There seems to be a repeating narrative about the rise of the robots going on at the moment: from the front page of this month’s Harvard Business Review, to Channel 4 prime time drama on Sunday nights, the robots are coming and they’re after us, our jobs, our sanity…

Now, last time I looked, the most advanced domestic robots suffered from what Eddy Izzard described as the Daleks’ crucial design flaw – an inability to traverse stairs. And given the battery life on my phone these days, even if a Roomba did achieve sentience, all you’d need to do would be to run further than the poor thing’s power cable would stretch. The Robots Are Coming (20% Charge Remaining).

The robot story, though, also appears to be being intermingled with the pseudo-religiosity of The Singularity: the point of rapture when the computers achieve the sentience required to design their own next generations and take over from Humans as the dominant species on Earth.

As you can tell, I’m a bit suspicious about The Singularity. Suspicious enough to not be worried about blogging about it with fear of persecution by the Robot Overlords at some point in the future.

But what has struck me recently is that maybe a point when we become subservient to machines not because they have become more intelligent than us, but because we have dumbed ourselves down to become stupider than them. Now that outcome seems scarily more possible than the more commonly expressed alternative.

We have already, unwittingly, created financial markets driven by algorithmic trading that appear, whilst not “intelligent” to have logic that is organic and outside of our control. We increasingly try to make ourselves more like the machines by obsessing about only concerning ourselves with numbers – the net result, following the laws of Campbell and Goodhart, is that we are cheating ourselves.

Our intelligence is based around our ability to tell stories – stories about the rise of the robots, stories about The Singularity. I’m deeply suspect that machines which today still cannot reliably string together meaningful sentences will be able to get to the point of being able to create and tell stories. But if we continue the traditions of the industrial age, of mechanising the things that machines are good at and leaving the other stuff to us humans, well, then it’s quite possible where we could construct a world where human intelligence and strengths become so devalued that the machines appear to have taken over…

2 thoughts on “Dumbing down

  1. Aren’t people already slaves to their machines?
    Initially the phone in your pocket would summon you when asked to by another person. Increasingly there is a layer of filters and algorithms inbetween which choose which notifications to show you and when to show them to you.
    …and people are in the habit of attending the phone when it calls for attention rather than continuing to interact with the actual people around them.

    Who tunes the notification algorithms? Preferences from the user or decisions based on statistics and the commerical interests of large Baysian networks?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.