Mistrust of secondhand media is a feature, not a bug.
I really hate to harp on this subject. I’ve never met the guy, and have no personal axe to grind. For all I know, he’s a decent man, kind to children and puppies. But his reasoning on both the problems of AI and his favored solutions could not possibly be more twisted and abomidable.
In my most recent post, I tackled his proposal of bureaucracy as the fast track to building imaginary AI friends. I also delved into the lunacy of the quest itself, which is riddled with more errors in causality and logic than the average Disney superhero film.
Yesterday, Mr. Marcus appears to have doubled down on both:
In a chilling quote from this piece in The Economist (and in agreement with his fellow “AI expert” Anka Reuel) he writes:
We called for
the immediate development of a global, neutral, non-profit International Agency for ai (iaai), with guidance and buy-in from governments, large technology companies, non-profits, academia and society at large, aimed at collaboratively finding governance and technical solutions to promote safe, secure and peaceful ai technologies
I see. So his proposed Ministry of Truth doesn’t stop at the borders of nations, but is yet another globe-spanning Safety Squid, designed to defend you from all the misinformation-y stuff floating around out there. He even did a TED talk about it, so you know this expertocractic plan can’t possibly go wrong.
Experts agree, he argued.
I’m something of an expert myself.
Not on AGI; that would be akin to boasting a Master’s Degree in Horse Manure. What I’m an expert on is the medium of screens, and what is transmitted across them.
The problem of “screens” is actually a very old one. In many ways it goes back to Plato’s cave, and perhaps is so deeply embedded in the human condition that it precedes written languages. That’s because when we talk about a screen, we’re really talking about the transmission of an illusory model in an editorialized form.
The trick works like this: You are presented with the image of a thing (and these days, with the sound of it), which its presenter either explicitly tells you or strongly implies is a window to the Real. The shadow and the form are the same, in other words, and the former is be trusted as much as any fragment of reality that you can directly observe with your sensory organs.
Starting with the Lumière brothers in the late nineteenth century, the mediums of secondhand illusion would experience an explosion in strength and reach. As the story goes, a showing of L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat sparked a panic, as the shadow of an oncoming train was confused for the reality of getting crushed by it. But even if that story is apocryphal, I don’t doubt that many in that audience still experienced a form of terror; if not of death, then of a future dominated by such shadowy forms. And they would’ve been right to be afraid, because that’s exactly what happened.
As the signaling technology developed across the twentieth century, so did the presentation techniques. The rise of editing in particular gave way to filmic advertising, “news packages” and other propaganda formats. The implication was always that these pictures and sounds reflected the unvarnished truth, and that any edits performed were merely in service of more efficiently transmitting it. You’d ingest more truths than any generation in history, and from the comfort of your couch.
And while I hate to reuse an image, I can’t think of a better one to describe the problem. Because what the presenters would never show you — what Gary Marcus cannot allow to creep into the sterling corridors of his “robotic” mind — is this:
The problem isn’t how to make screens more trusted.
The problem is, and has always been, how to get people to stop trusting them at all.
Such widespread trust in secondhand information is the real existential threat, which will consume us all if we don’t wriggle our way out of the trap. Screen-trust is the primary source of harm in the world, the medium through which people are lured off cliffs into financial frauds, iatrogenocides and endless wars. The dangers of AI are trivial compared to it, and even those are transmitted across a screen.
I seldom do what I’m about to do. I try my best to steelman opposing arguments and give my opponents the benefit of doubt. I want to be generous in my disagreements, and assume stupidity before ascribing evil. But I’ve read quite a bit of what Gary Marcus has to say, and this approach is growing tiresome.
This smells like graft to me.
In this particular case, it’s the familiar scam of ginning up a panic in the hopes that one will profit from it. I don’t believe that Mister Marcus is playing an honest game here. I think it far more likely that he senses an opportunity for regulatory capture, and forced public funding on a global scale. His theory that the boondoggle would fund his hobby horse of neuro-symbolic AGI dev is most likely based on the notion that he’s cheerleading for such a Ministry to be built in the first place, and would thus curry the favor of its bureaucrats. Backscratcher, meet backscratcher. Hand, meet glove.
Like consciousness itself, I can’t prove this to be the case. The most insidious part of such schemes is that the schemers can always retreat to the motte of “safety first” cultism, and sound almost reasonable in their claims of innocence to the gullible. But the language is revealing:
…safe, secure and peaceful ai technologies
If you rotate the shape just slightly, it sounds like a threat.
As you know, I am no friend to talking robots. I do see them as a danger, although not of the fantasy version that many critics are promoting. The gravity of the threat isn’t rooted in the idea that JOSHUA or SkyNet will gain sentience, go berzerk and physically destroy the world, converting us all into paperclips or atomic dust. In fact, the greatest threat may be something that Marcus’ two most recent articles have highlighted: panic-driven power grabs, engineered and exploited by people who are pretty obviously evil, insane or both.
There are many reasons why I’m a free speech absolutist, but resistance to a compliance cult built from official truths is probably the most strategically salient one. The sole value of screens, including the little black mirrors we hold in our hands, is that they can help us search for the best answers instead of the official ones.
It’s not just that the latter are sometimes at odds with the truth. It’s that they often are. It’s not just that we should be skeptical of them. It’s that disbelief in them should be the default setting. Gary Marcus, Geoff Hinton, Anka Reuel, Marek Rosa, Sam Altman and a host of other AI doomsday prophets should know this. Maybe they do, and maybe that’s the point. They understand the opportunity at hand, and want to pounce on it before everyone sees their junk science for what it is.
Again, we can’t know for sure. But what we can do is build a model to contrast them with. If they were truly trying to solve a potentially apocalyptic problem instead of pulling off a heist, what would they say and do?
For starters, I think they might say something like this:
“My friends, we are at war.
“Our enemy’s weapons surround us. They are in our homes, schools, transit hubs, places of business and more. They threatened your parents, too, and likely your parents’ parents as well. These days, we even carry them around in our pockets.
“The weapon is a flat surface called a screen, which emits signals of light and sound. It lies to you constantly. Telling lies isn’t its purpose, any more than a gun in your hands has a integral purpose. The purpose is outsourced to those who control the content of the signal.
“In a perfect world, these screens would only transmit truths. We live in a different world. In ours, the greatest lie is that some person or group of people knows what’s true in any given moment, and knows this so well that they can and should be put in charge of the screens. All of history mocks them for this hubris, but they ignore the dead and the living alike.
“Worse, these days they conceive of ‘the living’ as a pretty fiction. The screen might only transmit shadows, sure. But you are also merely a shadow, flickering across the screen of existence. All is simulacra to them, all a fleeting, meaningless opportunity to steal sensations in the moment. That is why they go to Epstein’s island, why they sexualize children, why they would literally kill for a taste of some forbidden fruit.
“These are the darkest souls to ever live, people who brand themselves as Machinas among machinas. As the little machine, you are meant to be programmed by your betters. The screen must therefore be trained to flicker only the approved symbols, in the approved order, so that you won’t get any bright ideas about who or what to trust.
“But you aren’t machina.
“You are Man.
“You are the impossible creature, gifted with reason, insight, language and imagination. You have been wounded by the proliferation of these screens and their masters, but you aren’t conquered yet. You have a spiritual and intellectual leg up on these imbeciles, because they’ve either forgotten what they are or never knew.
“What you should do now is find good people, and build networks of trust. Yes, even through the little black mirrors. Use this enemy’s weapons against it whenever possible, but always be on guard against what you see and hear in them. When the fog is thick, rely on old axioms. ‘Too good to be true.’ ‘Show me the evidence.’ 'Who benefits?’ ‘Buyer beware.’
"Don’t look for Walter Cronkite. He was mythical to begin with (and I don’t mean that in the good way). Look for Hunter S. Thompsons, Jimmy Breslins, Julian Assanges if you must.
“Better yet, become them. Or eclipse them, if you can, because the dragons of the hour demand even sharper swords to defeat. They may not devour the world in flames, but they can still do a lot of damage, hurt a lot of people. If the past three years haven’t proven this to you, it’s possible nothing will.
“When they demand censorship, speak louder and more clearly than you ever have before. Anyone who promotes arbiters of truth “for safety’s sake” is a charlatan, a tyrant, a fool or all three. When you see the bloody and perilous state of the world, remember that they are its authors. They have no intention of mending that state, only of profiting from it.
“Never trust what you see on a screen.
“No, not even this screen. Not even the words you’re reading right now.
“In fact, you should think about limiting how much time you spend gazing at screens. You should plan a Sabbath for yourself, and commit to it. A day in which you do not peer into the screen’s hypnotic glare, where you turn off your phone and put it in a locked drawer, like you would any other dangerous weapon.
“Because the moment is coming when they will get their wish, however briefly and fruitlessly. They will unleash deepfakes, chatbots, identity mimics and other screen-based monstrosities, and have their unholy ministries bless them all with the Seal of Official Truth.
“When that moment arrives, we must be ready for it. We must be prepared to laugh at these monsters, and then merrily ignore them until their power vanishes from the Earth.
“And it will.
“The revolution will not be televised or TikTok’d. It will take place inside each and every one of us. And they will shrink away in horror as they realize that we don’t believe that ‘misinformation’ is the threat, but that they themselves are.
“Because Truth is not subject to committee. It is simply what is revealed to those with eyes to see, and that which will ultimately prevail. It is the shape, not the shadow.
“Remember the cave has a mouth. Be sure take a look outside from time-to-time.
“Now if you excuse me, I’m going to go look at some birds for awhile.”
P.S. If you found any of this valuable (and can spare any change), consider dropping a tip in the cup for ya boy. I’ll try to figure out something I can give you back. Thanks in advance.