Another strategy for coping with the failure of artificial intelligence on its conventional terms has assumed a higher profile among its champions lately, drawing support for the real plausibility of one science-fictional conceit – construction of artificial intelligence – by appealing to another science-fictional conceit, contact with alien intelligence. This rhetorical gambit has often been conjoined to the compensation of failed AI with its hyperbolic amplification into super-AI which I have already mentioned, and it is in that context that I have written about it before myself. But in a piece published a few days ago in The New York TimesOuting A.I.: Beyond the Turing Test, Benjamin Bratton, a professor of visual arts at U.C. San Diego and Director of a design think-tank, has elaborated a comparatively sophisticated case for treating artificial intelligence as alien intelligence with which we can productively grapple. Near the conclusion of his piece Bratton declares that “Musk, Gates and Hawking made headlines by speaking to the dangers that A.I. may pose. Their points are important, but I fear were largely misunderstood by many readers.” Of course these figures made their headlines by making the arguments about super-intelligence I have already disdained, and mentioning them seems to indicate Bratton’s sympathy with their gambit and even suggests that his argument aims to help us to understand them better on their own terms. Nevertheless, I take Bratton’s argument seriously not because of but in spite of this connection. Ultimately, Bratton makes a case for understanding AI as alien that does not depend on the deranging hyperbole and marketing of robocalypse or robo-rapture for its force.

In the piece, Bratton claims “Our popular conception of artificial intelligence is distorted by an anthropocentric fallacy.” The point is, of course, well taken, and the litany he rehearses to illustrate it is enormously familiar by now as he proceeds to survey popular images from Kubrick’s HAL to Jonze’s Her and to document public deliberation about the significance of computation articulated through such imagery as the “rise of the machines” in the Terminator franchise or the need for Asimov’s famous fictional “Three Laws.” It is easy – and may nonetheless be quite important – to agree with Bratton’s observation that our computational/media devices lack cruel intentions and are not susceptible to Asimovian consciences, and hence thinking about the threats and promises and meanings of these devices through such frames and figures is not particularly helpful to us even though we habitually recur to them by now. As I say, it would be easy and important to agree with such a claim, but Bratton’s proposal is in fact somewhat a different one:

[A] mature A.I. is not necessarily a humanlike intelligence, or one that is at our disposal. If we look for A.I. in the wrong ways, it may emerge in forms that are needlessly difficult to recognize, amplifying its risks and retarding its benefits. This is not just a concern for the future. A.I. is already out of the lab and deep into the fabric of things. “Soft A.I.,” such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon recommendation engines, along with infrastructural A.I., such as high-speed algorithmic trading, smart vehicles and industrial robotics, are increasingly a part of everyday life.

Here the serial failure of the program of artificial intelligence is redeemed simply by declaring victory. Bratton demonstrates that crying uncle does not preclude one from still crying wolf. It’s not that Siri is some sickly premonition of the AI-daydream still endlessly deferred, but represents the real rise of what robot cultist Hans Moravec once promised would be our “mind children” but here and now as elfen aliens with an intelligence unto themselves. It’s not that calling a dumb car a “smart” car is simply a hilarious bit of obvious marketing hyperbole, but represents the recognition of a new order of intelligent machines among us. Rather than criticize the way we may be “amplifying its risks and retarding its benefits” by reading computation through the inapt lens of intelligence at all, he proposes that we should resist holding machine intelligence to the standards that have hitherto defined it for fear of making its recognition “too difficult.”

The kernel of legitimacy in Bratton’s inquiry is its recognition that “intelligence is notoriously difficult to define and human intelligence simply can’t exhaust the possibilities.” To deny these modest reminders is to indulge in what he calls “the pretentious folklore” of anthropocentrism. I agree that anthropocentrism in our attributions of intelligence has facilitated great violence and exploitation in the world, denying the dignity and standing of Cetaceans and Great Apes, but has also facilitated racist, sexist, xenophobic travesties by denigrating humans as beastly and unintelligent objects at the disposal of “intelligent” masters. “Some philosophers write about the possible ethical ‘rights’ of A.I. as sentient entities, but,” Bratton is quick to insist, “that’s not my point here.” Given his insistence that the “advent of robust inhuman A.I.” will force a “reality-based” “disenchantment” to “abolish the false centrality and absolute specialness of human thought and species-being” which he blames in his concluding paragraph with providing “theological and legislative comfort to chattel slavery” it is not entirely clear to me that emancipating artificial aliens is not finally among the stakes that move his argument whatever his protestations to the contrary. But one can forgive him for not dwelling on such concerns: the denial of an intelligence and sensitivity provoking responsiveness and demanding responsibilities in us all to women, people of color, foreigners, children, the different, the suffering, nonhuman animals compels defensive and evasive circumlocutions that are simply not needed to deny intelligence and standing to an abacus or a desk lamp. It is one thing to warn of the anthropocentric fallacy but another to indulge in the pathetic fallacy.

Bratton insists to the contrary that his primary concern is that anthropocentrism skews our assessment of real risks and benefits. “Unfortunately, the popular conception of A.I., at least as depicted in countless movies, games and books, still seems to assume that humanlike characteristics (anger, jealousy, confusion, avarice, pride, desire, not to mention cold alienation) are the most important ones to be on the lookout for.” And of course he is right. The champions of AI have been more than complicit in this popular conception, eager to attract attention and funds for their project among technoscientific illiterates drawn to such dramatic narratives. But we are distracted from the real risks of computation so long as we expect risks to arise from a machinic malevolence that has never been on offer nor even in the offing. Writes Bratton: “Perhaps what we really fear, even more than a Big Machine that wants to kill us, is one that sees us as irrelevant. Worse than being seen as an enemy is not being seen at all.”

But surely the inevitable question posed by Bratton’s disenchanting expose at this point should be: Why, once we have set aside the pretentious folklore of machines with diabolical malevolence, do we not set aside as no less pretentiously folkloric the attribution of diabolical indifference to machines? Why, once we have set aside the delusive confusion of machine behavior with (actual or eventual) human intelligence, do we not set aside as no less delusive the confusion of machine behavior with intelligence altogether? There is no question were a gigantic bulldozer with an incapacitated driver to swerve from a construction site onto a crowded city thoroughfare this would represent a considerable threat, but however tempting it might be in the fraught moment or reflective aftermath poetically to invest that bulldozer with either agency or intellect it is clear that nothing would be gained in the practical comprehension of the threat it poses by so doing. It is no more helpful now in an epoch of Greenhouse storms than it was for pre-scientific storytellers to invest thunder and whirlwinds with intelligence. Although Bratton makes great play over the need to overcome folkloric anthropocentrism in our figuration of and deliberation over computation, mystifying agencies and mythical personages linger on in his accounting however he insists on the alienness of “their” intelligence.

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