Granite Geek: Looking for reassurance about A.I.? Don’t read this

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 08-29-2023 1:40 PM

Jon “maddog” Hall is many things, most notably a Linux guru and New Hampshire’s most famous software evangelist, but here’s what he isn’t: Reassuring about the arrival of the technologies known as artificial intelligence.

Consider this exchange during a recent lunchtime get-together.

Me: “Will we get to the point where AI will be creative?”

Jon: “Yes, unless we kill ourselves before that happens.”

Or this: “Replacement of every job may not happen tomorrow, may not happen in your lifetime, but sooner or later it will.” (The only exception we could think of was priest, and even that was debatable.)

Or this: “It’s not going to go away – there are too many people who smell too much money.” And we can’t really regulate it, he added: “There’s China, they don’t (care) what we do, or North Korea, or anybody else - they’ll see this and say, yes, this is our way to do it, to get ahead!”

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For those of us worried about what AI will do to our jobs and society as a whole, not very reassuring.

These exchanges came about when I had lunch with Jon, who I’ve known casually for years, to touch base and meet his husband Hugo Machado, a software engineer from Brazil who Jon met as part of his years of free-software advocacy there. I took the opportunity to get Jon’s opinion on the various forms of generative AI that have moved the “can computers think?” debate from science fiction into corporate boardrooms.

Jon’s opinion is of value because he is known around the world for his knowledge and promotion of free, open-source software, especially the Linux operating system, and for a half-century has been wrestling with questions of what software is, what it could be and what it should be.

He came to New Hampshire because he was a software engineer for Digital Equipment Corp., the Massachusetts computer company that expanded north in the 1970s and helped launch New Hampshire into the post-textile-mill world. At DEC Jon got interested in the then-new Linux operating system, eventually holding a bunch of official and unofficial Linux-related roles and, famously, having a New Hampshire license plate that said UNIX, a LINUX predecessor.

His popularity among programmers all over the world is a function of his knowledge, his skills and his ability to communicate, plus the fact that he looks like Santa Claus’ disreputable twin and has an exuberant personality, as his nickname implies.

Like all of us, Jon has been surprised by the eruption of AI models and the seemingly intelligent things they do, from writing quite good sonnets to helping code software to writing English papers for undergrads and even thinking up jokes. But his opinion of AI – he prefers the term “inorganic intelligence” – is that it’s certainly not intelligent at the moment.

“It’s more of an expert system that’s just supplied a lot of data and enough programming to be able to figure out what the rules are,” he said.

That’s not surprising; nobody knowledgeable thinks today’s AI is truly intelligent. But unlike many, Jon thinks it will become intelligent someday.

After all, Jon explained, our personalities, thinking and creativity are the result of electrical and chemical reactions in the 3-pound blob of tissue behind our eyes, so why couldn’t personalities, thinking and creativity be produced by electrical and chemical reactions in manufactured circuits?

This argument has been a staple of science fiction for decades  (“positronic brains,” anyone?). More significantly, it lies at the very heart of philosophy in the form of the mind-body problem and theology in debates about the existence of the soul. The arrival of generative AI has just moved it out of the theoretical category.

Whether it means that we’re approaching the singularity, a hypothetical point when technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, causing unforeseeable changes to civilization, is still an open question. But combined with other technology that seems to be making a breakthrough – robots, autonomous transportation, virtual reality – it leaves plenty to think about.

“The people who have the best AI, the best robots, they are going to win,” said Jon.

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