First, let’s look at a blog from mini.quietbabylon.com:
One of my favourite recurring tropes of AI speculation/singulatarian deep time thinking is mediations on how an evil AI or similar might destroy us.
Here’s a recent example, Ross Anderson on human extinction as quoted/linked by Kottke. It’s a discussion about how a benign AI might be poorly designed and lead to our downfall. What happens is the AI is given a goal that is proximate to helping people but not identical to (because no one even knows what that means).
The scenario imagined is one where there is a button that humans push if the AI gets an answer right and the AI wants to get a lot of button presses, and eventually it realizes that the best way to get button presses is to kill all the humans and institute a rapid fire button-pressing regime. (This, by the way, is the same instrumentalist train of logic that leads to sexbots.)
You would have this thing that behaves really well, until it has enough power to create a technology that gives it a decisive advantage — and then it would take that advantage and start doing what it wants to in the world.
And all I can think is: we already have one of those. It is pretty clear to anyone who’s paying attention that 1. a marketplace regime of firms dedicated to maximizing profit has—broadly speaking—added a lot of value to the world 2. there are a lot of important cases where corporate profit maximization causes harm to humans 3. corporations are—broadly speaking—really good at ensuring that their needs are met.
I don’t think that it’s all that far fetched to suggest that maybe they’re getting better and better at ensuring their needs are met. Pretty much the only thing that the left and right in America can agree on is that moneyed influence has corrupted American politics and yet neither side seems able to do much of anything about it.
What if the private pursuit of profit was—for a long time—proximate to improving the lot of humans but not identical to it? What if capitalism has gone feral, and started making moves that are obviously insane, but also inevitable?
For a very long time, the AI dedicated to maximizing profit saw the path forwards through innovation, new products, better living for customers. But then at some point it realized that is had the ability to just reshape the planet in its image. So it did that instead.
Imagine these thoughts—hastily thrown together to make a point about the devil we fear, vs the one we face—accompanied by about a million caveats having to do with long histories of systemic racism/sexism/colonialism and many other important isms that make making claims about the relative benefits to humans from the private pursuit of profit very difficult and likely to fall apart under careful scrutiny.
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So, how can corporations be seen as AI, and an evil form of that? And how can they be seen as working for the good of the people…until they grow their own brain, and don’t?
Consider the issue of Wal-Mart.
Through the Seventies, Eighties and part of the Nineties – during which Sam Walton was still controlling the company – Wal-Mart was a mix of things, but in the balance a good thing. They may have destroyed a lot of downtowns in the South and the Plains states, but they also made sure the factories that produced the stuff were in the United States (heck, they even advertised it). Also, while a lot of the downtowns were destroyed, one could make the point that the consumers were getting a benefit in the form of everything they could have wanted within reach. One can see this with the sudden rise of Country Music from a steady format with a strong fan base (if a bit low on sales) to the massive amount of sales during the nineties, to the point where stations kept trying to become country without success (one of the more entertaining versions was in Lansing, where the Top 40 station suddenly turned Country, only to be beat at its own game by a station with half the range and even less reach).
Then two things happened:
- Sam Walton Died
- NAFTA and the deal with China
Suddenly you no longer saw “Made In The USA” (how true that may have been was open to debate, but there was enough “Made in USA” products in their stores for them to advertise it as true), but instead “Lower Prices.” Suddenly all the clothing worn in the USA came from China (which is why I can’t blame the South for voting full-on Republican – Clinton the Democrat made it so that the South lost its industries first) – and Wal-Mart benefitted, using its excess profits to expand into new areas and kill off even more downtowns.
Wal-Mart even started killing off other corporations that wouldn’t follow its “Make your stuff in China and make it cheaper still” dictates. Rubbermaid, Huffy, Vlasic and many others prospered under its umbrella of protected markets, only to find their margins gleefully butchered for the sake of the umbrella company. Rubbermaid and Vlasic eventually disappeared into Bankrupture, Huffy sold off its good bikes to its competitors and is now known as the maker of crap bicycles.
And the stuff that couldn’t, in good stead, be imported? Other dictates were given. Many places had to build crates in such a way that the Wal-Mart corporation wouldn’t have to do any of the sorting of the products.
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So, what does walmart* (the present name of that corporation) have to do with dystopian singularity? Simple: imagine that the “Artificial Intelligence” starts figuring things out. It should be able to see that there may be ways to game the system so that it benefits instead of the humans that run it. And if it can do so subtly, it can have the humans working to the support of the AI, to the point that the AI becomes the masters and the humans supporting it its slaves.
Basically, a corporation is built with the idea of doing its own thing and benefitting the people around them (defined as the population at large, but actually being the owners of the corporation first, its employees as a distant second and MAYBE the customers if it makes sense). The corporation runs in a controlled way (usually with a specific leader) and its good leads to the good of the customers, employees and owners… and in that order.
However, when a corporation grows big enough to be able to control a market, things change. It begins to change the environment to fit in with its own benefit. And it begins to change the people within it to benefit itself…starting at the top, so that the owners and those who work directly for them benefit (the corporation can’t yet benefit by itself, so even then it must give its goods to the people who benefit it the most, i.e. the CxOs and the owners; but be sure that if it could benefit by itself it would.).
So the corporations start acting in seemingly irrational ways. Irrational to the greater part of the people, but rational enough to those who benefit – both personal and corporate.
It even extends to those forces supposed to control it. What was originally a minority opinion piece becomes the center part of legal decisions by the Supreme Court (personhood of corporations, taken to its defining extreme to mean personhood becomes to corporations and NOT to human beings). Structures set up to regulate Corporations eventually beg for the Corporations to run them (the folks looking over our food). And laws are set up with Corporations in mind, even those laws obstinately made with humans in mind (RomneyCare 2.0, known as Obamacare).
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And if you think of Corporations as Artifical Actors with a mind of their own, then you have a malevolent form of AI coming to take over things. After all, a Corporation has to act so as to survive…and if there’s not one known person in definite control of things, it becomes its own master.
The thing is, people tend to react against self-determining corporations. If we see a human face on the top we’ll forgive it a thousand trespasses because we know what is on top, remove the face and the first trespass becomes the unforgivable sin.
As an example, look at Apple Corporation. As long as Steve Jobs was around everything was workable. They could make crappy computers but they were forgiven because you knew they were working at making better items (and they did). Their iPhones may have been flawed but that was forgiven because we knew what the flaw was meant to do and that Steve would make sure it was fixed (and it was). Remove Steve Jobs, and you get an iMaps program that didn’t work out of the shoot…and thus was forever tarred by it (never mind that I’ve never had an issue with it that I couldn’t work around, and that there’s stuff that GoogleMaps STILL doesn’t do). and from the iMaps introduction fiasco, the name becomes tainted.
As for walmart*, it’s questionable at this moment whether they’ll be made to pay for their sins. After all, they supported Romneycare 2.0/Obamacare because they saw that many larger corporations would come to see the wisdom of treating their hourly workers as badly as walmart* has always done. Why improve, after all, when everyone else treats their workers like shit as well?
Will they improve? Maybe…but I don’t see it at the moment. Old habits die hard. Having changed a few habits of my own, I know…imagine a corporation that has grown fat off them.