Humans Surprisingly Easy to Impress with Boring Recycled Arguments, if Arguments Come from a Magic Electronic Oracle

I liked Watson. The ability to discover patterns in huge amounts of raw data and report a highly-relevant response to a spoken query is a huge labor-saving advancement, especially for medical diagnostics. Natural language interaction with our data is going to make so many things easier for so many people.

But the expectations swirling around IBM Debater are completely asinine. If you watch the embedded video, they are clearly expecting the machine to make original contributions to debates, and the hope is that people will take arguments from the computer and give those more weight because they are ostensibly dispassionate, objective opinions untainted by ulterior motives or emotion.

This is hopelessly naïve. The machine is only aping a debater by synthesizing data and grammatical forms in order to spit out the data it’s been given in a natural-language format that looks like participation in a debate. It cannot originate an opinion because it has no ability to make its own value judgments. Those have been hardwired in by the designers of the software, and until we manage to build synthetic consciousness (if it is even possible) it can be no other way.

Let me explain by rewinding to Deep Blue. This was hailed at the time as the watershed moment when the computer surpassed the human at something seen as a unique human aptitude. But the computer did not defeat Kasparov. The software designers did. If you had in your hand the chess-playing-plan they wrote into Deep Blue, and had memorized the same encyclopedia of past games and probabilities, and had the ability to navigate that information at the speed of an electron across silicon, you would have beaten Garry Kasparov too.

Whether it is Deep Blue beating a chessmaster, Watson beating all comers at Jeopardy, or Project Debater defeating a debate champion, in no case are you seeing the machine becoming more insightful or intelligent than the human. What we do see are programmers isolating the variables and the winning conditions of a game, and systematizing a path to victory that can be executed on command. The computer isn’t playing. The programmers are.

As they admit in the article, judging a debate is pretty subjective. Staged formal debates like this are less truth-seeking endeavors and more like a persuasion contest. In the example debate in the article, the machine took on the task of defending a proposition that no doubt 98% of the audience already agreed with (space projects should be government subsidized). In the video it chooses to defend the idea of subsidizing music education. They got to hear their own opinions burped back at them by a real-life Deep Thought. Of course they were going to say it was persuasive!

Maybe it chooses its position by the volume of supporting data it has been given, or the past efficacy of arguments it plans to recycle. Either way, its system for choosing a position is itself a position. That choice came with some preconceived values smuggled in and they should not be painted as the dispassionate view of a rigorous, objective oracle. Based on the machine’s positions evident in the article and video, my guess would be that it sifted the source material for the most authoritative and frequently successful argument. “It would clearly benefit society” is an extremely weak argument, easily detonated by a broader understanding of economics. There’s a whole host of unintuitive, hard to detect costs. Whether there “should” be a subsidized space program boils down to whether you believe the short list of interesting benefits outweighs those downsides, and whether you believe any of those downsides are morally deal-breakers.

But the sources of authoritative opinion on a subject like that are overwhelmingly in one camp, having been reinforcing each other in their preconceptions for the past several decades. So the machine turned out to be an excellent reflector of the zeitgeist of the people who built it.

The conundrum that philosophical materialists keep running into and failing to resolve is that you can’t extract an ought from an is. Your life is full of oughts so where do they come from? Just the data around you? No. Purpose and obligation come from something else, and materialists have a hard time quantifying it without contradicting themselves.

You can find Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson chasing each other around in circles about this on YouTube somewhere. The celebrity atheists are constantly making “should” and “ought” statements but can never bring themselves to admit that they’re borrowing a heck of a lot from Christianity to make those statements possible. I bring this up to say: These computers are lightning-fast navigators of the “is.” Project Debater inherits its “oughts” from its makers or at least the patterns and sources they already trust. It will never be able to make creative deviations until it can have goals and values the way a human mind (soul?) does. In the mean time it might be able to say one day, “if you value X most highly, then Z is likely to be an efficient course of action.” But even then it’s going to run into a lot of politically incorrect conclusions.

I believe this project will be most useful to people who want to rapidly generate a best-attempt at multiple arguments from multiple angles, to use as a jumping-off point for further thought. Those who just take the machine at its word will not be guided by a benevolent Asimovian robot shepherd, but by the biases of the programmers who built it. Worse, those biases would only become more extreme because the machine has made them invisible under a covering of the mystical authority people are always vesting technology with.

The Controversial Case of Facebook Being Facebook

I guess the outrage du jour is Cambridge Analytica. A data analysis company may have used Facebook profiling to help design and spread messages promoting Donald Trump during the election. It’s a good thing this has come out about a candidate and politician the press universally loathes or you may have never heard about it.

It sounds like Cambridge Analytica circumvented Facebook’s terms of use at least briefly, but keep in mind that their “violation” was technically trivial to pull off. The NSA is doing far more and without any pretense of a legitimate business relationship.

This kind of thing is exactly what Facebook exists for. Facebook is crack for your information-scavenging brain and given to you for free exactly because the data you give it is worth countless billions to those who want to influence you.

If you don’t think it’s a good idea for people you don’t know, with goals you don’t share, to be able to mine the deepest recesses of your interests and behaviors, you have two options. Use Facebook a lot less, or find a platform that does not run on top of a giant centralized data wholesaler. Maybe you’re not bothered at all by the idea. That’s fine too, but at least now you know.

If you’re looking for alternatives, perhaps for a special interest group that otherwise would be a private group on Facebook, take a look at Gab, Minds, or Diaspora.

A Little Something on Stephen Hawking

Whenever I tried to imagine a fantasy round table conversation with any three people then living (a neat mental exercise to see who you really admire), Professor Stephen Hawking was always first on my list. Partly because he was a rock star scientist, but mostly because he was the most uncanny real-life example of the principle of “mind over matter.”

People face all kinds of adversity, and when that adversity is imposed by other people — evils like wars, man-made famines, or even just subtle persecution in the workplace — at least the human element makes it explainable, understandable, and possibly fixable. But disease is one of those adversities imposed by nature that can seem completely arbitrary, a sign of an absurd cosmos that wouldn’t give a damn about you or what you wanted even if it could. Especially if you are an atheist like Professor Hawking was.

The fact that he didn’t descend into a depressive spiral and die on schedule in the 1960s makes him someone worth learning from in my opinion. In that spirit, here are some things he’s said on the subject of life.

  • “Keeping an active mind has been vital to my survival, as has been maintaining a sense of humor.”
  • “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”
  • “I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”
  • “However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”
  • “People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”