Gossiping about AI (Man / Machine XII)

There are plenty of studies of gossip as a social phenomenon, and there are computer science models of gossiping that allow for information distribution in system. There are even gossip learning systems that compete with or constitute alternatives to federated learning models. But here is a question I have not found any serious discussion about in the literature: what would it mean to gossip about an artificial intelligence? I tend to think that this would constitute a really interesting social turing test – and we could state it thus: ¨

(i) A system is only socially intelligent and relevant if it is the object of gossip or can be come the object of gossip.

This would mean that it is first when we confide in each-other what we heard about an AI that it has some kind of social existence. Intelligence, by the way, is probably the wrong word here — but the point remains. To be gossiped about is to be social in a very human way. We do not gossip about dogs or birds, we do not gossip about buildings or machines. We gossip about other subjects.

*

This connects with a wider discussion about the social nature of intelligence, and how the model of intelligence we have is somewhat simplified. We tend to talk about intelligence as individual, but the reality is that it is a network concept, your intelligence is a function of the networks you exist in and are a part of. Not only, but partly.

I feel strongly, for example, that I am more intelligent in some sense because I have the privilege to work with outstanding individuals, but I also know that they in turn get to shine even more because they work with other outstanding individuals. The group augments the individual’s talents and shapes them.

That would be another factor to take into account if we are designing social intelligence Turing tests: does the subject of the test become more or less intelligent with others? Kasparov has suggested that man and a machine always beats machine – but that is largely because of the ability of man to adapt and integrate into a system. Would machine and machine beat machine? Probably not — in fact, you could even imagine the overall result there as negative! This quality – additive intelligence – is interesting.

*

I have written elsewhere that we get stuck in language when we speak of artificial intelligence. That it would be better to speak of sophisticity or something like that – a new word that describes certain cognitive skills bundled in different ways. I do believe that would allow us a debate that is not so hopelessly antropocentric. We are collectively sometimes egomaniacs, occupied only with the question of how something relates to us.

Thinking about what bundles of cognitive skills I would include, then, I think the social additive quality is important, and maybe it is a cognitive skill to be able to be gossiped about, in some sense. Not a skill, perhaps, but a quality. There is something there, I think. More to explore, later.

The noble and necessary lie (Fake News Notes X)

Plato’s use of the idea of a noble lie was oppressive. He wanted to tell the people a tale of their origin that would encourage them to bend and bow to the idea of a stratified society, and he suggest that this would make everyone better off — and we clearly see that today for what it was: a defense for a class society that kept a small elite at the top, not through meritocracy or election, but through narrative.

But there is another way to read this notion of  a foundational myth, and that is to read it as that “common baseline of facts” that everyone is now calling for. This “common baseline” is often left unexplained and taken for granted, but the reality is that with the amount of information and criticism and skepticism that we have today, such a baseline will need to be based on a “suspension of disbelief”, as William Davies suggests:

Public life has become like a play whose audience is unwilling to suspend disbelief. Any utterance by a public figure can be unpicked in search of its ulterior motive. As cynicism grows, even judges, the supposedly neutral upholders of the law, are publicly accused of personal bias. Once doubt descends on public life, people become increasingly dependent on their own experiences and their own beliefs about how the world really works. One effect of this is that facts no longer seem to matter (the phenomenon misleadingly dubbed “post-truth”). But the crisis of democracy and of truth are one and the same: individuals are increasingly suspicious of the “official” stories they are being told, and expect to witness things for themselves.

[…] But our relationship to information and news is now entirely different: it has become an active and critical one, that is deeply suspicious of the official line. Nowadays, everyone is engaged in spotting and rebutting propaganda of one kind or another, curating our news feeds, attacking the framing of the other side and consciously resisting manipulation. In some ways, we have become too concerned with truth, to the point where we can no longer agree on it. The very institutions that might once have brought controversies to an end are under constant fire for their compromises and biases.

The challenge here is this: if we are to arrive at a common baseline of facts, we have to accept that there will be things treated as facts that we will come to doubt and then to disregard as they turn out to be false. The value we get for that is that we will be able to start thinking together again, we will be able to resurrect the idea of a common sense.

So, maybe the problem underlying misinformation and desinformation is not that we face intentionally false information, but that we have indulged too much in a skepticism fueled by a wealth of information and a poverty of attention? We lack a mechanism for agreeing on what we will treat as true, rather than how we will agree on what is – in any more ontological sense – true.

The distinction between a common baseline of facts and a noble lie is less clear in that perspective. A worrying idea, well expressed in Mr Davies’ essay. But the conclusion is ultimately provocative, and perhaps disappointing:

The financial obstacles confronting critical, independent, investigative media are significant. If the Johnson administration takes a more sharply populist turn, the political obstacles could increase, too – Channel 4 is frequently held up as an enemy of Brexit, for example. But let us be clear that an independent, professional media is what we need to defend at the present moment, and abandon the misleading and destructive idea that – thanks to a combination of ubiquitous data capture and personal passions – the truth can be grasped directly, without anyone needing to report it.

But why would the people cede the mechanism of producing truth back to professional media? What is the incentive? Where the common baseline of facts or the noble lie will sit in the future is far from clear, but it seems unlikely that it will return to an institution that has once lost grasp of it so fully. If the truth cannot be grasped directly – if that indeed is socially dangerous and destructive – we need to think carefully about who we allow the power to curate that new noble lie (and no, it should probably not be corporations). If we do not believe that the common baseline is needed anymore, we need new ways to approach collective decision making — an intriguingly difficult task.