Episode 39: A Conversation with David Brin

In this episode Byron and David discuss intelligence, consciousness, Moore's Law, and an AI crisis.

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Guest

David Brin is a scientist, tech speaker/consultant, and author. His new novel about our survival in the near future is Existence. A film by Kevin Costner was based on The Postman. His 16 novels, including NY Times Bestsellers and Hugo Award winners, have been translated into more than twenty languages. Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the world wide web. Dr. Brin serves on the external advisory board of NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts program (NIAC). David appears frequently on shows such as Nova and The Universe and Life After People, speaking about science and future trends. He has keynoted scores of major events hosted by the likes of IBM, GE, Google and the Institute for Ethics in Emerging Technologies. His non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.

Transcript

Byron Reese: This is Voices in AI brought to you by GigaOm, and I’m Byron Reese. Today our guest is David Brin. He is best-known for shining light—both plausibly and entertainingly—on technology, society, and countless challenges confronting our rambunctious civilization.  His best-selling novels include The Postman, which was filmed in ’97, plus explorations of our near-future in Earth and Existence. Other novels of his are translated into over 25 languages. His short stories explore vividly speculative ideas.  His non-fiction book The Transparent Society won the American Library Association’s Freedom of Speech Award for exploring 21st-century concerns about security, secrecy, accountability, and privacy. And as a scientist, a tech consultant, a world-renowned author, he speaks and advises, and writes widely on topics from national defense to homeland security to astronomy to space exploration to nanotechnology, creativity, philanthropy. He kind of covers the whole gambit. I’m so excited to have him on the show. Welcome, David Brin.

David Brin:Thank you for the introduction, Byron.  And let’s whale into the world of ideas.

I always start these with the exact same question for every guest: What is artificial intelligence?

It’s in a sense all the other things that people have said about it. It’s like the wise blind man and the elephant – which part you’re feeling up determines whether you think it’s a snake or like a trunk of a tree. And an awful lot of the other folks commenting on it have offered good insights. Mine is that we have always created new intelligences. Sometimes they’re a lot smarter than us, sometimes they’re more powerful, sometimes they could rise up and kill us, and on rare occasions they do—they’re called our children. So we’ve had this experience of creating new intelligences that are sometimes beyond our comprehension. We know how to do that. Of the six types of general approaches to creating new intelligence, the one that’s discussed the least is the one that we have the most experience at, and that is raising them as our children.

If you think about all the terrible stories that Hollywood has used to sell movie tickets, and some of the fears are reasonable things to be afraid of—AI that’s unsympathetic. If you take a look at what most people fear in movies, etcetera, about AI and boil it down, we fear that powerful new beings will try to replicate the tyranny of our old kings and lords and priests or invaders and that they might treat us the way capricious, powerful men would treat us, and would like to treat us, because we see it all the time—they’re attempting to try to regain the feudal power over us. Well, if you realize that the thing we fear most about AI is a capricious, monolithic pyramid of power with the lords or a king or a god at the top, then we start to understand that these aren’t new fears. These are very old fears, and they’re reasonable fears because our ancestors spent most of human existence oppressed by this style of control by beings who declared that they were superior—the priests and the kings and the lords. They always declared, “We have a right to rule and to take your daughters and your sons, all of that because we are inherently superior.” Well, our fear is that in the case of AI it could be the truth.  But then, will they treat us at one extreme like the tyrants of old, or at the opposite extreme?  Might they treat us like parents calling themselves humans, telling us jokes, making us proud of their accomplishments? If that’s the case—well, we know how to do that.  We’ve done it many, many times before.

That’s fascinating. But specifically with artificial intelligence, I guess my first question to you is, in what sense is it artificial? Is it artificial like it’s not really intelligence, it’s just pretending to be, or do you think the machine actually is intelligent?