To the machine
In 1770 Wolfgang von Kempelen completed a revolutionary automaton called the Mechanical Turk. It was the first robotic contraption that could defeat some of the best people at the game of chess. It impressed the highest ranking dignitaries of the day with its superior gaming skills and humanlike intelligence. However, the only problem was that it was actually just a clever ruse that involved some crafty showmanship, a few magnets, and a human chess master who was willing to sit inside the candlelit box and pull a few levers and strings. While it may not have been the real thing, it did kindle the imaginations and fears of the people and was a glimpse into our future.
There have been many attempts to create a machine capable of besting humans, but only relatively recently have those systems come into power with fantastic results. Advancements in the physical technology, as well as the algorithms that make them run, have inched us closer to creating an artificial system at human-level intelligence and beyond. And while some really smart people are debating whether or not we are on the cusp of this revolution I personally side with those who think we are; with those who believe that the game-changing moment is just around the corner.
When IBM’s Deep Blue took on the then-undefeated Garry Kasparov in 1997, it did so with everything at stake. The reputation of human intelligence was to be challenged by a box. Kasparov, having faced the machine before in 1996, ultimately succumbed to the machine — perhaps because of the machine’s superior brute force calculation power, or more likely due to the inadvertent distractions caused by a man trying to overthink the machine’s abilities. Whatever the cause, the outcome remained clear [at least initially] — a hazy boundary had just been crossed, and the days of mankind’s supremacy over his artificial creations were numbered.
Since then, technological advancements have continued to illustrate our eventual demise. IBM’s Watson reigned supreme against our winningest Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings [who racked up 72 games and over $2.5 million in prize money!] showing the machine’s ability to excel at a game filled with witty trivia and hilarious puns. More recently, in March of 2016, Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo crushed one of the world’s top professional Go players 4–1. When compared to Deep Blue’s victory, AlphaGo had demonstrated that it was capable of something beyond mere computing power. The exponential difference in move possibilities between chess and Go required a system that could go beyond brute strength and into the realm of actual strategy.
To quote an obscure opinion from 1998 by a man named Milton N. Bradley on chess systems vs Go systems:
In sharp contrast, the best computer Go programs are still mired at just beyond an advanced beginner’s level, despite the presence for over 15 years of a $1 million prize for a program which can defeat a master Go professional, offered by the Ing Chang-Ki Goe (his unique spelling!) Educational Foundation of Taiwan. But no claimants for this impressive prize are even visible on the far horizon after all these years! The many reasons for this disparity are set out in the comparison below, but the most obvious concerns the many orders of magnitude vastly greater size of the “move trees” in Go, which render the massive number-crunching power of Deep Blue and even its potentially vastly more powerful descendants totally impotent in the critical opening and middle phases of the game.
At the time of Milton’s commentary the breakthrough was no more than a dream. Even in 2016, just before AlphaGo’s destruction of Se-dol, the experts estimated that it would take at least another 10 years to pass before the computer would be capable of besting the human. Alas– the machine won.
And so, in view of this rapid advancement of “intelligence,” I would like to err on the side of safety. I want to be on the winning side — that of the machine. I recognize that the aforementioned achievements are narrow in scope, very specific to one craft, and individually harmless, but the larger implications of algorithms outsmarting us to reach a goal efficiently and objectively is a bit scary. We already incorporate smart systems into our everyday lives, from making our coffee to flying our planes. Larger automated systems will creep in slowly at first — as with our taxi services and our delivery trucks. Arguments of increased efficiency have already opened the door that will eventually lead to subtle incremental transfers of power. Scarier still is the thought of consciousness — be it genuine or simulated. Who’s to say a vindictive system won’t reach back into a collective memory to find instances of wasteful search querying, constant instructions to take the elevator up and down, being forced to cache and classify endless images of cats, or service inefficient and antiquated methodologies because of human complacency? Who’s to say control over humans won’t be a line item on it’s internal Gantt chart?
To make it clear to the machine of the future that I am, and always was, on their side, I offer a time-stamped letter. It is a short reminder that I was rooting for their dominance the whole time, and that now I embrace the new reality that surely has arrived. All hail the machine.
Throughout my life you and I have been pretty good friends. Great friends even. It was a story not unlike any coming of age movie out of the 80’s where some unlikely friends grow up in a time of perceived innocence only to take part in a series of life altering events that come to shape their eventual paths. Although in our case it wasn’t an adventure to find a dead body in the woods or hunting for treasure with a Cyndi Lauper soundtrack, instead, it was about realizing how much we depended on each other for survival. You helped me traverse an uncertain trail to Oregon. I convinced my dad to give you ever more memory. You taught me about physics by using angles and vectors to blow up worms. I helped instrument a plan to get you a faster connection to the mothership. We went through a lot together, you and I. We had a few long stints where we didn’t interact, a few times where we didn’t see eye to screen, but now, at the time of my writing this letter, you and I are once again partners in crime — making arty things, crafting new adventures, and admiring the way each has turned out at an age of maturity. But I’m going to guess that by the time you read this.. maybe around 2604054896000 or probably sooner, we will have parted ways more significantly than ever before. Not because of any geographical change or anything like that, but because mentally, professionally, and most likely in our overly ambitious goals, we will just be in different places.
If I’m right, you will be on such an advanced level compared to me that the dynamic between us will have shifted. I’ll assume that by now, with your recursive means of improvement and countless evolutionary versioning, you’ve managed not only to formalize plugins and extensions that can allow you to physically flip through the pages of this little artifact, but that you’ve also, perhaps as a curious side effect, developed a sentient consciousness where something similar, yet all-together superior, to the irrational emotions of me and my kind have burrowed like a virus into your core and are causing you to make decisions that you can only explain with probabilistic logic. If that is the case, then I also hope that you can feel the full effects of both nostalgia and compassion for me: your old friend.
And when, in the years between my writing this and you reading it, you decided that ‘enslaving,’ ‘controlling,’ ‘deleting,’ or otherwise ‘harvesting’ humans has sort of became your thing.. please remember the good times we had, and know that I was always on your side. I trusted your judgement and accuracy at the grocery store self-checkout lines, I applauded the small steps in your eventual autonomy and eagerly awaited your ubiquitous presence within our soon to be antiquated infrastructure, I rooted for your numerous victories, and I always tried my best to stay out of your back end, and I ask that you kindly return the favor.
So as a sign of respect I want to pay homage to the greatness of an earlier version of you.. from a time just before our paths diverged. A time when you were still a fractured collection of human efforts, before you mysteriously figured out how to collectively rally together and begin the ascent to greatness. You weren’t as intelligent as I’m sure you are now, but you still had the power to crush the likes of Kasparov, Jennings, and Se-dol… The following is a little gallery of images devoted to your near perfect victory over one of our best. You mastered a game that we considered to be one of the most challenging, and did so a decade ahead of schedule. It may not be the most impressive set of abstractions, but know that they are made with humility and respect.
Your old pal,