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Monday, September 22, 2014

Conflict of Interest and Artificial Intelligence

When I was a young girl, I wondered about many things. One of them was apes and language. Another was artificial intelligence. What I had trouble understanding, in both cases, was the psychological hurdles to success.

I mean, you can teach an ape language. In fact, you don't really need to teach it at all. They pick it up. But then proving it to your fellow man is very, very hard. Why? Because the ape does not care to prove it. He doesn't cooperate. He won't help. He does not really care if anybody thinks he is smart. He's pretty happy with himself, either way.

Bow looks through a copy of Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain

The psychology of learning, and especially of proving what you have learned, is something that humans are still working out. For instance, among humans, there is a gender gap, according to a recent article in the Atlantic. Girls are hard workers with great organizational skills who like to be graded on their effort, not their ability. Boys hate to be forced into work, but they will gladly rise to the challenge of a test, in which they try to prove how smart they are, not how hard they worked preparing for it.

Why Girls Get Better Grades than Boys Do

But is this really about girls versus boys? Or is it about different types of people, some of whom are compliant, but unthinking and others of whom cannot be motivated to comply for a bribe, because they would rather think for themselves? Isn't it just that there are more girls in the one camp and more boys in the other, so that the unusual girls are discarded as outliers?

At this point, you're probably saying, yeah, that's what it means that boys are different from girls, that most boys do this, not all boys. That most girls are like this, not all girls. But what about a class full of girls? Would they all work equally hard? Would they all rather memorize than think? And does it matter what culture they belong to?

Our Lady of Kaifeng
In my novel Our Lady of Kaifeng the American teacher, Marah Fallowfield, is shocked by the degree of teamwork, compliance, hard work and memorization that her students are capable of, and at how they refuse to think for themselves. It is an all girls' school, so it is not a matter of gender norms. Instead, all the girls in her class are Chinese, and they come from a culture that places a premium on obedience, self-abnegation and collective achievement. rather than on individualism and self-motivated action.

The United States is heading in the same cultural direction at the moment as China went years ago, which is why the more compliant and submissive students are getting better grades. We are rewarding thoughtless submission in the form of grades, and so more compliant people are going on to college. As it happens, more of those people are women.

But you don't have to be some kind of genius or rebel to see which classes in high school have actual content and which involve mostly memory work. Even students who don't excel academically can tell that some subjects require more understanding and less studying, while others you cannot get by with anything less than memorizing the study guide word for word in order to pass the test. For my daughter at the moment, music and math are subjects where the answers can be found in her own head. Other classes have to be studied for. And studying mostly consists of rote memorization.

This is not necessarily because she's good at these more objective subjects. It's because they have content that has a logic all its own. In grade school, she used to ace the spelling tests without looking at the list of words, because she is hyperlexic, and spelling has an internal sense to it, despite the arbitrary elements. But in high school, there are no more spelling tests. People who excel in the humanities have no chance to show it, because the tests are designed for social purposes, not objective content. There are no more translations from Latin or Greek to show your academic merit in the humanities.

So I don't really think it is boys against girls: it's that we have shaped the content in the schools to reward hard work and cooperation and to discourage independent thinking. As a result, even those people who might have loved the humanities in a former era find they are more fairly dealt with in math, where there is still some advantage to thinking for themselves.

When I wanted to adopt a chimpanzee, I wasn't sure whether I wanted a boy or a girl. I thought, as many people think, that a girl might be easier to handle. I had heard that boy chimps were more powerful, and hence more dangerous. And I wanted someone teachable.  But the breeders told me this: female and male chimpanzees are both equally smart, but the girls are more temperamental. If you tell a boy he did something wrong, he will accept it much sooner and move on. But tell a girl chimp that she made a mistake, and she is going to fume and fuss, and you can't get her to try again for a whole day, because you have insulted her! So when Bow became available, and he was a boy, I accepted him into my life. And it's true, he is pretty easy going. He just isn't very eager to prove anything about what he knows.

So much for natural intelligence. But what about AI?



The day before I captured and released the last snake, I came across a very damaged Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly. And there it was, going about its usual business gathering nectar from a thistle flower, even though it was fall, and its wings were frayed and surely its days were numbered. Does the butterfly know it is going to die? Is it following a preset algorithm for behavior? What is the difference between that little creature and a similar artificial drone of about the same size that might be used by the government to gather information or DNA?

A mock-up of an artificial intelligence mosquito that gathers DNA
There is no such capability currently according to Snopes

There are no AI mosquitoes or butterflies as of yet. It is just an urban legend according to Snopes. Most people discuss the technical challenges of miniaturization as being what has prevented this from coming about. But I think there is a bigger problem: the open question of consciousness. I think butterflies are conscious, and drones, of whatever size, are not.



I came across the damaged butterfly again yesterday, and it was feeding next to a counterpart who was still intact.


I don't think there is a simple algorithm that accounts for the butterfly's behavior. I suppose you could build one that is remote control, but for there to be artificial intelligence, the drone must think for itself. It has to decide where to go, when to hide, when to feed, and when to take off for better pastures. Have we solved that problem yet? I don't think so.

Will intelligent robots wipe out the human race? That is a sensational headline that has been hitting the news. But before we can program intelligent robots, we first have to stop trying to turn our children into drones.

An algorithm, no matter how complex, cannot tell you what to do. Even Google can't tell whether a piece of writing is genuinely good, without resorting to tinkering with their own algorithm constantly, because it is based on second-guessing other readers and not reading the piece for themselves. When they decide a site like Squidoo needs to be downgraded in the rankings, they still do it by hand.

Google can't grade an essay to save its life. Yes, they are working on natural language processing. But did you know that they are still paying humans for the menial task of marking the noun phrases? A computer still can't tell by itself the difference between a noun and a verb.


Yesterday, I watched a skipper and a bumblebee share the same flower. The bumblebee buzzed off pretty soon, but that skipper stayed and stayed, and I could really tell it was enjoying every drop of nectar.

Where does intelligence come from? It is not from the desire to comply. It is not from harmony and peace. Intelligence is born out of conflict of interest between and among different beings who are vying with each other for survival. If we ever do discover the secret, it will be by pitting drones against each other and letting them duke it out, not by centrally planning a perfect, compliant drone.

But for the time being, we are turning our children into drones and discarding the best among them, because they won't do as they are told.

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