Book Review: In Our Own Image

In Our Own Image is a book about the prospects of creating artificial intelligence as well as the cultural, economic, historical, philosophical, and political concerns about it by Greek author and scientist George Zarkadakis. The book considers the problem of AI from the perspectives of human evolution, cybernetics, neuroscience, programming, and computing power.

Zarkadakis begins by briefly speaking of his early years and doctoral research, then spends the rest of the introduction outlining what he will discuss in the rest of the book. The book proper is divided into three parts, each with five or six chapters. The first part covers the evolution of the human brain from the primate brain, especially the most recent 40,000 years. The role of language in accelerating human progress is discussed, as well as the effects of totemic thinking, story-telling, philosophical dualism, and theory of mind. The use of metaphor and narrative to understand the world is examined, along with the inaccuracies inherent in them. The invention, uses, and limitations of the Turing test are explored, as are Asimov’s laws of robotics and the role of AI in fictional stories throughout history.

The second part is about the nature of the mind. The differences in approach between dualism versus monism, rationalism versus empiricism, and materialism versus Platonism are discussed. The thought experiment of the philosophical zombie and the possibility of digital immortality are explained. On the matter of why there appears to be no other intelligent life in the cosmos, Zarkadakis shares an interesting hypothesis: science is an unnatural idea at odds with our cognitive architecture, and an intelligent alien species would be unlikely to widely adopt it. This means that the universe is likely full of Platos, as well as Ancient Greeces, Romes, Indias, Chinas, and Mayas, but is perhaps devoid of Aristotles and societies advanced beyond that of humanity in the early eighteenth century. Daniel Dennett’s explanation of consciousness is overviewed, as well as the contributions of a great number of scientists to the field of cognitive psychology. Finally, the field of cybernetics and its offshoots are examined, showing that the hard problem of consciousness is actually solved with ease. The brain-in-a-vat paradigm of consciousness is shown to be insufficient by applying cybernetic theory.

Everything up to this point lays the foundation for understanding the last part of the book. The third part details the history of computers and programming, from ancient theorists to more recent mathematicians, and from punched cards to modern electronics. The limitations of symbolic logic and the implications thereof against AI in conventional computers are explored, and possible solutions in the form of new electronic components and computer architectures are explained. Charles Babbage’s inventions are discussed, as well as the lost potential of their lack of adoption in their own time. The role of computational technology during World War II is considered, along with the results of government spending on computer research at the time. The development of supercomputers, including IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson, is outlined. The ‘Internet of things’ is compared and contrasted with true AI, and the possible societal impact of large-scale automation of jobs is considered. The possibility of evolving rather than creating AI is examined, as are the possible dispositions of an AI; friendly, malevolent, or apathetic. Interestingly, Zarkadakis shows that there is good reason to believe that a strong AI may exhibit autism spectrum disorders. A short epilogue that begins with a summary and then considers possible economic, political, and social implications of strong AI completes the book.

The book is well-researched and impeccably sourced, at least in its core subject matter. That being said, the book struggles to find an audience, as it can be a bit too technical for the average layperson, but does not venture deeply enough into the subjects it covers to interest a professional in AI-related fields. In other words, it is lukewarm where being either cold or hot is best. Zarkadakis also commits some ultracrepidarianism, particularly in the fields of economics and politics. He seems to believe that AI will overcome the limitations described by Hayek’s knowledge problem and Mises’s economic calculation problem, but unless AI can get inside of our heads and know us better than we know ourselves, this is impossible. In politics, he briefly mentions the possibilities of AI leading to anarchism or to neoreactionary-style absolute monarchies with computerized philosopher-kings, but does not give these possibilities the amount of consideration that they warrant. Finally, the book contains more typographical errors and grammatical abnormalities than a competent editor should fail to correct, though we may grant Zarkadakis some leeway because English is not his first language.

Overall, In Our Own Image is worth reading for those who already have some knowledge of the subject matter but would like to fill gaps in their understanding, but there is room for improvement and expansion.

Rating: 4/5

Read the entire article at ZerothPosition.com

The Case For Bringing Religion Into Politics

In a July 23 interview with Scott Pelley of CBS, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was asked about internal Democratic National Committee emails which had been released recently. One of the email chains included a staffer’s suggestion that they ask questions about Sanders’ religion in an attempt to undermine him with religious voters. Clinton said in response, “I am adamantly opposed to anyone bringing religion into our political process. …That is just absolutely wrong and unacceptable.” But is it? Let us make the contrary case that the religious beliefs of a candidate should be part of the political process.

In the philosophical sense, a religion is a set of principles by which an adherent is supposed to live. As these principles are supposed to be the guiding precepts by which a believer makes decisions, it is especially important for people who are going to choose who will wield state power to know about the stated religious views of each candidate. Knowing this will allow voters and rival candidates to detect hypocrisy, anti-empiricism, and aggressive tendencies, none of which are desirable in a person who wields state power. It also allows people to consider whether any heretical views held by a candidate are for good or ill.

Hypocrisy

It is in the nature of politicians to say one thing and do another, or to espouse contrary principles when pandering to special interest groups or demographics which are at cross purposes. This is understandable, given the perverse incentive structures which are invariably present in democracies. But some engage in more blatant hypocrisy than others, doing so out of internal corruption rather than merely as a reaction to the prevailing political system. One indication of this is for a politician to claim a certain religious affiliation while acting in contradiction to the teachings of that religion. This can be a sign that the candidate will flip-flop on important issues, as those who lie to voters about one thing will be more likely to lie to them about something else.

Anti-Empiricism

Religions are frequently a source of anti-empirical beliefs, as most prominent religions were founded long ago when current scientific knowledge was unavailable. In the absence of reason and science, religion offered people what they thought were answers for phenomena which eluded their understanding. But accepting answers on faith is dangerous on two counts; they are probably incorrect, and it keeps people from searching for a proper understanding of the correct answer. When politicians take answers on faith rather than seeking rational, scientific explanations, the policy results can be disastrous. As such, it is important for a voter or rival candidate to know whether a candidate believes, for instance, that the Earth is flat and/or less than 10,000 years old just because an ancient text tells them so. This is an important indication that the candidate can be made to believe almost anything without asking for proper evidence.

It must be noted that not all anti-empiricism is undesirable. There is nothing wrong with opposing the entry of empiricism into fields of study in which it does not belong, such as mathematics or economics. And because empiricism requires rationalism in order to be used, it cannot overrule pure reason. As such, logic overrules experience and a priori truths are not subject to empirical study. But religions do not generally offer such strongly rational truth; instead, they rely upon divine revelation, which believers are taught to accept without evidence.

Aggressive Tendencies

When most prominent religions were founded, the world was a more violent place. Punishments for behaviors which aggressed against no person or property were commonplace, as was genocidal behavior toward neighboring people of different faiths as well as conquered peoples. But understanding of moral principles (if not their practice) has advanced since then, and most people have come to rightly condemn such behavior. When a candidate espouses a fundamentalist or literalist interpretation of a religious text which calls for such behavior to be practiced throughout the society, it should give voters pause. This can require some study on the part of voters and other candidates to detect, as openly supporting wars on religious grounds is no longer fashionable in the West, but such tendencies can still be observed among religious neoconservatives.

Many religions also include content which is opposed to free markets, private property, and freedoms of thought and association. If such content influences a candidate to support such policies as high taxes on the wealthy, expansion of common spaces and/or welfare statism, restrictions on activities which do not aggress against any person or property, or policies which discriminate in favor one’s own religion and/or against other religions, voters and rival candidates should be aware of this.

Heresy

Some people claim to be an adherent of a particular religion but have a different understanding from most people of the meaning of the teachings of that religion. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if such heretical beliefs lead a religious person away from hypocrisy, truth denial, or aggression. But those who define terms differently in one aspect of life will almost certainly do so in other aspects, and this is important information for voters and rival candidates to know. Whether this is for good or ill depends upon the particulars of each case, but it is an indicator that a candidate must be given more than a cursory examination in order to be properly understood.

Conclusion

For the above reasons, it is entirely appropriate to bring religion into the political process. It is a tool that voters can use to examine a candidate for flaws, as well as legitimate grounds for one candidate to attack another for character traits unbecoming of a person who would wield state power.