It seems to be rank heresy for someone working in the valley to say it, but let me say it anyways. I don’t agree with the axiom of the technology industry which states that all technological progress is always good. Many in our society instinctively realize this, which is why they oppose genetic engineering and plastics. Still, the technology industry is so persistently in love with itself, and so optimistic about its potential to solve every human problem, that when anyone points out the consequences of technological progress, we quickly respond with AI’s potential to solve the problems it’s bound to create. (Sorry for the long sentence, but I’m going to quote Plato in this essay, and by Platonic standards that last sentence is short.) AI is the solution to everything. AI will unlock the mysteries of human existence. AI will allow human beings to live forever. AI will cure cancer. AI will solve the dangers of, well, genetic engineering and plastics.
An example of this is the extraordinarily concerning essay in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago by computer scientist and 60’s icon Jerry Kaplan. Dr. Kaplan reviews the recent accomplishments of functional brain imaging technologies, which are starting to become more precise in identifying how people are feeling, and even which words they are thinking. “With improved imaging technology, it may become possible to ‘eavesdrop’ on a person’s internal dialogue, to the extent that they are thinking in words,” says Kaplan. With a predictable dose of technological optimism, Kaplan sees nothing concerning in the possibility of machines being able to read people’s minds. Instead, he thinks it opens up a world of possibilities. For example, in civil lawsuits it’s difficult to ascertain how much pain and suffering an individual has undergone, and hence to assign damages. Why, we could use brain imaging and AI to calculate precisely how much somebody was harmed!
I may not hold a doctorate, but I spend a lot of time working with computers in the real world, not the world of researchers. I’m skeptical that functional brain imaging will be able to read people’s minds, but the possibility is alarming. In today’s era of instant social media “viral” lynching, we all have to be quite careful what we say. Even with innocent intentions, a slip of the tongue can set off Twitter mobs that will destroy your life and career. Now, even guarding your speech won’t help you. You may walk by an AI mind-reading machine and have your life ruined for thought-crime. And we’re celebrating this? Even Dr. Kaplan’s scenario of determining pain and suffering in lawsuits is ludicrous. How quickly will people learn to game the machine, produce artificial emotional trauma, and reap the rewards?
And now to Plato. In his Phaedrus, Plato tells the story of an inventor named Theuth who came to the Egyptian king and was showing off some of his creations. This was in the time before writing existed. After showing the king a number of inventions, Theuth showed him letters and writing:
And when he was talking about writing, Theuth said: “King, this learning will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories. For, I have found a medicine of both memory and wisdom.
The King said: “Oh most artful Theuth! While one person has the ability to create things skillfully, it takes another person to judge those things, and whether their use brings harm or help. Now you, being the father of letters, through your love of them, have stated the opposite of their capability. For, in the minds of those who learn this art, it will produce forgetfulness, by neglect of the memory, inasmuch as they have faith in writing, which consists of inscriptions outside of themselves, rather than remembering for themselves.”
Phaedrus 274E-275A. (My own admittedly rough translation)
In other words, the inventor thinks writing will help memory, whereas the king points out it will hinder it! I love this quote because it shows how the arrogance of inventors clouds their perception of their own inventions. This is particularly true in Silicon Valley, where the pressure to always innovate removes any clear thinking about the consequences of the inventions. When confronted with the possibility of huge swaths of jobs being eliminated by their inventions, the lame response of the Silicon Valley innovators is to propose a universal basic income, hence making the movie Wall-E appear all too real.
This is a blog about network engineering, so how is this related? Aren’t I involved in the automation of network systems? Isn’t Cisco bringing AI to the world of networking?
Indeed we are, but I like to think that we’re a bit more realistic about it. As a network engineer, and former TAC guy, I’ve spent countless hours doing nasty troubleshooting that, frankly, was hard and not particularly enjoyable. Having executives looking over your shoulder, with the possibility of getting fired, with countless users freaking out, while trying to hunt down why the Internet just doesn’t work… Well, if ML and AI will help me to locate the problem faster and restore operation to my network, I’m all for that. If AI starts reading minds, I’m breaking out the tinfoil hat.