Back in the early days of this blog I did a post about an art exhibit at the Atomium in Brussels. I had been quite impressed and thought others would be too. Yesterday I was looking at the pictures and thinking that perhaps I should share that post again since most of the people who read this blog weren’t following it back then. So here you are, from September 2014 with a couple of bonus pictures. And, if I may say so, the video at the end is worth the click.
Artificial intelligence was very much at the forefront of my consciousness when we visited The Atomium in Brussels. For the past couple of years they have had a digital art display as part of the museum, and for 2014 the special exhibit was titled Out of Control. It’s a look at a battle between a super-intelligent machine and a computer virus – from the machine’s perspective.
I have been a science fiction (excuse me, speculative fiction or SF) fan for as long as I can remember. Fireball XL5 and the Thunderbirds were early TV favourites. I would have been eight when I discovered the novels of Andre Norton (who I later learned was Alice Mary Norton, but this is not the place to digress on sexism in SF) which I remember devouring, though I would now have to look up those titles, I really don’t remember them. So the concept of artificial intelligence is nothing new to me. Even from the machine’s perspective.
Out of Control was a definite assault on the eyes and ears. I loved it. However it also got me to thinking about the nature of intelligence, artificial and otherwise. I looked online this week to refresh my memory of the display and the description doesn’t match my memories. The impression I had at the time was that the “virus” this super-machine was fighting was humanity, which does put the struggle in a much different perspective. I didn’t see that interpretation when I quickly looked online, but I suppose I could have missed it.
I do question the idea of machines developing to the point where intelligence ceases to be artificial. I understand the theory, as espoused in both SF and serious scientific work, that at some point the machine will pass a critical level, and will be indistinguishable from humans in its reasoning ability, the so called Turing test.
However, the question then becomes more than one of what is intelligence but rather what is life? Is it merely just a matter of programming? Can a machine be ethical, and if so can we be more successful in instilling ethics into fibre optics and silicone than we are with flesh and blood? And when the machines become self-replicating, which seems inevitable, will they program that reproduction to include what we think of as right ethical choices? Or will there indeed come a time when humans and machines fight for the planet?
From a theological perspective I fail to see how a machine can make moral choices. The whole idea of morality flows from the word “nephesh” found in the Hebrew Bible, that God-breathed spark of life that some refer to as the soul. Can we make imitations? Of course we can – but there is a considerable difference between the original and the copy, or an original Rembrandt would cost a lost less than $50 million.
Whether we believe in “god” or not, we don’t expect moral choices from cats or parrots or even chimpanzees. As I see it, there remains something distinctive about humans, even if we as a culture/race/species are uncomfortable when the attempt to define that specialness strays into the area we have cordoned off as religion (with yellow police tape all around saying “Warning: Do Not Cross”). As computer technology becomes more complex there is perhaps an increasing need to tackle those definitions.
Out of Control was definitely one of the highlights of our time in Europe this year. It made me think, which is always a good thing, but I doubt my reaction was the one intended by the creators of the display. I think I was supposed to feel sympathy for the poor machine being attacked by the computer virus. I wound up rooting for the virus, because after all that virus is you and me.