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Book review: Nick Bostrom’s “Superintelligence”

piero scaruffi

October 12, 2014

The “Singularity” seems to have become a new lucrative field for the struggling publishing industry (and, i am sure, soon, for the equally struggling Hollywood movie studios). To write a bestseller, you have to begin by warning that machines more intelligent than humans are coming soon. That is enough to get everybody’s attention.

Then you can write pretty much about Malaysian recipes or where to buy cheap shoes in Hong Kong. People will read the rest no matter what, major news media will talk about it, and reviewers like me will be forced to review your book and further legitimize what you wrote.

I wrote everything i had to say on the subject in "Demystifying Machine Intelligence": this is mostly a new religion as good at predicting the future (a religion probably best encapsulated by Ted Chu's "Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential"), as the Bible was, it is highly unscientific (based on very vague definitions and dubious experiments), and its claims about what it has achieved so far (and about its rate of progress) are wildly exaggerated. I know: that's not a way to sell a lot of copies and be reviewed by panicking journalists.

As i have written ad nauseam, super-intelligence already exists and has always existed: there are countless animals that can do things that we cannot do. We coexist with them. We already built machines that can do things that we cannot even think of doing, such as keeping time the precise way that medieval clocks already did a thousand years ago. And of course computers can make calculations millions of times faster than the fastest mathematician (the traditional definition of "intelligence" being the ability to make computations).

We coexist with these machines that can do things that no human being can do. Of course there are problems related to every machine that we ever invented, from the clock to social media. And there will be problems related to future machines.

Nothing that historians and philosophers haven't discussed before. But an age that is rapidly losing faith in the traditional God desperately needs to find and found a new religion, and the Singularity is the best option that some people have in the 21st century. The human mind is programmed to believe in the supernatural. That is one of the limitations of the human mind and all this talk about the Singularity is nothing but a new modern proof of that limitation.

To be fair to Nick Bostrom, who obviously has a broad knowledge of both technology and philosophy, he has written a more technical book than most (much more technical than his publisher wants the reader to believe).

Hopefully, our governments will keep spending more money on fighting real threats such as ebola, and our philosophers will keep spending more time on analyzing human stupidity than machine intelligence. Those are much bigger threats to future generations than "superintelligent" machines.

My version of the facts is here.   

piero scaruffi is an author, cultural historian and blogger who has written extensively about a wealth of topics, ranging from cognitive science to music.


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