G.K. Chesterton On AI Risk

by Scott Alexander 3y1st Apr 2017No comments

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[An SSC reader working at an Oxford library stumbled across a previously undiscovered manuscript of G.K. Chesterton’s, expressing his thoughts on AI, x-risk, and superintelligence. She was kind enough to send me a copy, which I have faithfully transcribed]

The most outlandish thing about the modern scientific adventure stories is that they believe themselves outlandish. Mr. H. G. Wells is considered shocking for writing of inventors who travel thousands of years into the future, but the meanest church building in England has done the same. When Jules Verne set out to ‘journey to the center of the earth’ and ‘from the earth to the moon’, he seemed but a pale reflection of Dante, who took both voyages in succession before piercing the Empyrean itself. Ezekiel saw wheels of spinning flame and reported them quite soberly; our modern writers collapse in rapture before the wheels of a motorcar.

Yet if the authors disappoint, it is the reviewers who dumbfound. For no sooner does a writer fancy himself a Poe or a Dunsany for dreaming of a better sewing machine, but there comes a critic to call him overly fanciful, to accuse him of venturing outside science into madness. It is not enough to lower one’s sights from Paradise to a motorcar; one must avoid making the motorcar too bright or fast, lest it retain a hint of Paradise.

The followers of Mr. Samuel Butler speak of thinking-machines that grow grander and grander until – quite against the wishes of their engineers – they become as tyrannical angels, firmly supplanting the poor human race. This theory is neither exciting nor original; there have been tyrannical angels since the days of Noah, and our tools have been rebelling against us since the first peasant stepped on a rake. Nor have I any doubt that what Butler says will come to pass. If every generation needs its tyrant-angels, then ours has been so inoculated against the original that if Lucifer and all his hosts were to descend upon Smithfield Market to demand that the English people bend the knee, we should politely ignore them, being far too modern to have time for such things. Butler’s thinking-machines are the only tyrant-angels we will accept; fate, ever accommodating, will surely give them to us.

Yet no sooner does Mr. Butler publish his speculations then a veritable army of hard-headed critics step forth to say he has gone too far. Mr. Maciej Ceglowski, the Polish bookmark magnate, calls Butler’s theory “the idea that eats smart people” (though he does not tell us whether he considers himself digested or merely has a dim view of his own intellect). He says that “there is something unpleasant about AI alarmism as a cultural phenomenon that should make us hesitate to take it seriously.”

When Jeremiah prophecied Jerusalem’s fall, his fellow Hebrews no doubt considered his alarmism an unpleasant cultural phenomenon. And St. Paul was not driven from shore to shore because his message was pleasant to the bookmark magnates of his day. Fortified by such examples, we may wonder if this is a reason to take people more seriously rather than less. So let us look more closely at the contents of Mr. Ceglowski’s dismissal.

He writes that there are two perspectives to be taken on any great matter, the inside or the outside view. The inside view is when we think about it directly, taking it on its own terms. And the outside view is when we treat it as part of a phenomenon, asking what it resembles and whether things like it have been true in the past. And, he states, Butler’s all-powerful thinking machines resemble nothing so much as “a genie from folklore”.

I have no objection to this logic, besides that it is not carried it to its conclusion. The idea of thinking machines resembles nothing so much as a fairy tale from the Arabian Nights, and such fairy tales inevitably come true. Sinbad’s voyages have been outstripped by Magellan’s, Abdullah’s underwater breathing is matched by Mr. Fleuss’ SCUBA, and the Wright brothers’ Flyer goes higher than any Indian carpet. That there are as yet no genies seems to me less an inevitable law than a discredit to the industry of our inventors.

There is a certain strain of thinker who insists on being more naturalist than Nature. They will say with great certainty that since Thor does not exist, Mr. Tesla must not exist either, and that the stories of Asclepius disprove Pasteur. This is quite backwards: it is reasonable to argue that the Wright Brothers will never fly because Da Vinci couldn’t; it is madness to say they will never fly because Daedalus could. As well demand that we must deny Queen Victoria lest we accept Queen Mab, or doubt Jack London lest we admit Jack Frost. Nature has never been especially interested in looking naturalistic, and it ignores these people entirely and does exactly what it wants.

Now, scarce has one posited the possibility of a genie, before the question must be asked whether it is good or evil, a pious genie or an unrighteous djinn. Our interlocutor says that it shall be good – or at least not monomaniacal in its wickedness. For, he tells us, “complex minds are likely to have complex motivations; that may be part of what it even means to be intelligent”. A dullard may limit his focus to paper clips, but the mind of a genius should have to plumb the width and breadth of Heaven before satiating itself.

But I myself am a dullard, and I find paper clips strangely uninteresting. And the dullest man in a country town can milk a cow, pray a rosary, sing a tune, and court a girl all in the same morning. Ask him what is good in life, and he will talk your ear off: sporting, going for a walk in the woods, having a prosperous harvest, playing with a newborn kitten. It is only the genius who limits himself to a single mania. Alexander spent his life conquering, and if he had lived to a hundred twenty, he would have been conquering still. Samuel Johnson would not stop composing verse even on his deathbed. Even a village idiot can fall in love; Newton never did. That greatest of scientists was married only to his work, first the calculus and later the Mint. And if one prodigy can spend his span smithing guineas, who is to say that another might not smith paper clips with equal fervor?

Perhaps sensing that his arguments are weak, Ceglowski moves from the difficult task of critiquing Butler’s tyrant-angels to the much more amenable one of critiquing those who believe in them. He says that they are megalomanical sociopaths who use their belief in thinking machines as an excuse to avoid the real work of improving the world.

He says (presumably as a parable, whose point I have entirely missed) that he lives in a valley of silicon, which I picture as being surrounded by great peaks of glass. And in that valley, there are many fantastically wealthy lords. Each lord, upon looking through the glass peaks and seeing the world outside with all its misery, decides humans are less interesting than machines, and fritters his fortune upon spreading Butlerist doctrine. He is somewhat unclear on why the lords in the parable do this, save that they are a “predominantly male gang of kids, mostly white, who are…more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings”, who inevitably decide Butlerism is “more important than…malaria” and so leave the poor to die of disease.

Yet Lord Gates, an avowed Butlerite, has donated two billion pounds to fighting malaria and developed a rather effective vaccine. Mr. Karnofsky, another Butlerite, founded a philanthropic organization that moved sixty million pounds to the same cause. Even the lowly among the Butlerites have been inspired to at least small acts of generosity. A certain Butlerite doctor of my acquaintance (whom I recently had to rebuke for his habit of forging pamphlets in my name) donated seventy-five hundred pounds to a charity fighting malaria just last year. If the hardest-headed critic has done the same, I shall eat my hat1. The proverb says that people in glass houses should not throw stones; perhaps the same is true of glass valleys.

I have met an inordinate number of atheists who criticize the Church for devoting itself to the invisible and the eternal, instead of to the practical and hard-headed work of helping the poor on Earth. They list all of the great signs of Church wealth – the grand cathedrals, the priestly vestments – and ask whether all of that might not better be spent on poorhouses, or dormitories for the homeless. In vain do I remind them that the only place in London where a poor man may be assured of a meal is the church kitchens, and that if he needs a bed the first person he will ask is the parish priest. In vain do I mention the saintly men who organize Christian hospitals in East Africa. The atheist accepts all of it, and says it is not enough. Then I ask him if he himself has ever given the poor a shilling, and he tells me that is beside the point.

Why are those most fixated on something vast and far away so often the only ones to spare a thought for the poor right beside them? Why did St. Francis minister to the lepers, while the princes of his day, seemingly undistracted by the burdens of faith, nevertheless found themselves otherwise engaged? It is simply this – that charity is the fruit of humility, and humility requires something before which to humble one’s self. The thing itself matters little; the Hindoo who prostrates himself before elephants is no less humble than the Gnostic who prostrates himself before ultimate truth; perhaps he is more so. It is contact with the great and solemn that has salutary effects on the mind, and if to a jungle-dweller an elephant is greatest of all, it is not surprising that factory-dwellers should turn to thinking-machines for their contact with the transcendent.

And it is that contact which Mr. Ceglowski most fears. For he thinks that “if everybody contemplates the infinite instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera.” I wonder if he has ever treated a cholera patient. This is not a rhetorical question; the same pamphlet-forging doctor of my acquaintance went on a medical mission to Haiti during the cholera epidemic there. It seems rather odd that someone who has never fought cholera, should be warning someone who has, that his philosophy prevents him from fighting cholera.

And indeed, this formulation is exactly backward. If everyone fixes drains instead of contemplating the infinite, we shall all die of cholera, if we do not die of boredom first. The heathens sacrificed to Apollo to avert plague; if we know now that we must fix drains instead, it is only through contemplating the infinite. Aristotle contemplated the infinite and founded Natural Philosophy; St. Benedict contemplated the infinite and preserved it. Descartes contemplated the infinite and derived the equations of optics; Hooke contemplated infinity and turned them into the microscope. And when all of these infinities had been completed – the Forms of Plato giving way to the orisons of monks, the cold hard lines of the natural philosophers terminating in the green hills of England to raise smokestacks out of empty fields – then and only then did the heavens open, a choir of angels break into song, and a plumber fix a drain.

But he is not trapped in finitude, oh no, not he! What is a plumber but one who plumbs infinite depths? When one stoops to wade among the waste and filth to ensure the health of his fellow men, does he not take on a aspect beyond the finite, a hint of another One who descended into the dirt and grime of the world so that mankind might live? When one says that there shall certainly never be thinking-machines, because they remind him too much of God, let that man open his eyes until he is reminded of God by a plumber, or a symphony, or a dreary Sunday afternoon. Let him see God everywhere he looks, and then ask himself whether the world is truly built so that grand things can never come to pass. Mr. Butler’s thinking-machines will come to pass not because they are extraordinary, but precisely because they are ordinary, in a world where extraordinary things are the only constant of everyday life.

[1: EDIT 4/2: Mr. Ceglowski wants to clarify that he does in fact give to charity]

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