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Escaping Skinner's Box: AI and the New Era of Techno-Superstition

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[The following is the text of a talk I delivered at the World Summit AI on the 10th October 2019. The talk is essentially a nugget taken from my new book Automation and Utopia. It's not an excerpt per se, but does look at one of the key arguments I make in the book]The science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once formulated three “laws” for thinking about the future. The third law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The idea, I take it, is that if someone from the Paleolithic was transported to the modern world, they would be amazed by what we have achieved. Supercomputers in our pockets; machines to fly us from one side of the planet to another in less than a day; vaccines and antibiotics to cure diseases that used to kill most people in childhood. To them, these would be truly magical times. It’s ironic then that many people alive today don’t see it that way. They see a world of materialism and reductionism. They think we have too much knowledge and control — that through technology and science we have made the world a less magical place. Well, I am here to reassure these people. One of the things AI will do is re-enchant the world and kickstart a new era of techno-superstition. If not for everyone, then at least for most people who have to work with AI on a daily basis. The catch, however, is that this is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, it is something we should worry about. Let me explain by way of an analogy. In the late 1940s, the behaviorist psychologist BF Skinner — famous for his experiments on animal learning —got a bunch of pigeons and put them into separate boxes. Now, if you know anything about Skinner you’ll know he had a penchant for this kind of thing. He seems to have spent his adult life torturing pigeons in boxes. Each box had a window through which a food reward would be presented to the bird. Inside the box were different switches that the pigeons could press with their beaks. Ordinarily,. . .

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News source: Philosophical Disquisitions

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