AI: You’re Using It

Artificial intelligence is being used every day in today’s society. Many don’t believe it. Many are dismissive of the idea of artificial intelligence. Their argument is often similar in nature to John Searle’s “Chinese Room Argument”, which is often stated as follows:

Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a database) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.

(taken from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Using this argument to argue against the existence of AI is missing the point entirely. John Searle does not argue that we cannot create artificial intelligence. His argument is that an artificial intelligence behaves inherently different to our intelligence, which is debatable but much less absurd.

Any object that can understanding a language would still serve to translate to and from that language. The entire point of the Turing Test is to define intelligence in a reasonable way. The Chinese Room that Searle describes, therefore, is indeed an artificial intelligence.

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To Know the Future

The following post is based off a philosophy journal entry I wrote for my Grade 12 Philosophy class, taught by Brian Wildfong.


It’s impossible to know the future.

It’s common cliché that it’s “impossible” to know the future. I don’t agree. For some events, I have strong beliefs about the outcome. When I drop a book, for example, I know that it will fall, even though the event hasn’t happened yet. It would be impossible to live life without being able to predict the future. I know that if I leave the ground, then I will fall back down. If I didn’t know that, then I would risk floating off into space every time I take a step while walking!

I think that the future is at least as knowable as the past. Skeptics may argue that something important could change that invalidates all my predictions. They may contend that if I haven’t seen it happen, then I can’t possibly know that it will happen. But the same skeptics could detract from knowing events in the past as well. Let’s say that I just dropped a book. How do I know that I dropped a book? Maybe my memory is faulty, so I can’t rely on that. Sure, there’s a book on the ground, but maybe someone else put it there—or maybe I’m hallucinating and there isn’t actually a book on the ground. Even an event that happened seconds ago can’t be knowable from a radical skeptic’s perspective.

Such a perspective, in my opinion, is useful only as a thought experiment. It reduces all that one can know to meaningless statements, like “I perceive a book,” or perhaps tautologies like “Either this object exists or it does not exist,” or “If he is real, then he exists.” Some might accept certain innate ideas like “One plus one is two”. And the super-radical skeptic may even dispute the validity of all those statements. What’s the use of knowledge if it can’t apply to the real world, but only some abstract world of Forms, or if it can’t even apply to the world of Forms?

Some would suggest that knowledge implies certain truth, and I disagree with that. I think that requiring certainty for knowledge is absurd. I’m not certain that other people actually exist (maybe this is all a dream), and if someone doesn’t exist then they can’t know anything. I’m not certain that my senses aren’t deceiving me, so I’d have to accept that none of my experiences are knowledge. I’m not certain that I’m sane either, so I can’t accept anything that my logical reasoning suggests is true. Under this definition, there is no knowledge—nobody knows anything. There are already plenty of synonyms for “nothing”, so with that definition “knowledge” becomes just an unfortunate waste of a word.

If it’s probably true (for a very high standard of “probably”), then I would classify it as knowledge. That means that I believe that the future is knowable. I know that there will be a solar eclipse on March 9, 2016 and that it will be seen across Indonesia, because astronomical calculations have shown that. I accept that there’s a non-zero probability that it won’t be true: perhaps the sun will disappear before then, or the astronomical calculations (that have worked for thousands of years) are wrong, or Santa Claus will intervene and prevent the solar eclipse. But then again, maybe I’m just a brain in a vat. Life is too short to consider the non-zero but practically-zero probability that the underlying assumptions I make about the world are false.

This is the interpretation of knowledge accepted by B. F. Skinner, who classified knowledge into three kinds: acquaintance (having experienced an event), description (reading or hearing about an event), or prediction (to believe a future event). Skinner accepted that prediction may be the least reliable form of knowledge, but Skinner argued that it is in fact the most useful form of knowledge. Only with prediction can we decide on the best course of action. Many of the major problems plaguing today’s world are due to past mistakes made due to either incorrect predictions about consequences or not predicting the consequences (Skinner 105).

I know some things about the future, and I think what I know about the future is indeed the most important kind of knowledge. In the end, other forms of knowledge serve as a foundation for the kind of knowledge that helps us make the right choices: knowledge by prediction.

Works Cited

Skinner, B. F. “To know the future.” The Behavior Analyst 13.2 (1990): 103.

If It Ain’t Broke

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

That maxim is not just incorrect. It’s downright destructive.

It’s an excuse for laziness.

Many things are on track to break. Indeed, because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, most likely everything will eventually break. Often, it is cheaper and better to fix something now, even if it’s not broken, than it is to fix it when it finally breaks. For many things, when it’s finally broken, it’s too late to fix.

Take the case of a person struggling with depression. On the outside, she may appear to be mostly normal. What’s the best course of action: to recommend a therapist, or to do nothing? Of course, one should recommend a therapist, even though she isn’t “broken” yet. By the time she breaks, and commits suicide, it will be too late to find a therapist.

Most of the time, things that aren’t broken don’t break that dramatically and with such severe consequences. But even so, that something is not broken is never a good argument that it should not be fixed.

Most innovation in human history has involved fixing things that are working. During its time, the Pony Express worked for delivering mail. It has since been replaced, not because it was ever “broken”, but because there’s a better way to do it. Imagine a world where we never invented email, because snail mail was never broken.

If all humans were content living in a world that’s imperfect, but still functional, then probably we would still be in the stone age. Could we really achieve a perfect world? Probably not. But that doesn’t give us an excuse not to strive for one. Just because it isn’t “broken” doesn’t mean it’s not worth fixing.

The greatest humans in history, those who have truly made huge contributions to society, basically dedicate their entire lives to fixing things that aren’t broken.

We, as individual human beings, don’t have to become the greatest humans in history. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less true that in many situations, the best thing we can do is fix something that “ain’t broke”.