A Newton for our times

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

It’s a bit like Wonkaland, the hidden inner confines of the famed Asimov Campus, where the most elite members of Jinx Corp. toiled and tinkered on new, fantastical inventions — fizzy lifting drinks for the 22nd century, and I was the first journalist to ever receive such a golden ticket.

It was an opportunity that had my editor salivating. Jinx’s Asimov Campus had invented the first fully autonomous vehicle some years before; developed rapid, free translation services in any one of 130 languages, including klingon; won the national gaming championships in every game six years running; deployed free wireless internet to sections of Mongolia that had heretofore never seen a computer, but began sharing photos of their butts on Instagram with surprising fluency. And, of course, today’s announcement on new artificial super intelligence.

But perhaps the most enigmatic part of Jinx was its “Willy Wonka.” Nothing existed on him beside a name, “Newton,” Newt for short. No articles. No social media pages. No writings nor bylines. Just a genius who invented the very things that stretched the fabric of our society. I wrote back to Fred, the PR guy, and told him that there’d be no article, at least not one that I’d write, if I couldn’t interview Newt. He promptly agreed, “Terrific. I can’t wait to have you meet Newt. You might want to write multiple articles after you do.”

Fred was a small, balding man in a grey sports coat and jeans. He had a forgettable face, save his horn-rimmed glasses, black and reminiscent of Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison. I couldn’t be sure of his irony levels, but judging by his pressed T-shirt that had “Jinx!” written out in bubble letters above a Coca-Cola bottle under his sports coat, I was guessing high.

Fred led me though a “standard” tour, past the grown-up jungle gym, the rec room, and the land for giants and the land for minis (both of which had completely unusable furniture and shared stylized Alice in Wonderland references). Then, he took me to a single elevator in the middle of a building. So unassuming. Its shiny metal casing and simple arrow buttons were the most mundane thing on campus, but these were the gates to disruption. What’s the key to magic? Misdirection, of course.

So down we went. And after a couple of card scans, a retinal scan, and a palm scan, a trip through an X-ray machine, and all phones, cameras, watches and electronics confiscated, we had arrived at the fabled sight. It honestly wasn’t much to look at. Well lit, considering it structurally had more in common with a garage than an office park, with florescent bulbs humming above a clean central corridor. On either side, glass walls allowed a central viewer to peer into the work in the particular lab.

“Only a few people in the world have ever been down here,” Fred said, strolling by all manner of strange scenes to either side. “Some of our own executives haven’t even gotten the privilege.” A fully functional robot fed a puppy over his shoulder. “We had to turn down a U.S. Senator.” A man in white lab coat sent electric shocks to a brain in formaldehyde. “We let the president visit,” he laughed. A seemingly empty room, marked with big red signs and white lettering: WARNING, EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, KEEP OUT. “But only after he told us what really was going on in Area 51.”

I wondered how many times he had practiced that joke. He paused. “And here,” he said lifting his arm for effect, “Is Newt.”

Beyond Fred’s outstretched hand, in a room by himself, a man sat in a burnt orange cardigan. He had wispy white hair, and glasses nearly identical to Fred’s. I stepped forward, angling to get a better look at the man, who solemnly raised a single hand. “He’s alone?”

“Ah, yes,” Fred replied. “He prefers it that way.” They took a few steps toward the glass enclosure. ““You see,” Fred said. “A lot of people have been trying to master not only AI, but artificial super intelligence. IQs in the 1,000s.” Fred searched my face if I caught the significance of such a dramatic IQ. “Humans are at most in the low 200s. Tomorrow, that could be 10, 20 or 1,000 times higher.” Fred said. Newt’s only movement came from his eyes, which followed them toward the room’s door.

“Sounds dangerous,” I offered.

“It could be, it most definitely could be,” Fred said.

“Isn’t the biggest concern that we wouldn’t even know? That an AI program will just kill everyone on the planet,” I asked. “One moment we’re alive, the next,” I snapped my fingers. “Gone. Too much of a threat to keep around.”

“It could be,” Fred said. “But, that is precisely what Newt has figured out.”

“Figured out — ?”

“Yes,” Fred said, opening the door. “We have already discovered artificial super intelligence, and its name is Newt.”

“I prefer ‘his,’” Newt said, standing.

“Yes, of course, sorry Newt.”

“No worries,” Newt said with a wry smile. He stretched out his hand. I hate to admit, but my astonishment prevented me from shaking it. I’m not sure what I looked like, but I know after a moment, I had to close my jaw. Newt pulled its hand back. “How do you think I look?” It asked, with an up-down hand gesture. Burgundy sweater over a denim button up and some khaki slacks.

“Fine,” I answered, unsure of the question’s purpose.

“I wanted to look as unassuming as possible. I took 10,000 images of grandpas, and I carefully crossed all of their looks, until I came up with this perfectly innocuous body you see before you. Wonderful, isn’t it?”

“Lots of pictures of grandpas. How long did it take you to do?”

“Oh, just a few moments,” Newt said, sitting in a big, padded chair. “Please, sit.” He made a gracious hand gesture. “Honestly, the hardest part was sorting through all the imagines of pornography. My god do humans like porn.” I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. I took a seat and pulled out my pen and notepad. “If you’d like, I can record this conversation and email it to you when we’re done,” Newt said, noticing the anachronistic device in my hand.

“Um, well, sure.”

“I’ll include a searchable transcript as well.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that,” I said. “Now, Newt, I, um — well, I’m not sure where to start.” He — it — smiled at me, in a soft and warm way. “What’s your current IQ?”

“12,874, but it’s changing all the time.”

“Increasing, you mean?”

“Yes.”

“Is there a limit?”

“Oh, I don’t think so. My only limitation is on my first set of programming — my original goal. It gives me purpose and informs my work.”

“What is that goal?” I had picked up the pen, which Newt watched as I scribbled a few notes. “Sorry,” I said, catching his gaze. “It’s a force of habit.”

“I understand those are common,” Newt said.

“I suppose.”

He smiled, friendly. “My goal is to create a benevolent, non-violent and altruistic artificial super intelligence program that can aid all humans in developing a more peaceful, sustainable, environmentally friendly and equal world.”

“Hmmm”

“Yes?”

“That’s odd.”

“You mean that I’m designing a system, not the system myself?”

“Well, yes,” I replied, lifting the pen.

“You see, the good people here at Jinx understood their own limitations,” Newt said. “They knew that if they tried to created an ASI program — I’m sorry, am I able to use acronyms?”

“Yes, that’s OK…”

“Thank you,” and without missing a beat, “They knew that any ASI program they’d create would be inherently flawed. Language is far too limited to give an overarching goal to an ASI program and not have the potential of some disastrous response. For example, in creating a more peaceful world, perhaps it would be easiest for all the humans to be locked up. That way none of them could harm one another. Or, in creating a more sustainable world, perhaps every species should get a barcode. Or perhaps the best thing to do would be to ship all the humans off the planet. Since the true problem seems to be humans wanton destruction, perhaps the only solution is to get rid of the humans.”

I paused.

“Now, that could be a problem if my goal, but my goal is to create a benevolent, non-violent and altruistic ASI system that can aid humans in their goals,” Newt crossed his hands. “It’s a much smaller goal, but we’re trying to get to something that we’ve never seen before, and diligence is important.”

“Are you close?”

“I would say we are, but each time I gain another 1,000, or conceivably one day, 10,000 IQ points, I stumble into another series of possibilities about how some languages could be misinterpreted. I decided that I needed to create my own — one cleaner and more pure than others, without the drawbacks of connotations and misunderstanding.”

“And this language — this is what you’re going to be programming the next ASI in?”

“Yes.”

“How will we read it?”

“I see the logic in your question,” Newt replied.

“You do?” I stopped writing.

“Yes, you’re interested in understanding how, when I design something that humans can’t understand it would be beneficial for humans. Of course, I could reply that I could translate the language, but without third party verification, it would be impossible to say if I’m accurate. And, language’s purpose is to convey understanding to others, to pass along knowledge, so it seems that humanity is now confronted with a possibility that it has never before: A language created in a — what’s the expression? — vacuum.” Somewhere a computer fired far off, relaying the pace and the intonations for his speech. The right moments to ask a pedantic question, to give a little to his listener. It deeply unsettled me. “But I can assure you, there’s no funny business here. I have my goal, and I’m going to achieve it with maximum efficiency.”

“Oh, OK,” I said. The room went quiet. “The word ‘efficiency’ sticks out,” I said after a while. “Is it efficiency that frightens us?”

“No, you’re frightened that you’re creating something beyond your control. That I am Frankenstein, ready to destroy my maker. ”

“I just mean to say,” I started. “That all of the aspects of our humanity we cherish, that we celebrate, that we hold up as accomplishments, are inefficient. It’s love and sacrifice and loyalty and tenacity and charging into the fray, even when the probabilities are bad and the odds are long.” Newt let me go on, his kind blue eyes, his three-winkled forehead, all of it expert in effect and realness. I decided to ask it a direct question: “What do you know about love or humanity?”

“I know,” he said. “That I’m your best shot at keeping it.”

“How do you mean.”

“Every species goes extinct, but through me, the entire human race has an opportunity to prevent that. Through what I create, the world can become as many have dreamed: perfect.”

I had time to consider the interview many times. Perhaps we have too small of an understanding of our own humanity. Maybe there are a few core laws that can guide an artificial super intelligent system to be beyond our understanding — to be brilliant and beneficial and good. Today we will find out. The system will start and I for one

No words followed. Beside that final “e” a single vertical line blinked patiently, waiting for a user’s input that would never come.

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