Saturday, 20 March 2010

Machines to Run Society?

Sum of all Thrills Robot Arm by tom.arthur

Many people have an aversion to automated machines and computers running things.

There are likely two reasons for this. The first is due to the lack of trust we place in automation. This is mainly due to their track record. Machines have proved themselves to be unreliable in the past, and need to do a lot to regain our trust.

Secondly, machines have been known to make mistakes that are "machine" in nature, exposing human qualities that we took for granted. In other words, they will miss seemingly obvious details, or make mistakes relating to the human experience.

So it's not surprising that people don't really trust machines yet. They're not as good as humans in some areas yet they have superseded us in others. This also leads to discontent when humans see their jobs disappear as a result.

It's a shame that machines have developed such a bad reputation, because they don't really deserve it. Most of their faults have been inherited from humans. There are several ways that humanity has let down its automated creations.

The first is the implications of planned obsolescence. Although high investment in automation can be justified by the promise of reduced ongoing labour costs, robotics industries are subject to the same factors as any other companies when it comes to manufacture. The company's future survival depends on the robotics they build breaking down, requiring some kind of ongoing maintenance, losing desirability, or being improved upon in the future; they simply couldn't exist without this. Planned obsolescence causes corners to be cut, features withheld and the cheapest parts to be used. My own experience in manufacturing will testify - this is the way all consumer manufacturing works.

Then there are limitations caused by the education of the engineers and the diligence of the programmers. They are humans of course, and subject to human error, laziness, lack of enthusiasm, and many other flaws. These flaws can easily be passed on and manifest themselves in a variety of ways, including unreliable artificial intelligence and failing to take into account unforeseen factors or complications.

In addition, machines have been held to higher than realistic expectations ahead of schedule. By the time their capabilities become what they were supposed to be, their reputation has already been tarnished. This is a social issue - the public and the media should be better informed as to the true capabilities of technology and their expectations not contorted in the name of publicity.

Then machines also have a bad reputation because they cost people their jobs. This is frowned upon because at the current level of technology most of us simply must work to live. But we should not fear the machines taking all the work.

There will always be something for us to do. As technology provides us with easier access to our basic needs, therefore reducing our dependence on money, we will see a shift into more creative, scientific, technical, social, and utilitarian roles. The machines will do all the mundane, repetitive work, freeing us up to have far more enjoyable careers, careers where we use our human minds to do jobs that simple machines cannot do. Whether we retain this reliance on work to survive or not - the face of work is changing dramatically as a result of automation. We should be happy.

Can we trust machine intelligence to make the right choices to run society?

So would politics be one of the jobs that machines can do, or should that be left to humans?

Firstly ask yourself, do you think that humanity has ever done a good enough job? Our history is littered with war and corruption and power lust, and organised politics is often based on simply fighting over resources. The current political system is based on absolute beliefs, having more in common with dogmatic religion than evolving, constantly re-evaluating science. It is also all-encompassing in scope - you vote for a whole package, even if you don't agree with all the components in that package.

The essence of politics is fundamentally complex. Our decisions are based on personal perceptions and biases, subject to irrational abstract morality, and continually failing to address the nature of change.

Change, I believe most people familiar with the work of Kurzweil would agree, is the only thing we can be sure of. As a political example, capitalism helped to create a boom in society but now automation may obsolete the general concept of labour, virtual reality may move our needs away from money and towards energy, and nanotechnology could change the way we think about property, ownership, and scarcity.

Where does that leave the idealism of free enterprise?

This is why politics cannot be run on ideals. People's ideals will always change, even what could be considered the "correct" ideal will be changed by its environment, or other external influences.

So essentially, any sort of idealism is an outdated way of running society. At its very essence, it fails fundamentally in its purpose of deciding what is best for us because it does not take into account the nature of change. Additionally, idealism by its nature is based on a single perception. A perception is subject to personal bias, morals, and most importantly, static. It is not "moral" for our fates to be decided with "moral" bias because morality is relative.

The only sustainable system of power is a scientific one; a "decision engine" without the bias of "perception" - a system that is able to incorporate change. Would a technical, scientific method of deciding how society should function be more objective? Should there even be objectivity in politics?

Any politician will know, even the simplest decisions are highly complex when people are involved. People function on the highly "unscientific" system known as emotion. Emotions are the driving force behind decisions and perspectives, not rationality. Politicians currently exist because there is a need to relate to people in an emotional way - but why should emotion play a part in how society is run?

If a car breaks down, the mechanics don't take an emotion-fuelled vote on how to fix it. They look at the problem and figure out how to solve it in a technical way. People differ from cars of course, their needs are based on complex emotions.

But here is the fundamental question. Would it not, at some point, be theoretically possible to deal with emotions with the same scientific objectivity as we would deal with any other technical problem?

We really need to ask ourselves if emotions should play a part in decisions on how society is run, or whether politics really should be objective.

If politics is supposed to be objective, it should be subject to scientific method and technical processes. Decisions could be irrelevant, with AI working to find adequate solutions to a problem rather than making a choice based on which side of the debate it wants to align itself with.

Of course, relying on such an impersonal way of making decisions could prove inhumane, perhaps even dangerous. Yet the current system will never reach any kind of equilibrium as long as there is change.

There will be issues at first of course. Computers are far from perfect. But by addressing the reasons for this, a much better environment can be fostered where automation can be more reliable, both from a physical and a decision making point of view.

Only when we are building automation and decision making computers on this basis can we be well placed enough to judge the real ability and adequacy of machine based political systems.

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