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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Future Salon speakers Jaron Lanier and Eliezer Yudkowsky square off

Hey all (?),

Have any of you ever experienced the awkwardness of nervous "nerd" laughter... well the link below will provide a good example of what this is like. The link is to the Future Salon and in particular a video stream about half the way down the page entitled:

"Future Salon speakers Jaron Lanier and Eliezer Yudkowsky square off"

It is video conference phone call split screen debate between this Yudkowsky guy who is the head scientist at the Singularity Institute, and Lanier who has been the genius hippy in red dread locks since his early pioneering work with Virtual Reality and artificial vision systems.

Before you click the link, let me frame the debate.

These two guys represent the two extremes of a subtle range of viewpoints on evolution, AI, and human consciousness.

On one end you find the "Hard AI" camp (here represented by Yudkosky) which believes that intelligence is simply an emergent property of the physics of this universe and the evolutionary process, and so, should yield its secrets to scientific investigation and by extension, should be evolve-able and build-able or extend-able through directed pragmatic human effort.

On the other end of this polemic you find the "humanists". The humanists have trouble with the idea that consciousness is reducible to units that could be mechanized in a substrate other than biology or that intelligence could result from the computational gestalt in use today. Though his professional life consists of working on the kinds of computing problems many would label "AI", Jaron is one of these "humanists".

Jaron's main criticism of the hard AI camp in this debate is that their strong attachment to finding a way past death and their a-priori belief in the possibility of reasonably building self evolving intelligence together become so rhetorically invasive that they can no longer do objective investigation or engineering... that their beliefs and desires make them "religious".

Yudkoski could make an even stronger case against the same tendency towards the religiousness of the humanist position as it is based upon the extreme human-centrism that is the notion that consciousness is unique and magic in that it stands alone as something special to humans or biology... but he doesn't. I can't tell if he just doesn't realize that Jaron is by far the more religious of the two... or that he is just two nice to do so.

To me, this is not the logical scientific debate both seem insistent upon presenting, but between a Southern Baptist Minister and a Catholic Priest who are both under the self-delusion that they are more atheistic and objective than the other.

If you can stand the awkward nerd-fest mannerisms (Saturday Night Live could have a field day with these two characters), this little debate goes a long way in illustrating some of the deep philosophical polemics that seem to pop up anew with each new technology or cultural innovation and each new generation.

I can't win. Even in AI... in the field that best matches my own interests, I am a loner. I represent interests and motivations not expressed by anyone else.

I respect both of these researchers. Each is passionate and extremely well prepared for this debate and bring to it a lifetime of concerted thinking, experimentation, and theory. The debate is a spectacle: like a 1960s Japanese monster movie. And just as herky-jerky awkward. Very illuminating on so many many levels. This video could be the basis of a graduate thesis on science in the shadow of post-modern thought (confusion?).

From my perspective, Jaron is a nothing more than a (very bright) priest who can't stop doing science in the basement, and Yudkoswsky is nothing less than a scientist that can't help wanting to build a God.

Randall Reetz

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