Institute Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus), at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Noam Chomsky, has been known for many things, however, perhaps least among them, are his views on artificial intelligence and the potential impact of their presence on human culture and society.

So how does this renown professor of linguistics become an authoritative voice on artificial intelligence (A.I.)? When Professor Chomsky speaks, people listen, and he is rarely taken lightly. So, what does he think about A.I.? Well, we are doing it all wrong.

Noam Chomsky tells us why we have it all wrong

Professor Chomsky appeared at Google Cambridge May 23, 2017, to speak to an audience of Google staffers and tech-minded attendees. The video of the “Google Talks” event was published to Youtube.com June 5, and in it, Chomsky is asked about statements he made regarding A.I. during an interview in 2012 with The Atlantic.

“Artificial intelligence is not moving in the right direction.”

Let’s get familiar

Those of us not necessarily familiar with the burgeoning field of A.I. technology are required to do a little digging before we can safely say we agree with this statement. I suggest by starting here if you have a further interest in the actual technological innovations and advances. This story is less about the tech itself and more about its potential applications and its perceived function in our current technologically connected world.

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Professor Chomsky has a unique view of the world, but many of those who are lucky enough to carry on a conversation with the man or simply hear him speak learn quickly to take advantage of the opportunity. Though the soft-spoken gentleman’s voice may not carry quite as far as it used to, his words rarely lack substance, depth, or profundity. So, when he says that A.I. is being approached from the wrong angle, it would be wise to not ignore the words.

Science and society

Let’s look at the science and the society, shall we? A consensus has developed among geologists, anthropologists, and others, that we are traversing the cusp of an era and stepping out of the Holocene into a new epic known as the Anthropocene Era. The Anthropocene is a geological era defined by the human effects upon the globe. Many geologists agree that the true start of this new eon was at the advent of the Second World War; while some argue it was the industrial revolution, and others, offer still more remote times; the point is our actions as a species have affected the planet in a way that will be, henceforth, irreversible.

A perfect storm

So, what does a new geological era have to do with A.I.? As it happens, we are at a seemingly fragile moment in our evolution as a species. Professor Chomsky stated that “Human intelligence has created a perfect storm” by way of a means of self-destruction. We have evolved to the point that we are now capable of not only pondering our own existence but eradicating it as well.

By way of either nuclear threat, severe weather because of global climate change, dramatic sea level rise due to melting polar ice caps, or all three together acting as either catalyst for, or consequence of, the other, we are now approaching the point of no return and seem incapable of acting to prevent such catastrophic scenarios. So, the application of A.I. could be very useful in considering an approach to resolving some of these issues.

Chomsky believes our brute force application of technique lacks intellectual finesse; his suggestion regards the current application of A.I.’s utility to be like that of a blunt object, wherein it should be considered a scalpel, rather than, not being unlike a brain surgeon using a melon baller.

Big Data or Big Dreams

Similarly, he indicates the current theoretical applications of A.I. (or the modest programs we refer to as present day A.I.) are akin to the use of a bulldozer. A massive, complex machine engineered to complete a rudimentary task. Move this, to there. A heavier, harder, or larger load than humans are capable of handling on their own is the drive to create the machine, and so the concept of Big Data analysis by A.I. is relative. Using A.I. for data mining purposes to the ultimate ends of marketing, government surveillance, or political solicitation tactics is perhaps the most unimaginative adaptation for the concept of A.I.

Utilizing A.I. to these ends is essentially falling short of the mark. To paraphrase Professor Chomsky’s words, we are not capitalizing on the potential of our “cognitive capacity”. A concept such as this should be applied to humanistic endeavors. Understanding ourselves, our species, our genetics, our mind, body, and even soul, should be the focus of our prime directive.

Chomsky advises that while a profit driven capitalist economy is all well and good, science of this nature should not be considered by its ability to create dollars; it should be considered by its ability to affect the human experience. An experience that we all share and so, in which, we should all have an equal stake.

Sci-fi, Artificial Intelligence

Sci-fi writers have given us worlds upon worlds crafted and controlled by A.I.; some of those visions have been beautifully wrought and some even more terrifyingly vivid for the potential realities they foretell. We can command that future if we are willing to accept a certain level of risk and remove our ego from the equation; A.I. has the potential to engineer one of those beautifully wrought future scenarios.

Of course, we run the risk of allowing our worst nature to dictate the use of such technologies and if a perpetual profit machine is the only true end to the means of A.I. then we will no doubt find ourselves in one of those futures of potent terror and malice. Not because the A.I. created such a world, but rather because we had the ability to create an A.I. that would help to prevent just such a world from existing, and chose not to do so.

The professor refers to a human dependence on technologies and systems of power and belief. His emphasis on the fact that we have constructed nuclear weapons to annihilate our enemies and have placed them in strategic areas around the globe to be in the optimal position to launch on any threat, anywhere, in the known world. No doubt this exact structure would be one of the primary applications of an A.I. system, capable of analyzing media, markets, trends, data, blogs, private messages and military intel to evaluate a real-time global threat level and have the capacity of launching defensive strikes, retaliatory responses, and even preemptive attacks.

How much longer must we fear these buttons?

Yet, while we have constructed the means to destroy our enemies, as human beings we have only constructed the fashion of our own demise. Chomsky notes that we are caught between the swinging sledgehammers of our ability to destroy ourselves, visa vis nuclear weapons, and destroying our ability to protect ourselves as well, by effectively undermining the safeguards we have tried to provision ourselves with, during a catastrophic event. Creating war and driving rage, hostility, and pain into the hearts of people all over the world is counterproductive to our mutual endeavor.

I find myself agreeing with Chomsky’s thesis on his acknowledgment of our circumstance; human existence should be our number one priority. Whether that should mean protecting the earth and one’s own environment in order to defend against global climate change, or finding ways to make peace with our fellow man, or working beyond barriers of language and race to connect as human beings and see from a shared perspective, or even just learning to not plunder each other for resources and profit; a lesson taught in every kindergarten classroom from the time we are children and yet, somewhere along the way we have lost the ability to act as a human family, to be concerned with the welfare of our brothers and sisters.

The take away from Professor Chomsky’s talk seems to revolve around two very important themes regarding the direction of artificial intelligence today.

  1. One country’s enemy is another’s ally and unless those bridges can be crossed at will without the need for violence things are going to be of considerable difficulty, but not beyond the realm of human intelligence, will, and spirit; and we are as capable of designing an intelligence which relates to those qualities, as we are of creating a virtual human brain to crunch Big Data for governments and corporations.
  1. We all occupy this planet together and direct our passions toward deepening our understanding of the human experience; at least until our new A.I. program can find us a way off this rock. But, if it does, and we have done our job correctly and given this entity the capacity for reflection, critical analysis, and complex logical thought, then who’s to say that entity doesn’t decide to depart of its own accord and leave us here to bury ourselves in a hopeless and misguided endeavor to make war, achieve power and above all, make a profit?

Artificial intelligence is more than a series of complex computer algorithms, it is an endeavor to recreate ourselves and demonstrate our ability to design, with the best parts of our nature, a more perfect, human community.

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Jake Backer
BIO A bit of backstory then: I was born on all saints day in the mid eighties and into a generation of technological and sociological division. It was, and still is, a unique time and perhaps because of it, since a young age, I have found the words we use to be our greatest gift and most curious curse. Language unites us and divides us. Oral traditions can be used to both clarify and obscure our history. A powerful speech can fuel us toward victory or break down our barriers. Our words have a unique ability to bring us back to our origins. It is due to this passion for the timelessness of the written word that I strive to connect with my audience; to let them escape from their box for a little while and to impart to readers something of my own experience. It is why I will always try to write authentically, with an often varied, yet always interesting, mix of irony and compelling drama that blends satirical metaphor and provocative prose into narratives that exceeds the status quo and persist in delivering a more captivating and compelling example of independent authorship. As always, thanks for reading. - Jake Backer