levels of disruption.

It is argued that a great disparity between human and machine will not arise because humans will be augmenting their own capabilities to match those of the artificial intelligences, and for the individual this may be viable, but no man is an island. For instance, a good marriage depends on growing together, but if your wife suddenly became a million times smarter than you, it's a good bet you would struggle with pillow talk. So do you only "upgrade" together? What about your children and your friends? These are complicated questions that could cause real pain during the constant revolution the singularity promises, but without love at the heart of it, it would truly be post-human.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

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