The year of the objective function

Every AI has a goal

We’ve spent decades collecting data. Usually, the amount we collect is simply too much to go through by hand; in fact, that’s a pretty workable definition of the term “Big Data.” That means we have to rely on algorithms to make sense of it for us.

Finding clusters in data. By Chire (Own work) at
Alphazero beat every other piece of chess software by playing games, seeing who won, and ruthlessly culling the losers over and over again. Also no fun at parties. (Photo by Luiz Hanfilaque on Unsplash)
What happens when two algorithms fight about art.

Objective functions are all around us

Nature has an objective function, too. Every creature shaped by evolution has adapted, over eons, to be the most successful species in its niche. Passing genes down to offspring more successfully than others has been the guiding aim of all genes. As Dawkins observed in The Selfish Gene, it’s not that we have genes; it’s that genes have us — as tools for their continued survival, each of us an experiment in adaptation.

We have a way to talk about them

Ethicist Nick Bostrom offers an eloquent example of AIs that have gone too far. Tell a superhuman AI that its job is to make paperclips, he argues, and it will turn the entire universe into a paperclip factory. The objective function isn’t just how algorithms work, it’s why they work. (Want to play a game about this? It’s amazing.)

The Trolley Problem is a classic example of an ethical dilemma with which machines will have to contend.

We’re plastic

Almost every talk by a futurist or technology advocate contains the line, “the world is changing faster than ever before.” And that’s definitely got a ring of truth to it; the upgrade from atoms to bits, from physical to digital infrastructure, is fundamentally changing how the human species behaves.

What’s a better word for “secretly evil goal”?



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Alistair Croll

Alistair Croll

Writer, speaker, accelerant. Intersection of tech & society. Strata, Startupfest, Bitnorth, FWD50. Lean Analytics, Tilt the Windmill, HBS, Just Evil Enough.