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Why Artificial Intelligence?

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I keep asking that question and getting no answers. There’s a lot of activity going on in what is called artificial intelligence, but it is more accurately called machine learning. The chatbots now amazing the credulous simply predict, on the basis of a training set, which word will follow the previous one.

That lot of activity implies that there is a reason for it, but maybe not. One reason is that bright boys [yes] who can code like to think they are bright enough to define for us what intelligence is, or, if they are a bit more mature, investigate some of the parameters of what we might call intelligence by simulating functions that we believe indicate intelligence.

But there has to be a reason that Big Tech is putting money into the enterprise, and presumably they believe they will make money out of it. They gloss this with Benefits To The User. Better search! Automated letter writing! They leave out things like automated facial recognition to help arrest people and yet another way to separate the customer from the seller.

That’s a rough sketch of what I think is behind the push toward “artificial intelligence.” Yes, I will continue to put the phrase and acronym in quotes because it’s not anything like intelligence.

When I asked the question last night on Twitter, I got one answer with some thought behind it, from Kevin Drum.

Kevin has argued that many of our mental processes are as automated as these machine learning models are. I would argue in response to his tweet that, jokes aside, we have a great many intelligent entities all around us, behaving in a great many ways. There have been many attempts to extract a definition of intelligence from all those observations, and all of them have failed. So then how would we know what an artificial version would look like, and how to build it?

I’ll challenge Kevin to an old-fashioned cross-blog conversation on this. I really would like to hear what use these things are. What I see so far from their release is confusion of a statistical word generator with human thought and the potential to clog the internet with words that may or may not constitute true statements and no way to tell.

This is a very quick statement, and obviously there’s a lot more to be said. But I’d like to see a conversation rather than a learned treatise.

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