Bad Sci-Fi Movies and Real-World AI

LifeContinuing my theme of doing things other than fret about Donald Trump, I have spent some time fretting about other existential threats to humanity. So, that’s healthy.

Specifically, I’ve spent the last half day thinking about the threat of alien invasions and runaway artificial intelligence. One of them you can consign to the bottom of your worry list; the other probably deserves a higher spot on the list, somewhere below Donald Trump but above death panels and “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The topic of alien invasions is the overt theme of the movie I saw last night: Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa and starring, among others, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds. Without giving away the plot, it explores the question of what happens when humanity encounters a lifeform that turns out to be smarter and more dangerous than it appears. Suffice it to say not all ends well for our gender- and ethnic-balanced crew aboard the International Space Station.

Despite the title of this post, the movie is not actually bad; it’s suspenseful and engaging. As I watched it, though, I was struck by how shitty the science was. As the investigators probed the alien lifeform, they repeatedly demonstrated all sorts of stupid, unrealistic practices. They let a single investigator engage in isolation with the lifeform to the extent he loses perspective. They do not do carefully measured experiments to determine both what sustains the organism and what kills it. When it demonstrates exponential growth and unexpected abilities, the researchers don’t react to this with caution but instead step on the accelerator. And, when things go wrong, they discover that their failsafe mechanisms are either non-existent or simply failures. Any epidemiologist or biologist working with potentially hazardous organisms would have been appalled.

The good news is that we’re not out scooping up biomass from other planets and bringing it back to Earth. There’s also every reason to think that the product of other evolutionary forces would not be particularly compatible with Earth’s. And, finally, there’s the fact that – despite the fact that we’ve been actively looking for decades, there’s very little sign of life – particularly intelligent life – outside of our little blue ball despite the fact that it’s a very, very big universe. This is known as the Fermi Paradox. My best guess is that you can put this issue way, way down on your list of things to worry about.

Which brings me to the other one, the existential threat of runaway artificial intelligence.

AIAs I was driving home from the theater, it occurred to me that the movie was actually a commentary on the how we – not you or me, but some VERY smart people – are approaching the field of AI. As near as I can tell, we are using the same shitty scientific methods – the ones that would make any life science researcher cringe – to develop this technology. We have researchers all across the world laboring in secret, scientists who are less objective researchers and more would-be parents who are enraptured with the idea of strong AI or even the Singularity. Instead of running carefully controlled experiments and building in rigorous “kill steps,” AI is being deployed today in the real world – in Teslas, in fraud detection systems, in your washing machine, writing both press releases and news stories, in your favorite search engine, in the warehouses of your favorite retailer, as robo-calls and a thousand other ways. And, even though these creations are demonstrating unexpectedly rapid growth and ability (an AI-driven computer recent beat the world’s best Go players – widely considered an incredibly hard game – 60 games to none; a computer program performed a similar fear against some of the world’s best poker players), researchers are plowing onward at even faster rates.

This is perhaps not the smartest thing we’ve ever done. And, it’s not just me, your friendly blogger, who thinks so. Smart guys like Bill Gates and Elon Musk are worried about this. So are really smart guys like Stephen Hawking.

By way of fair disclosure, there are plenty of very smart people – Ray Kurzweil perhaps foremost among them – who believe the coming era of big AI will usher in an unprecedented era for humanity, giving us access to pretty much everything and an infinite lifespan to experience it. That seems like a better outcome, but this point of view is a little cultish and perhaps optimistic without hard, objective reasons. Life – whether artificial or otherwise – constantly finds ways to break out of whatever boxes it gets put into. Including the boxes we build.

If you’re inclined to read more on this, Vanity Fair coincidentally published a long interview with Musk on this topic. It is worth the 20 minutes or so it will take you and give you something to worry about instead of Trump.

There. Doesn’t that make you feel better instead of worrying about the latest cluster fuck from the White House? Next week, I’ll write about the threats of pandemics and global warming. Just call me Mr. Good News.

  • Austin

 

 

 

Gates and Seinfeld Go the Way of Martin and Lewis

Well, that didn’t take long.

The series of Microsoft ads featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld turns out to be a short one – exactly two episodes long, beginning with Bill and Jerry meeting at the Shoe Circus and ending on the street doing the Robot.  The Redmond-based software maker announced today that it was shifting into “phase two” of its advertising campaign “as planned.”

Oh, bullshit.  Does anyone really believe Microsoft paid $5 million an ad for Mr. Seinfeld’s services?

According to the New York Times, the new ads are a direct rebuttal of rival Apple’s “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” commercials.  The premise, according to the numerous stories on this topic today, is that Microsoft and Windows have been wrongly stereotyped by those hard-hitting Apple ads.

Microsoft as the victim.  That oughta work.

– Austin payroll checks fine

Bill and Jerry’s Excellent Adventure – Part 2

I still don’t think it’s doing anything for them (in my simple-minded world, a commercial is like a joke; if you have to explain it, it doesn’t work) but the second commercial in the Seinfeld/Gates series is at least entertaining.

Maybe that’s the point: Microsoft is trying to make us like them better by making us laugh (OK, I didn’t actually laugh out loud, but I did smile a couple of times and smiling is definitely a gateway expression).  Maybe it’ll work; when was the last time a big company spent $300 million just to entertain us for free?

– Austin

PS – Gates is solidly funny as Seinfeld’s straight man – like a skinny, mellower George Costanza.  Maybe that’s the point; now that Bill G. has time on his hands after giving up day-to-day responsibilities at Microsoft, he wants to become an actor. tax debt fine

Yada-yada-yada…

OK, communications mavens, let’s all pull up from our suicide plunge into politics long enough to look at the much hyped new ad from Microsoft.

Supposedly, this is the Gang of Redmond’s response to the long-running Apple commercials featuring Justin Long (the Mac) and John Hodgman (the PC).  Apparently, after three years of letting Apple poke fun at them (and revitalize Apple’s computer sales), the Microsofties think it’s time to respond.

I’m underwhelmed.  In fact, other than generate buzz about how bad the ad is (Google “Microsoft” and “Seinfeld in the news section for a smattering of opinion on that question), I’m not sure what it accomplishes.  Generating headlines that read, “Microsoft’s new Seinfeld and Gates ad is beyond bad” or “Is Microsoft’s Seinfeld spot the worst TV ad ever?” can’t be good, can it?

Not that I’m an ad person at all.  I’m sure there’s a whole document that lays out the goals for this advertising – first in a series – and the big tactical and strategic objectives for the campaign overall.  The agency responsible – Crispin Porter + Bogusky – is widely credited with helping revitalize the Burger King brand among others.  Supposedly they’re a hot shop and presumably knows what it’s doing.

Or do they?

I dunno, but I found the ad to be incredibly dumb.  If they are truly meant to be responsive to the Apple commercials, they miss on the level of being instantly understandable and focused that the Apple ads address. That can’t be a good place to start.

What do you think?

– Austin payroll software fine