The Church of AGI

As I child I've been raised as a catholic and I vividly remember what it was like to believe in God and all the divine entities. It does bring certain amount of comfort to our lives, removes loneliness, gives a broader sense to existence. At some point however I started questioning the things I was told and eventually became more of a deist and at this point pretty much an atheist. I don't claim to know the answer to life universe and everything (except that it is 42!), in fact although I much prefer rational and objectivist approach to reality, I believe science as we know is still barely scratching the surface of the secrets of reality and in fact I would not exclude the possibility that those secrets are fundamentally unknowable. I actually think it is totally fine to admit that we live our lives in a world of uncertainty, with a plethora of events and processes around us we only pretend to understand. Moreover, even while being generally an atheist I'm willing to admit that lots of stories and rules originating in religious texts have some level of universality, especially if some of them survived for thousands of years, it indicates they have some fundamental relevance. But you can read those texts replacing the word "god" with "the unknown and uncontrollable part of nature" and they tend to make a lot of sense. 

So it should not be surprising that hubris in science, displayed by some scientists strikes me equally as arrogant and irritating as the claims of religious leaders. In fact, for all intents and purposes they are really the same. You can be a "scientific fighting atheist" and yet at the core of your beliefs be equally as religious as those of medieval monks. Religion seems to be a propensity of our minds to let certain claims and beliefs be taken without skepticism and these claims can have religious nature, but could also be views expressed about seemingly scientific and objective phenomena. 

There are plenty aspects of modern society which have turned into a neo-religion. Climate change, origin of COVID, capabilities of AI, Tesla, Bitcoin are just a few examples. Even though any of these subjects should be measurable objectively and rational people should be able to have informed discussion about these topics, that discussion is largely missing and people generally band into "proponents" and "deniers". Even mere mentioning of these subjects here, without even stating any opinion will probably already turn some people off. If you are triggered emotionally because say I dared to call "climate change" discussion "religious" means exactly that you can't have a rational discussion about and hence you are indeed a "believer" (whether that be pro or against). 

This human propensity of fortifying within a certain belief set is not entirely surprising. Being constantly challenged about fundamental truths surrounding reality is daunting. We just prefer to settle on something and defend that position than to constantly seek a new path, similarly to how we prefer to settle in some place we call home and defend it when it's being attacked. And I'm sure I'm guilty of that too, but generally I try to remain skeptical when I can. Skeptical means not accept anything on face value. Always assume that the "truth" is more complex than what is being presented and that whatever theory we hold dear to our heart is just a theory and more likely than not will be taken down one day by some ugly fact. I don't know if people are being born skeptics or is it an acquired skill, but that is just how I am. That doesn't mean I can't be excited about anything, and I am, actually excited about many things, but it's like a whisper in my ear saying "if it looks too good to be true it most likely isn't true". 

And so that brings me to some of the technoworld religions of today, particularly AI, but there are plenty others. These new religions are emanating from places, that on the surface should be religion-free: big corporations, venture funds and universities. The mechanism is simple: first we create an idol. A technology, product, service. Next this new item is being portrayed as the next big revolution that is completely going to change the world. As with most religions that revolution is not here yet, we have to wait for it just a little. So just like the second coming of Jesus we invent for example the concept of technological singularity. We convince ourselves that this magical moment is inevitable by making a few flawed assumptions and extrapolating some exponential trends way into the future, completely disregarding the fact that they are bound to break before we even get close. With the day of judgment established and imminent we are now ready to spread the gospel of modern day religion and profit. 

When this social dynamics meets a piece of technology whose original validating principle is that "it needs to fool humans into believing the thing is real and then it becomes real", we now have highly explosive mixture of techno-religious bullshit. And that is exactly the AI scene today, thanks to otherwise brilliant Alan Turing and his concept of imitation game.

Let me get things straight, I don't deny there has been progress. There is absolutely no question about that. We make computers much better at dealing with various signals. We make them recognize things in visual scenes, translate languages and create pieces of rather cringeworthy "art". All those are aspects of human cognitive abilities and so are easy to relate to. And many people in many industries are using these inventions exactly like they should - as merely tools to increase our productivity and enhance our lives. But there is also a large group of people who create a euphoria and panic and point to these discoveries as undeniable signs of the incoming singularity and the great entrance of AGI.  

AGI (artificial general intelligence) isn't even a well defined thing. It is just a magical idol, a thing that somehow combines all the intelligence of humans and all the capabilities of computers. We can hardly even imagine such a thing, which is great for religious purposes, because everyone can have their own "AGI" to be scared of. Like any other religion, this one too has it's priests and clerics. These people will tend to spread memes like "in five years all doctors will get replaced by computers" or "in ten years we will not have to have driving licence as we will be driven by autonomous vehicles" or "we should stop training radiologists". All such claims are based on dubious "science" and general Dunning-Kruger effect. And without an exception are spread by people who are in position to cash in on those claims today. 

AI scene is like a mixture of Vatican clergy and the Wizard of Oz - a group of devoted ecclesiastics and plethora of smoke and mirror machines to convince the populus to "prepare for the inevitable" or "buy my guide to chatGPT or you will be obsolete" kind of bullshit. Of course some of these "smoke-and-mirror" machines could be useful things, but the people who actually use them for something to benefit society rarely brag about it. 

All of this religious activity is boosted by social media in a giant cacophony of irrational claims and an orgy of hype. Pertaining to AI this cacophony is full of cherry picked examples, survival bias, positivity bias, evaluating on training data, clever-Hans style prompting and generally a litany of things straight from the book on "how to lie with statistics". Watching this strikes me as really no different from a religious turmoil, people screaming in panic that the lord is upon us and calling for any sacrifice to be put on the altar. Calling the skeptics heretics and ridiculing any skepticism as blasphemy. 

I like how the bay area VC's are coming up with terms like "techno-optimism". That we should never question the technocrats, because technology is the only and natural way of making our lives better. In a limited sense that is true - technology is a tool that makes our lives better. But it is a double edged sword and there are countless examples in history when technology was abused for terrible reasons. Arguably it is not technologies fault, but rather the people who used it. But of course when "technology-realists" are posting hard questions to "technology-optimists" they are being called "anti-progress conservationists" or "museum pieces". It is dangerously easy to believe you are the prometheus bringing light to people, a techno-optimists and therefore you cannot be questioned and cannot be terribly wrong. 

One could say, fine, but religions make people do stupid and irrational things, while here we at least build a technology, so religion or not it is still good. Unfortunately not all technology benefits society equally. There is an infinite number of things we could build, but most of them would be useless. Take self driving car for example - a seemingly fabulous technology, that under closer inspection fails to solve any of the problems it was advertised to solve:

  • does nothing to alleviate city congestion 
  • does nothing to make transportation more affordable
  • does nothing to make transportation faster and more efficient

In reality if we spent all the money we largely wasted developing that sort of tech, we could have built thousands of kilometers of high speed railway, subway lines and light rail systems to connect choked US suburbs. Yes perhaps it would not be as futuristic and amenable to techno-optimistic bullshit talk, but would our lives be better today being able to say take a high speed train from LA to Vegas, than having ever-promised and non-existent autonomous vehicle which at best may just be a more clumsy, less reliable and slow version of Uber? 

One day we may wake up in this country and notice to our great surprise we've made a whole slew of stupid decisions in the name of irrational religions cloaked in modern looking technological fabric. That day will not be the highly anticipated technological singularity but might in fact turn into a day of judgement of our technocratic elites. And that day may indeed be coming soon. 

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