They Can’t Both Be Right … Can They?

By | March 26, 2018

Max and Isaac come to the Rabbi’s study to settle a dispute. The Rabbi’s wife is also seated in the room. Max explains his complaint to the Rabbi: the story is such and so, and he has to do this and he has to do that. He gives a fine account and argues his case clearly. The Rabbi declares, “You’re right, Max.” Next, Isaac presents his side. He speaks with such passion and persuasion that the Rabbi says to him, “You’re right, Isaac.” After they leave, the Rabbi’s wife says to her husband, “How can you say that both of them are right? When one wins, the other must lose.” The Rabbi thinks long and hard and finally says to his wife, “You know, you’re right.”

Harry Leichter’s Jewish Humor

I know how the rabbi feels. I once listened to someone making the case for a return to the gold standard and a contrarian who thought it to be a dumb idea. I came away persuaded by both arguments. Had she been present, the rabbi’s wife would have thought me a wimp. The problem, of course, was that I hadn’t the competence to make the technical merit judgment. I did, however, adopting the system used by those wIho judge figure skating performances, award more points to the gold standard advocate on the basis of artistic merit. He was a nice, amiable, well-spoken person. Isn’t that often the way? The attractive advocate wins the day. When all was said and done, however, the debate had been, for me, a mere academic exercise. I had no skin in the game.
There is, however, a debate going on at the moment where I do have skin in the game; where being able to make judgments about technical merit is going to be more important than artistic merit. We all, in fact, have skin in this particular game.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard the discussions going on around the development of artificial intelligence. And, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have heard reference to the “singularity;” the coming into being of an artificial super intelligence that would, to put not too fine a point on it, develop a mind of its own. The consequences of this development are unknown. As Mehmet Akten, an artist and computer scientist studying artificial intelligence said, “The reason they call it the singularity is that it’s a point beyond which you cannot see.”
For every Ray Kurzweil who can hardly wait for the arrival of this golden age, there are some significant contrarians out there. Stephen Hawking says that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” And Elon Musk has called AI the “biggest existential threat” facing mankind. Both positions can’t both be right … can they? There’s considerable brain power on either side of this debate.

Whether one occupies a golden age or a doomsday position on this continuum, one thing is certain and that is that the social and, therefore, moral and ethical implications of the research that’s going on are profound. I began poking about to see what might be found if I did an ethics of artificial intelligence search. One of the first things I came across was a reference to machine ethics which Wikipedia tells me “is concerned with the moral behavior of artificial moral agents. (AMA) Artificial moral agents! Think about the notion of “artificial moral agency” and tell me you don’t twitch just a little bit.

As I was mulling over and twitching my way through this brain-freezing concept, I was reminded of something Mark Twain said. “Man is the only animal that blushes … or needs to.” As I pondered the implications of this throwaway line; this little dose of folk wisdom, I came up with a question I decided I could answer about the vexed matter of the singularity. It went something like this: Would I trust an artificial moral agent that doesn’t blush? The answer is an unequivocal “No.” Here’s why.

It won’t come as a surprise to regular Random Riff readers that I’d finally get round to jazz. In a nutshell, I regularly have blush worthy moments on the bandstand. Sometimes it’s just incompetence. I screw up. Sometimes it’s because I’m not paying attention to what’s going on around me. Sometimes it’s because I’m playing at the edge and knowingly taking a risk. Coleman Hawkins sums it up succinctly. “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying.” Pianist Kenny Barron says “part of the act of performing jazz is taking chances, and sometimes the chances you take don’t work. But the craft is taking an idea that doesn’t work and turning it into something that does work.” With imagination and ingenuity, musical saves can take performances in new directions and, in the process, performers to places they’ve never been before. Rollo May describes innovation as the “moment of effective surprise.” It is these moments that have inspired the human enterprise in all its myriad forms for as long as we’ve been around. Speaking personally, were it not for these moments, jazz would not be jazz. It would be close order drill and I’d be looking for some other way to spend my time.

Will an artificial super intelligence blush and find itself needing to make something akin to a jazzer making a musical save? Will it find itself experiencing a moment of effective surprise? Will it use imagination and ingenuity to take its performance in a new direction to a place it’s never been before? I have no answer for this because, as Akten says, the singularity is a point beyond which you cannot see. But I have anxious intimations and I’m imagining that the creators of an artificial moral agent may be the ones who come to experience a surprised, blushful moment.

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