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IDT Open Seminar: Symbiosis or Annihilation: A philosophical look at Artificial Intelligence


Edward A. Lee



Start time:

2018-05-02 13:30

End time:

2018-05-02 15:00



Contact person:


With the explosion of interest, hype, and fear about artificial intelligence, data science, and robotics, it is essential that we better understand how it is that technology and society evolve. Without such understanding, we are assured of making dumb decisions. In this talk, Prof. Edward Ashford Lee from Berkeley review his recent book, Plato and the Nerd, where he opens a conversation towards developing such an understanding. The book emphasizes the creative partnership and the coevolution of human culture and technology. Not to dismiss legitimate fears about the disruptive effects of technology, the real power of technology stems from its partnership with humans not its replacement of humans. We humans, with all our limitations and foibles, are central to the creation, propagation, and nurture of technology, and technology is central the progression of our society. Many technological developments are as much cultural as scientific, and human creativity provides the random mutations in a fundamentally Darwinian coevolution of a symbiosis between humans and technology.
Lee examines the question of whether technological advances are driven primarily by discovery or by invention. The question is important, because "discovery" presupposes preexistence of the facts that are discovered and abdicates responsibility for those facts. Invention, on the other hand, creates facts out of nothing and cannot escape responsibility. Lee explores the ways that engineers use models to build inventive artificial worlds and to give us things that we never dreamed of before---for example, the ability to carry in our pockets everything humans have ever published. But in a yin-and-yang balance, Lee also attempts to counter the runaway enthusiasm of some technology boosters who claim that everything in the physical world is a computation---that even such complex phenomena as human cognition are software operating on digital data. He argues that the evidence for this is weak, and the likelihood that nature has limited itself to processes that conform to today's notion of digital computation is remote. Moreover, the goal of reproducing human cognitive functions in computers vastly underestimates the potential of artificial intelligence. Technology augments rather than replicates our cognitive and physical capabilities. Complementarity and symbiosis are more likely than confrontation and annihilation.