Daniel Dennett

You are currently browsing articles tagged Daniel Dennett.

In the Financial Times interview with Daniel Dennett I recently blogged about, a passage covers a compelling idea hatched by the philosopher and MIT’s Deb Roy in “Our Transparent Future,” a 2015 Scientific American article. The academics argue that the radical transparency now taking hold because of new technological tools, which will only grow more profound as we are lowered even further into a machine with no OFF switch, is akin to the circumstances that may have catalyzed the Cambrian explosion.

In that epoch, it might have been an abundance of light that shined through in a newly transparent atmosphere which forced organisms to adapt and led to tremendous growth–and also death. Dennett and Roy believe that society’s traditional institutions (government, marriage, education, etc.) are facing the same challenge to reinvent themselves or else, due to the tremendous flow of information we have today at our fingertips. Now that privacy is all but impossible, what is the best way to arrange ourselves? 

The opening:

MORE THAN HALF A BILLION YEARS AGO A SPECTACULARLY CREATIVE burst of biological innovation called the Cambrian explosion occurred. In a geologic “instant” of several million years, organisms developed strikingly new body shapes, new organs, and new predation strategies and defenses against them. Evolutionary biologists disagree about what triggered this prodigious wave of novelty, but a particularly compelling hypothesis, advanced by University of Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker, is that light was the trigger. Parker proposes that around 543 million years ago, the chemistry of the shallow oceans and the atmosphere suddenly changed to become much more transparent. At the time, all animal life was confined to the oceans, and as soon as the daylight flooded in, eyesight became the best trick in the sea. As eyes rapidly evolved, so did the behaviors and equipment that responded to them. 

Whereas before all perception was proximal—by contact or by sensed differences in chemical concentration or pressure waves—now animals could identify and track things at a distance. Predators could home in on their prey; prey could see the predators coming and take evasive action. Locomotion is a slow and stupid business until you have eyes to guide you, and eyes are useless if you cannot engage in locomotion, so perception and action evolved together in an arms race. This arms race drove much of the basic diversification of the tree of life we have today.

Parker’s hypothesis about the Cambrian explosion provides an excellent parallel for understanding a new, seemingly unrelated phenomenon: the spread of digital technology. Although advances in communications technology have transformed our world many times in the past—the invention of writing signaled the end of prehistory; the printing press sent waves of change through all the major institutions of society—digital technology could have a greater impact than anything that has come before. It will enhance the powers of some individuals and organizations while subverting the powers of others, creating both opportunities and risks that could scarcely have been imagined a generation ago. 

Through social media, the Internet has put global-scale communications tools in the hands of individuals. A wild new frontier has burst open. Services such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, WhatsApp and SnapChat generate new media on a par with the telephone or television—and the speed with which these media are emerging is truly disruptive. It took decades for engineers to develop and deploy telephone and television networks, so organizations had some time to adapt. Today a social-media service can be developed in weeks, and hundreds of millions of people can be using it within months. This intense pace of innovation gives organizations no time to adapt to one medium before the arrival of the next.

The tremendous change in our world triggered by this media inundation can be summed up in a word: transparency. We can now see further, faster, and more cheaply and easily than ever before—and we can be seen. And you and I can see that everyone can see what we see, in a recursive hall of mirrors of mutual knowledge that both enables and hobbles. The age old game of hide-and-seek that has shaped all life on the planet has suddenly shifted its playing field, its equipment and its rules. The players who cannot adjust will not last long.

The impact on our organizations and institutions will be profound. Governments, armies, churches, universities, banks and companies all evolved to thrive in a relatively murky epistemological environment, in which most knowledge was local, secrets were easily kept, and individuals were, if not blind, myopic. When these organizations suddenly find themselves exposed to daylight, they quickly discover that they can no longer rely on old methods; they must respond to the new transparency or go extinct.•

Tags: ,

In his NYRB review of Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, Thomas Nagel is largely laudatory even though he believes his fellow philosopher ultimately guilty of “maintaining a thesis at all costs,” writing that:

Dennett believes that our conception of conscious creatures with subjective inner lives—which are not describable merely in physical terms—is a useful fiction that allows us to predict how those creatures will behave and to interact with them.

Nagel draws an analogy between Dennett’s ideas and the Behaviorism of B.F. Skinner and other mid-century psychologists, a theory that never was truly satisfactory in explaining the human mind. Dennett’s belief that we’re more machine-like than we want to believe is probably accurate, though his assertion that all consciousness is illusory–if that’s what he’s arguing–seems off.

Dennett’s life work about consciousness and evolution has certainly crested at right moment, as we’re beginning to wonder in earnest about AI and non-human-consciousness, which seems possible at some point if not on the immediate horizon. In a Financial Times interview conducted by John Thornhill, Dennett speaks to the nature and future of robotics.

An excerpt:

AI experts tend to draw a sharp distinction between machine intelligence and human consciousness. Dennett is not so sure. Where many worry that robots are becoming too human, he argues humans have always been largely robotic. Our consciousness is the product of the interactions of billions of neurons that are all, as he puts it, “sorta robots”.

“I’ve been arguing for years that, yes, in principle it’s possible for human consciousness to be realised in a machine. After all, that’s what we are,” he says. “We’re robots made of robots made of robots. We’re incredibly complex, trillions of moving parts. But they’re all non-miraculous robotic parts.” …

Dennett has long been a follower of the latest research in AI. The final chapter of his book focuses on the subject. There has been much talk recently about the dangers posed by the emergence of a superintelligence, when a computer might one day outstrip human intelligence and assume agency. Although Dennett accepts that such a superintelligence is logically possible, he argues that it is a “pernicious fantasy” that is distracting us from far more pressing technological problems. In particular, he worries about our “deeply embedded and generous” tendency to attribute far more understanding to intelligent systems than they possess. Giving digital assistants names and cutesy personas worsens the confusion.

“All we’re going to see in our own lifetimes are intelligent tools, not colleagues. Don’t think of them as colleagues, don’t try to make them colleagues and, above all, don’t kid yourself that they’re colleagues,” he says.

Dennett adds that if he could lay down the law he would insist that the users of such AI systems were licensed and bonded, forcing them to assume liability for their actions. Insurance companies would then ensure that manufacturers divulged all of their products’ known weaknesses, just as pharmaceutical companies reel off all their drugs’ suspected side-effects. “We want to ensure that anything we build is going to be a systemological wonderbox, not an agency. It’s not responsible. You can unplug it any time you want. And we should keep it that way,” he says.•

Tags: , ,