John Robson: Why is man so keen to make man obsolete? – National Post

Posted: December 18, 2019 at 9:46 pm

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We wish you a headless robot/ We wish you a headless robot/ We wish you a headless robot/ and an alpha zero. If that ditty lacked a certain something, you should be going Da da da doom! about the festive piece in Saturdays Post about a computer saying Roll Over Beethoven and finishing his fragmentary 10th Symphony for him, possibly as a weirdly soulless funeral march.

Evidently this most ambitious project of its type ever attempted will see AI replicate creative genius ending in a public performance by a symphony orchestra in Bonn, Beethovens birthplace part of celebrations to mark the 250th anniversary of the composers birth. Why its not being performed by flawless machines synthesizing perfect tones is unclear.

What is clear is that its one of those plans with only two obvious pitfalls. It might fail. Or it might work.

Its one of those plans with only two obvious pitfalls. It might fail. Or it might work

A bad computer symphony would be awful, like early chess programs beneath contempt in their non-human weakness. But now their non-human strength is above contempt, as they dispatch the strongest grandmasters without emotion.

So my main concern here isnt with the headless Beethoven thing failing. Its with it succeeding. I know theres no stopping progress, that from mustard gas we had to go on to nuclear weapons then autonomous killer bots. But must we whistle so cheerfully as we design heartless successors who will even whistle better than us?

Its strange how many people yearn for the abolition of man. From New Soviet Man to Walden II, radicals cant wait to reinvent everything, including getting rid of dumb old languages where bridges have gender, and dumb old Adam and Eve into the bargain. Our ancestors stank. And we stink. The founder of behaviourist B.F. Skinners utopian Walden II chortles that when his perfect successors arrive the rest of us will pass on to a well-deserved oblivion.

So who are these successors? In That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewiss demented scientist Filostrato proclaims that In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it. We do not want the world any longer furred over with organic life, like what you call the blue mould What if were nearly there?

Freed of the boring necessities of life we might be paddocked in a digital, this-worldly Garden of Eden. But unless we are remade, we shall be more than just restless there. Without purpose we would go insane, as in Logans Run or the planet Miranda.

Ah, but we shall be remade. Mondays Post profiled Jennifer Doudna, inventor of the Crispr-Cas9 gene-editing technique so simple and powerful theres an app for it. Scientists can now dial up better genes on their smartphones and leave all the messy calculating to the machines. But if the machines can outcompose Beethoven, why would they leave the creative redesign of humans to us?

If the machines can outcompose Beethoven, why would they leave the redesign of humans to us?

To her credit, Prof. Doudna has nightmares about Hitler welcoming her invention. But forget Hitler. Here comes Leela to edit us away. And if Walden IIs eagerly anticipated design of personalities and control of temperament are within reach, and desirable, why should the new ones look anything like our current wretched ones? Is there anything to cherish in fallible man? If not, what sleep shall come?

So as we ponder Christmas, if we do, let us remember that 2,000 years ago the world was turned upside down by a God made Man because he loved weakness not strength. As a baby, then in the hideous humiliation of crucifixion, Christ gave a dignity to the helpless and downtrodden you find nowhere else including operating systems. Is it all rubbish, from the theology to the morality?

Years ago I argued for genetic modifications to restore the normal human template. But not to improve it, from eagle eyes to three legs to eight feet tall. But what will the computers think, and why should they? If nature is an obstacle to transcendence, where will they get their standards? Not from us. Nor will they want a bunch of meat around, sweating, bruising, rotting. Say goodnight, HAL.

Already algorithmic pop music is not just worse but in some important way less human. Where is Greensleeves or Good King Wenceslas in this Brave New World? And where should it be?

Shall the digital future burst forth from our abdomens and laser away the mess? Or is there something precious about us frail, vain, petty and, yes, smelly mortals? If so, what?

Many people love Christmas without being Christian. But many do not. And I think it comes down to your ability, or inability, to love humans as we are, which the Bible says God did but which supercomputers have no obvious reason to do.

So sing a carol for fallen man while the machines work on a funeral march.

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John Robson: Why is man so keen to make man obsolete? - National Post

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December 18th, 2019 at 9:46 pm

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