[Humanist] 23.302 fears and desires

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Sep 16 07:57:04 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 302.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 16 Sep 2009 06:56:22 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: fears and desires

Some here may have read earlier this year an attention-grabbing story in 
the New York Times, for 26 July, "Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart 
Man", www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/science/26robot.html. It reports on a 
conference of AI folks, held at the Asilomar conference site in 
California, in February 2009, a preliminary report of which may be found 
on the AAAI site, www.aaai.org/Organization/Panel/panel-note.pdf. 
Whatever else one may say about this, the mere fact that it would happen 
is significant.

I ran across the report of this event thanks to Pamela McCorduck, whose 
book, Machines Who Think: A Personal Inquiry into the History and 
Prospects of Artificial Intelligence (1979; rev edn 2003), is very much 
worth the candle -- not only for the transcripts of interviews she held 
with some of the major figures in AI all those years ago but also for 
the balance she strikes between documentary and reflective writing. Her 
chapters entitled "Us and Them" (8) and "L'Affaire Dreyfus" (9) shed 
more light than most attempts I've encountered to deal with people's 
fears and articles of faith concerning what computing machines are 
capable of.

That the fears are not generational, not an artefact of the time when 
machines were first coming into public view and getting so thoroughly 
involved in the Cold War, is strongly suggested by the Asilomar event. 
I'd say we have simply dozed off in our comfortable chairs with our warm 
laptops silently at the ready.

The polarization among smart people as well as not so smart, between 
those who wave the garlic and those who embrace the faith, makes me 
wonder what happened to true agnosticism. Must we commit to advance?

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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