Move Fast and Break Things

Move fast? Break things? Was this the motto of Islamic State, from the days when they launched their successful attacks on parts of Syria and Iraq back in 2015, and laid to waste much of the ancient city of Palmyra?

No. It’s a motto that came out of Silicon Valley, CA, at more or less the same time.

Its author is purported to be that intellectual giant, Mark Elliot Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. The motto had been – and remains as such to a large extent – a guiding principle for tech start-ups in the ’10s and ’20s, until a recent and much-overdue rethink began to take shape, initiated presumably by some among the techies with a modicum of social conscience.

So, might all this fast moving and breaking be dubbed Blitzkrieg? The lightning war of Hitler’s regime in Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s? A cap that fits should always be worn. I suggest the B word would be the correct choice in all the instances to which I have alluded, viz. for the Nazi thugs in their advance through France and the low countries (this being, of course, the progenitorial instance of Blitzkrieg), for the IS bandits in Palmyra, and for the Silicon Valley wrecking crew in the tech world.

My reading of the situation as of now is that we, in Australia, are not yet at the rethink stage. The motto is still going gangbusters here, Typically, trends in this part of the world will lag behind trends in the northern hemisphere by months or even years. Halifax. Are we destined always to be the laggards?

What things have been broken in this Silicon Valley blitz? Well, try print newspapers, and the print publishing industry in general. When was the last time you bought a print newspaper? When was the last time you read a decent novel?

But it’s in the field of AI (Artificial Intelligence) that the tech rambos threaten to bring about the most spectacular breakage, a breakage which could threaten the very existence of humankind.

Natural human intelligence is nuanced by a mysterious something, described variously as ‘consciousness’, ‘self awareness’, ‘sentience’, ‘identity’, etc. It is that quality enabling each one of us to identify as ‘I’ and having the requisite feelings to go with such self identification. It is presumed to have arisen through the vague, inexact, and circumlocutory mechanism of human evolution.

The holy grail of AI is considered to be AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) in which this particular nuance is built in alongside intelligence per se. If achieved, AGI would create an intelligent machine calling itself ‘I’, a version of ourselves that is potentially an improvement on what we are. Our mind, being the product of random evolution, will necessarily be imperfect. The minds of the machines we create, not to mention the machines themselves, should not be so encumbered. They will be a better version of ourselves.

And they will know it!

Given they will be at least as capable as we of making judgment calls, what might we now expect? The details of such are the stuff of science fiction. But, in broad terms, we can assume it won’t be pleasant for us. Likely they would choose to exterminate us en masse as if we were vermin, which to them we would be. This would represent the biggest return of carbon to the environment since the eras when fossil fuels were formed. We might speculate that a lucky few of us might be kept in a zoo for their amusement. And as their monument to our stupidity.

This is the rosy future research into AGI may have to offer us.

Of course, AGI has not been accomplished, and may never be. There are many skeptics out there (including me) who believe it is unlikely ever to be realized. But skeptics have been wrong before. What should worry us is that the end goal of much AI research is AGI. Should AGI turn out to be a goer, you can bet your bottom dollar the move-fast-and-break-things crowd will press hard for its development. The genii will then be out of the bottle, the masters we have unwittingly created will be in control, and we will be well and truly cactus.

In the interests of ourselves, and of all the delicate and precious things about human life we hold dear, we must not let this happen. It’s time for a rethink.