The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Will “Everyone” Benefit?

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January 05, 2018 10:57 EDT

Will humans become the robots or slaves of those who program artificial intelligence?

In an article about the evolution of technology and its impact on society, The Guardian reminds us of Elon Musk’s claim in February 2017 “that people would need to become cyborgs to be relevant in an artificial intelligence age.“ Musk followed this up by creating Neuralink, a company dedicated to making it possible for humans to become cyborgs.

At The Daily Devil’s Dictionary, we are left wondering what Musk and others may mean by “relevant,” a word we intend to define in a future post.

More to the point, we wish to focus on the key ambiguity in Musk’s claim, a word no one ordinarily pays attention to: people. What does he mean? Which people? How many? Where do they live and what do they do? These are questions we rarely think about, because any proposition that designates “people” as its subject can be literally true whether it includes a few rare individuals or the entire human race. Which is it?

Later in the article this very question is clarified by Davide Valeriani, a senior research officer at the University of Essex, who explains that the subject of the discussion is something that “could be a fundamental tool for going beyond human limits, hence improving everyone’s life.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


In the consumer society, the part of the population that possesses purchasing power

Linguistic note

As hinted above in relation to the word “relevant,” this article contains more than one or two words that defy any form of accurate definition. One would indeed need a computer plugged into one’s brain to reduce the monumental ambiguity of the claims made by the various experts. At the Daily Devil’s Dictionary we endeavor to acknowledge ambiguity rather than reduce it. To illustrate this point, in the following sentence taken from the Guardian’s article and spoken by Professor Pedram Mohseni we have italicized some of the deeply ambiguous vocabulary: “He wants to directly tap into the brain to read out thoughts, effectively bypassing low-bandwidth mechanisms such as speaking or texting to convey the thoughts.”

All of these words function not as scientific concepts but as metaphors. What they might mean in practice cannot be defined because there is no logical or scientific correlate for any of these in the imagined scenario. This is the language of Silicon Valley business plans seeking funding for impressive sounding research projects. And when they find the funding — as Elon Musk has done for Neuralink — their investors will be expecting optimal financial results rather than bothering about justice or ethics.

Ethical note

The article invokes the question of ethics and artificial intelligence, which troubles many people in the field. Most of the discussion about ethics and brain-computer interfaces (BCI) centers on the function of decision-making, the programming principles and who controls the output. Will humans become the robots or slaves of those who program artificial intelligence or of an AI master or teacher that programs itself? This is already a question with a political and social dimension. It’s a question that appears to worry Musk, although he sees the risk more in terms of safety than in morality and justice.

But there is another dimension that the experts and analysts rarely evoke. It is the question raised above: Who are the “people” who will benefit from sharing their brain with a computer? We get a clue to the nature of the problem from the ever so simple solution suggested by Valeriani: “In my opinion, one way to overcome these ethical concerns is to let humans decide whether they want to use a BCI to augment their capabilities.”

Very much like Elon Musk’s and Stephen Hawking’s project to save humanity by colonizing Mars, the first generation users will undoubtedly be the rich and the super-rich, those who can afford it. Because they will be “enhancing” their humanity, they will also be in a position to reinforce their position of privilege by giving themselves and their families a competitive edge. The rich get richer even in technology and cyborg brain power. The second generation will be those who are chosen by the first generation, the future corporate army and mandarins of the super-rich.

When Valeriani tells us how we may “overcome” the ethical concerns, we find ourselves in familiar territory. In the consumer society, everyone can choose. What divides us — the diversity of our choices — is what unites us in the banquet of consumption. If you can’t afford a cyborg connection, you will have access to a new generation of safe opioids.

Since the power to consume makes us all equal, ethical questions appear to vanish as if by magic. Just like in the economy. If you’re poor, it means you haven’t put in the hard work to become rich. It therefore becomes illegitimate to complain about inequality or lack of access to resources. “Let humans decide” is a nearly perfect translation of “laissez faire.” Or, to remain in the French context, a variation on “let them eat cake.”

And someday, rest assured, the cake will be for everyone. Crumbs too trickle down.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy

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