Artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier has penned a longread for The Edge where he argues that the biggest threat of artificial intelligence comes from the fact that it's an elaborate fraud, and that it introduces religious thinking to what should otherwise be a technical field.

Lanier, the author of Who Owns the Future and You Are Not a Gadget, is basically saying that a mythology is emerging around the development of artificial intelligence, and that it's increasingly working to serve the interests of the elite and at the expense of the rest of us.

As he writes in his new article, "The Myth of AI":


A good starting point might be the latest round of anxiety about artificial intelligence, which has been stoked by some figures who I respect tremendously, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. And the reason it's an interesting starting point is that it's one entry point into a knot of issues that can be understood in a lot of different ways, but it might be the right entry point for the moment, because it's the one that's resonating with people.

The usual sequence of thoughts you have here is something like: "so-and-so," who's a well-respected expert, is concerned that the machines will become smart, they'll take over, they'll destroy us, something terrible will happen. They're an existential threat, whatever scary language there is. My feeling about that is it's a kind of a non-optimal, silly way of expressing anxiety about where technology is going. The particular thing about it that isn't optimal is the way it talks about an end of human agency.

But it's a call for increased human agency, so in that sense maybe it's functional, but I want to go little deeper in it by proposing that the biggest threat of AI is probably the one that's due to AI not actually existing, to the idea being a fraud, or at least such a poorly constructed idea that it's phony. In other words, what I'm proposing is that if AI was a real thing, then it probably would be less of a threat to us than it is as a fake thing.

What do I mean by AI being a fake thing? That it adds a layer of religious thinking to what otherwise should be a technical field. Now, if we talk about the particular technical challenges that AI researchers might be interested in, we end up with something that sounds a little duller and makes a lot more sense.

For instance, we can talk about pattern classification. Can you get programs that recognize faces, that sort of thing? And that's a field where I've been active. I was the chief scientist of the company Google bought that got them into that particular game some time ago. And I love that stuff. It's a wonderful field, and it's been wonderfully useful.

But when you add to it this religious narrative that's a version of the Frankenstein myth, where you say well, but these things are all leading to a creation of life, and this life will be superior to us and will be dangerous ... when you do all of that, you create a series of negative consequences that undermine engineering practice, and also undermine scientific method, and also undermine the economy.

Lanier also considers the history of organized religion, arguing that it consistently disempowers people in order to serve the perceived needs of some deity or another — when in fact what they were doing was supporting an elite class that was the preisthood for that deity.

That looks an awful lot like the new digital economy to me, where you have (natural language) translators and everybody else who contributes to the corpora that allow the data schemes to operate, contributing mostly to the fortunes of whoever runs the top computers. The new elite might say, "Well, but they're helping the AI, it's not us, they're helping the AI." It reminds me of somebody saying, "Oh, build these pyramids, it's in the service of this deity," but, on the ground, it's in the service of an elite. It's an economic effect of the new idea. The effect of the new religious idea of AI is a lot like the economic effect of the old idea, religion.

Provocative stuff, to be sure. But I sincerely hope these sorts of discussions don't distract us from foresight activities that can genuinely work to prevent an AI catastrophe. There's nothing "fake" about AI posing an existential risk, despite the convoluted language that often accompanies these discussions.


Read the entire article at The Edge.