The Zen of machine intelligence

A recent paper in Science reports an interesting experiment carried out at Princeton using fish and exploring the dynamics of crowd intelligence.  Researchers used golden shiners, a strongly schooling fish. They trained a large number of groups to swim toward a blue target, while smaller groups were trained to follow their natural predilection for a yellow target. When placed together, the large trained group would follow the smaller group to the yellow target. When fish with no prior training (the uninformed individuals) were introduced, however, the fish increasingly swam toward the majority-preferred blue target.

The story circulated in the media with much journalistic spin as “evidence” of how people take decisions in democratic societies. According to the spin, and extrapolating wildly from fish, uninformed human voters tend to side with the informed majority, therefore counterbalancing extremist minorities. I am obviously very sceptical of this extrapolation which makes a number of impossible assumptions, the most obvious ones being (a) that we do not live in idealistic direct democracies, (b) that an “uninformed” human does not exit anymore; “misinformed” would be a better word. Mathematical models of human behaviour, however sophisticated they might be, are run on the basis of assumptions that usually are too simplified to reflect the complexities of human societies.

Nevertheless, the experiment, and the models, are interesting for societies of intelligent agents. Such societies are by design democratic. Decisions aimed at problem-solving are taken by dynamics of interaction between agents. No agent has all the information or the complete solution. As the system (or society) evolves a solution various lines of reasoning come to productive conflict. The experiment suggests that we may get better solutions if we keep a number of agents initially uninvolved in the problem-solving process. Bringing them on at a later stage, where there is a minority and a majority, could safeguard the correct decision.

Journal Reference: D. Couzin, C. C. Ioannou, G. Demirel, T. Gross, C. J. Torney, A. Hartnett, L. Conradt, S. A. Levin, N. E. Leonard. Uninformed Individuals Promote Democratic Consensus in Animal GroupsScience, 2011; 334 (6062): 1578 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210280

Victorian scientific romance and robot apocalypse

The 1800s must have been a great time to live. They mark the beginning of many things we take for granted today; most notably democracy, technological and scientific innovation, globalization and international trade. The British Empire was at its height, people started moving with steamships and trains across continents, and inventions like the telegraph and the telephone allowed news to travel faster than ever.

History must have seemed to take a whole new course, unimagined by people who lived only a few years earlier. Writers such as Samuel ButlerH.G. WellsWilliam Morris, and others pondered upon the question of progress, and a new literary genre was created that mixed fantasy, satire and allegory: the scientific romance. A few notable books of this genre are “The Time Machine” (1895) by Wells, “News from Nowhere” (1890) by Morris and “Erewhon” (1872) by Butler.

Samuel Butler

In Erewhon (an anagram of “nowhere”) Butler describes a utopian society that had become industrialized long before Europe and had opted to banish machines. This was because in Erewhon machines were deemed to be dangerous. Butler expanded on the idea in his “Book of Machines” where he claimed that Darwinism applied to machine evolution, and therefore it was inevitable that machines will ultimately develop consciousness. Butler claimed that  “it was the race of the intelligent machines and not the race of men which would be the next step in evolution.” Frank Herbert, the author of “Dune”, as a back-story coined the term “Butlerian jihad” to describe an event 10,000 years before the events of Dune, where thinking machines were outlawed.

Butlerian Jihad

There is a cautionary tale in Victorian scientific romance, something that resonates vividly in our post-industrial age . The 21st century arrived awkwardly  The events of 9/11, as well as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, colored the first decade of our century with the shades of two unnecessary wars that polarized politics. The economic crises of 2008 and the current crisis in the eurozone have shifted public debate towards a refutation of capitalism.

Whilst all this take place in the forefront of public awareness an immense technological revolution brews quietly in the background. This revolution is all about intelligent machines. They may not have arrived at the level of consciousness yet (but who can really tell?) but they control our planet and our lives already. Our financial and commodity markets, our defense systems, our industries, our infrastructures are all controlled to a greater or lesser degree by autonomous computer programs.

In October 2011 a major military exercise took place across NATO countries in preparation for future cyberwar.  NATO scenarios assumed a cyber attack from a hostile country or terrorist organization. But, what if the “attack” comes as a rebellion of our “mechanical slaves”?  How could we tell the difference?  And what could we possibly do to defend ourselves then?

Pandora: the first android

Hesiod recounts in Theogony how Zeus became angry with Prometheus for giving the gift of fire to humans, that he decided to take revenge upon the humans by creating the first woman.  Here’s a retelling of the story by using some more familiar terms.

Zeus commanded Hephaestus, the god-engineer, to make the first woman (please note that according to Theogony there were only men living on earth until then). Hephaestus knew the art of making androids (or “gynaekoids” to be more exact) well, because he had already built several of them, beautiful maidens that obediently served him at his lab-cum-workshop. But Pandora had to be special. So after the basic hardware was constructed by Hephaestus, and the operating system was put in place, Zeus invited the other gods in Olympus to give Pandora “gifts”, i.e. special functions and properties.

What made Pandora different from the other robots in Hephaestus lab was a gift given to her by Hermes, the god of thieves and traders: “the gift of deceit”. Pandora was furnished with “theory of mind”; she could tell what other people thought or thought that they thought and use this knowledge to manipulate them. Thus she was named the “all-gifted” and duly dispatched to the middleworld of humans.

The Greek myth of Pandora is one of many in the ancient world where gods, and sometimes talented humans, build artificial beings – usually women. One can read much in stories such as these.

historian of technology may recognize the roots of imagining artificial life and intelligence. A feminist may read the obsessive will of men to subjugate women taken to an extreme: why not create one according to specification? An ethicist may diagnose a precautionary tale: Pandora with her insatiable curiosity ultimately brings about the fall of humankind. Finally, a philosopher of science may notice a disconnect with evolution: artificial intelligence is created, not evolved. Pandora, the all gifted, is a design.

You may argue that this is just another creation myth from a tribe of white people who lived in the Balkans many thousands of years ago. Yes, it is exactly that, a tale from a non-scientific past. Nevertheless, some of us may see a disturbing symmetry arising – another Pandora being born into a not-so-distant, scientific future.