I Don’t Really Know What’s Happening, So I’m Going to Call it “Emergent”

Freddie de Boer on some of the pseudoscience found in the writing and evangelism about artificial intelligence:

… there’s the notion of intelligence as an “emergent phenomenon.” That is, we don’t really need to understand the computational system of the brain because intelligence/consciousness/whatever is an “emergent phenomenon” that somehow arises from the process of thinking. I promise: anyone telling you something is an emergent property is trying to distract you. Calling intelligence an emergent property is a way of saying “I don’t really know what’s happening here, and I don’t really know where it’s happening, so I’m going to call it emergent.” It’s a profoundly unscientific argument. Next is the claim that we only need to build very basic AI; once we have a rudimentary AI system, we can tell that system to improve itself, and presto! Singularity achieved! But this is asserted without a clear story of how it would actually work. Computers, for all of the ways in which they can iterate proscribed functions, still rely very heavily on the directives of human programmers. What would the programming look like to tell this rudimentary artificial intelligence to improve itself? If we knew that, we’d already have solved the first problem. And we have no idea how such a system would actually work, or how well. This notion often is expressed with a kind of religious faith that I find disturbing.


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