Intelligence, Artificial and Otherwise: Our Ruling Class

The Council on Foreign Relations is usually regarded as a peak institution of the US ruling class. Its fellows design policy and its members, drawn from Wall Street, academia, and elite journalism, hobnob with government ministers and even the occasional president. But its star has fallen with the demise of the old WASP establishment and the replacement of its bipartisan deliberative style with the crude bombast of the present.

It can still attract some marquee names though, even if the quality of the discourse has fallen off somewhat. Last Monday, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former Theranos board member Henry Kissinger sat down (via Zoom) to discuss artificial intelligence (AI)—the topic of a new book the two of them have written with Daniel Huttenlocher, the inaugural dean of the Schwarzman College of Computing at MIT. The conversation, like the book, was a strange amalgam of Schmidt’s techno-enthusiasm and Kissinger’s central European gloom that largely accepted the breathless claims of AI promoters as fact.

The project had its origins several years ago when Kissinger happened to hear a conference talk about a computer that had been programmed to play the immensely complex game Go. (Was this the first he’s heard of it?) Kissinger apparently began worrying about what this all meant for the future of humanity, and wrote up his concerns in a 2018 article in The Atlantic. AI, Kissinger declared, meant the end of the Enlightenment (which, to tell the truth, has been looking none too healthy for some time). “Human cognition loses its personal character. Individuals turn into data, and data become regnant.”

Big if true, as they say on the Internet. That machines can be so skilled at playing chess or Go may say more about those games than AI’s potential. Despite their complexity, the scope of such games is extremely limited—and is, for example, nothing next to the seemingly mundane complexity of driving a car.

I’ve been following progress in AI for a couple of decades and the story has always been the same: a handful of successful examples presage a vast payoff that’s always just around the corner—but never quite arrives. Claims for self-driving vehicles are particularly grandiose right now. Hardly a day passes without Elon Musk touting the autonomous driving skills of his Teslas. Reality is quite different.

“Full self-driving” is a long way away, as CNN reporter Michael Ballaban showed just a few weeks ago with his attempt to let a Tesla conduct him safely along a treacherous passage on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, a densely crowded and chaotic stretch of road whose perils I dread every time I navigate it. Only his intervention kept the car from driving him into an oncoming UPS truck, and that was only one of many near-misses. Ballaban’s misadventures come three years after a self-driving Uber killed a pedestrian in Arizona. That car’s software took several fatal seconds to figure out that what it first thought was a bicycle was actually a person. It finally decided to brake way too late. Evidently the software hasn’t made much progress since.

Related Posts