Can one meet a distributed entity in any meaningful sense?
—River of Gods, Ian Mcdonald
River of Gods was one of my favourite books of 2016. It takes place in a time when AI can (and often does) have a sense of self, an identity and capabilities that surpass us in a way we perceive as dangerous.
But it also posits that our sense of identity, our sense of self, is so fundamentally different from that of an AI that we can't even approach each other from the same rational framework. Mankind is characterised by slow data transmission: We have to go places, physically send things or speak in order to convey information, or make it travel.
An AI simply copies itself. It's an entity outside space/time; in the book, one AI assistant can be in many places at once, managing your live press conference in one locale while, elsewhere, answering emails, scheduling meetings and picking up calls.
The quote above is a fundamental question that highlights the difference between us and them: Can you actually know (and thus trust) an entity that can be here meeting you, but could conceivably also be here in a thousand other places at once?
In the film Her, this was one of the sticking points for our protagonist. He's having this big conversation with his sultry-voiced OS, a relationship-defining conversation, and he's thrown off by the fact that, however sincere and invested she seems, she's also having a hundred other discussions simultaneously. We can't quite do that, even on our best multi-tasking day.
But today the quote stuck out to me because I started thinking, well, we all do that anyway, within the realm of what is possible. The person I am to my parents is different from the one I am to my close friends, or people who know me exclusively online. Even if we were all to meet in the same room, some people may feel shades of the Angela they don't know, but mostly their existing picture of me would remain intact.
With this in mind, the biggest difference is that an AI can be all these Angelas simultaneously—having dinner with my parents in California while attending a meeting here in Paris.
We don't fear artificial intelligence because of its failure to meaningfully relate; we fear the way it challenges our own limitations, our mortality—the way we are enslaved to space/time.
From this angle, it seems petty. My hope in 2017 is not to want to be more than what I am. It doesn't seem to guide us toward anything good. (In River of Gods, it leads to war.)
Photo credit: CSLD on Getty Images