Belmont Club

Who 'ya gonna call?

When Richard Gallagher, a board-certified psychiatrist and a professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College, described his experiences treating patients with demonic possession in the Washington Post claiming such incidents are on the rise, it was met with derision by many newspapers’ commenters.  Typical was “this man is as nutty as his patients. His license should be revoked.”


Less likely to have his intellectual credentials questioned by the sophisticates of the Washington Post is Elon Musk who warned an audience that building artificial intelligence was like “summoning the demon”.

I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon. You know those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram, and the holy water, and he’s like — Yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon? Doesn’t work out.

The press has a hard time describing what this “demon” looks like because its vocabulary is still largely rooted in the 20th century. When the Huffington Post explained the apocalyptic predictions of “two Nobel prize-winning scientists, a space-age entrepreneur, two founders of the personal computer industry — one of them the richest man in the world” that “humans will lose control of intelligent machines and be enslaved or exterminated by them” it still used the term “machines” as if the threat were posed by one of the gears threatening Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

The actual danger is more abstract.  As Mike Loukides and Ben Lorica point out in an excellent O’Reilly article the true threat is the emergence of a generalized intelligence which left to itself can explore the world and form ideas independently — possibly very different from our own. “We haven’t yet created an artificial general intelligence that can solve a multiplicity of different kinds of problems,” they write.

We still don’t have a machine that can listen to recordings of humans for a year or two, and start speaking … our best current efforts are far from a general intelligence that is flexible enough to learn without supervision, or flexible enough to choose what it wants to learn, whether that’s playing board games or designing PC boards.

Unsupervised learning is a hard problem, and it’s not clear that it can be solved just by throwing more hardware at it. We’re still looking for a “master algorithm” that may not exist.


How does the press warn the public about demons arising from a “master algorithm” without making it sound like a magic spell?  With great difficulty because the actual bedrock of reality may not only be stranger than the Narrative supposes, but stranger than it can suppose.  Roger Penrose thinks a “master algorithm” capable of true consciousness cannot exist in our classical corporal bodies.  Starting from the idea that “Gödel-unprovable results are provable by human mathematicians. He takes this disparity to mean that human mathematicians are not describable as formal proof systems, and are therefore running a non-computable algorithm.” This noncomputable algorithm could reside in the boundary between the quantum and classical worlds.

In quantum mechanics … the system appears to collapse to a random eigenstate of that observable from a classical vantage point. … If collapse is truly random, then no process or algorithm can deterministically predict its outcome. This provided Penrose with a candidate for the physical basis of the non-computable process that he hypothesized to exist in the brain. … states are selected by a “non-computable” influence embedded in the Planck scale of spacetime geometry. Penrose claimed that such information is Platonic, representing pure mathematical truth, aesthetic and ethical values at the Planck scale. This relates to Penrose’s ideas concerning the three worlds: physical, mental, and the Platonic mathematical world

The idea of a mysterious quantum world whispering Platonic truths to humans through some other biological mechanism changes the architecture of consciousness dramatically. If as some researchers argue, intelligence is everywhere and the universe is full of sentience,  the question of whether we are independent of external influences inevitably occurs.  Did nature create us as standalone meat computers without a network card?

“Neuroscientist Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, thinks … consciousness” is all around us; it “arises within any sufficiently complex, information-processing system. All animals, from humans on down to earthworms, are conscious; even the internet could be [conscious]. That’s just the way the universe works.”   If the universe works just like the Internet where’s the ethernet jack?


But where there are networks there is malware. Sue Blackmore a writer in the Guardian, argues that memes travel not just across similar systems, but through hierarchies of systems to kill rival processes all the time.  She writes, “AI rests on the principle of universal Darwinism – the idea that whenever information (a replicator) is copied, with variation and selection, a new evolutionary process begins. The first successful replicator on earth was genes.”

The second replicator was memes, let loose when humans began to imitate each other. … The third replicator is, I suggest, already here, but we are not seeing its true nature. We have built machines that can copy, combine, vary and select enormous quantities of information with high fidelity far beyond the capacity of the human brain. With all these three essential processes in place, this information must now evolve. …

Replicators are selfish by nature. They get copied whenever and however they can, regardless of the consequences for us, for other species or for our planet. You cannot give human values to a massive system of evolving information based on machinery that is being expanded and improved every day. They do not care because they cannot care.

In such a Darwinian context the advent of an AI demon is equivalent to the arrival of a superior extraterrestrial civilization on Earth . In fact Steven Hawking listed both in the same breath. “Hawking said that, if intelligent alien life exists, it may not be that friendly toward humans.” Superior artificial intelligence may not be friendly toward human beings either.  Whether it arrives in a flying saucer or escapes the Google labs the impact on humanity by “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” is serious indeed.

In any situation where contact between intelligences is possible what we call “demonic possession” would be the rule rather than the exception. Just ask Bryan Pagliano why he shut down Hillary’s server. The computer revolution has once again provided the public with a paradigm for understanding age old issues after the 19th century’s billiard ball-physics and materialism temporarily consigned them to the bin of superstition. For the first time in 200 years the public can address the concepts which “angels” and “demons” were meant to represent in a thoroughly modern way.  Just as the Italian Rennaissance rediscovered classical antiquity, so also may ancient spiritual ideas now be seen in the light of new knowledge.


The last century’s insistence on materialism created a blind spot which made the 20th century vulnerable to monstrous memes. Elie Wiesel’s recent death reminds us how destructive the practice of dismissing “good” and “evil” as mere constructs was. The administration’s inability to utter the words “Islamic extremism”  is an artifact of the Left’s obsolete commitment to cafe materialism and moral relativism.

Now once again serious people, if you consider Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steven Hawking serious, are saying that the ideas can have consequences.  Morality is suddenly a key concern of artificial intelligence research, not a mental disease affecting bigoted white males. Mike Loukides and Ben Lorica astutely observe that “most fears of a super-intelligent AI aren’t really fears of a machine we neither know or understand; they are fears about human nature at its worst, coupled with unlimited power. We don’t imagine a machine that thinks thoughts we can’t comprehend; we imagine an unbeatable Hitler or Stalin, whose thoughts we do comprehend. Our fears are essentially human fears: fears of omnipotent machines acting like humans.”

If the watchword of the late 20th century was, “if it feels good, do it”, the modern sensibility is “is it safe?” But the core fear must inevitably be that the archetypes of good and evil, what we conventionally refer to as God and the Devil, are real in a way that the 20th century never believed; and that at certain times we can experience them with a greater intensity than is conventionally believed. Even the assurance that consciousness cannot jump the air gap and consequently we cannot be “possessed” is under technological attack. The MIT Technology Review reported the award of 2 DARPA contracts aimed at using “brain implants to read, and then control, the emotions of mentally ill people”.

Under the contracts, which are the largest awards so far supporting President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative … Psychiatric implants would in fact control how mentally ill people act, although in many cases indirectly, by changing how they feel. …

Such research isn’t without ominous overtones. In the 1970s, Yale University neuroscientist Jose Delgado showed he could cause people to feel emotions, like relaxation or anxiety, using implants he called “stimoceivers.” But Delgado, also funded by the military, left the U.S. after Congressional hearings in which he was accused of developing “totalitarian” mind-control devices. According to scientists funded by DARPA, the agency has been anxious about how the Subnets program could be perceived, and it has appointed an ethics panel to oversee the research.


There is very little reason to feel confident that no natural version of BRAIN exists; that Barack Obama can come up with something that nature can’t. After all, nature built nuclear devices long before man walked upon the earth. In 1995 NASA discovered a naturally occurring laser in space. Our inability to solve the hard problem of consciousness strongly suggests that nature invented the computer long before Turing was born. Under those circumstances we ought to be careful about being certain what forms information can, and cannot take.

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