Bostrom grew up an only child in the coastal Swedish town of Helsingborg. Like many gifted children, he loathed school. His father worked for an investment bank, his mother for a Swedish corporation. He doesn’t remember any discussion of philosophy – or art or books – around the dinner table. Wondering how he found himself obsessed with these large questions, I ask if he was an anxious child: did he always have a powerful sense of mortality?
“I think I had it quite early on,” he says. “Not because I was on the brink of death or anything. But as a child I remember thinking a lot that my parents may be healthy now but they are not always going to be stronger or bigger than me.”
That thought kept him awake at nights?
“I don’t remember it as anxiety, more as a melancholy sense.”
And was that ongoing desire to live forever rooted there too?
“Not necessarily. I don’t think that there is any particularly different desire that I have in that regard to anyone else. I don’t want to come down with colon cancer – who does? If I was alive for 500 years who knows how I would feel? It is not so much fixated on immortality, just that premature death seems prima facie bad.”
A good deal of his book asks questions of how we might make superintelligence – whether it comes in 50 years or 500 years – “nice”, congruent with our humanity. Bostrom sees this as a technical challenge more than a political or philosophical one. It seems to me, though, that a good deal of our own ethical framework, our sense of goodness, is based on an experience and understanding of suffering, of our bodies. How could a non-cellular intelligence ever “comprehend” that?
The sense of intellectual urgency about these questions derives in part from what Bostrom calls an “epiphany experience”, which occurred when he was in his teens. He found himself in 1989 in a library and picked up at random an anthology of 19th-century German philosophy, containing works by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Intrigued, he read the book in a nearby forest, in a clearing that he used to visit to be alone and write poetry. Almost immediately he experienced a dramatic sense of the possibilities of learning. Was it like a conversion experience?
“More an awakening,” he says. “It felt like I had sleepwalked through my life to that point and now I was aware of some wider world that I hadn’t imagined.”
Following first the leads and notes in the philosophy book, Bostrom set about educating himself in fast forward. He read feverishly, and in spare moments he painted and wrote poetry, eventually taking degrees in philosophy and mathematical logic at Gothenburg university, before completing a PhD at the London School of Economics, and teaching at Yale.
Did he continue to paint and write?
“It seemed to me at some point that mathematical pursuit was more important,” he says. “I felt the world already contained a lot of paintings and I wasn’t convinced it needed a few more. Same could be said for poetry. But maybe it did need a few more ideas of how to navigate the future.”
One of the areas in which AI is making advances is in its ability to compose music and create art, and even to write. Does he imagine that sphere too will quickly be colonized by a superintelligence, or will it be a last redoubt of the human?
“I don’t buy the claim that the artificial composers currently can compete with the great composers. Maybe for short bursts but not over a whole symphony. And with art, though it can be replicated, the activity itself has value. You would still paint for the sake of painting.”
Authenticity, the man-made, becomes increasingly important?
“Yes and not just with art. If and when machines can do everything better than we can do, we would continue to do things because we enjoy doing them. If people play golf it is not because they need the ball to reside in successive holes efficiently, it is because they enjoy doing it. The more machines can do everything we can do the more attention we will give to these things that we value for their own sake.”
Early in his intellectual journey, Bostrom did a few stints as a philosophical standup comic in order to improve his communication skills. Talking to him, and reading his work, an edge of knowing absurdity at the sheer scale of the problems is never completely absent from his arguments. The axes of daunting-looking graphs in his papers will be calibrated on closer inspection in terms of “endurable”, “crushing” and “hellish”. In his introduction to Superintelligence, the observation “Many of the points made in this book are probably wrong” typically leads to a footnote that reads: “I don’t know which ones.” Does he sometimes feel he is morphing into Douglas Adams?
“Sometimes the work does seem strange,” he says. “Then from another point it seems strange that most of the world is completely oblivious to the most major things that are going to happen in the 21st century. Even people who talk about global warming never mention any threat posed by AI.”
Because it would dilute their message?
Read Article (Tim Adams | theguardian.com | 06/12/2016)
Especially during the digital era, our Superintelligent and media have been immersed in the evolution of technology and how, one day, it will surpass man’s abilities. But there is one process that continues today, they seem to ignore. Nearly every aspect of the human being is in constant evolution which naturally includes the unmatched human brain.
The power it possesses is still not understood as it accomplishes unbelievable tasks without the assistance of technology. In other words, technology is chasing a moving target that is actually developing that technology. Curious, huh?
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