Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He may be reached at [email protected]
by PEPE ESCOBAR
CounterPunch, Weekend Edition February 7-9, 2014
In the spring of 1986, Back to the Future, the Michael J Fox blockbuster featuring a time-traveling DeLorean car, was less than a year old. The Apple Macintosh, launched via a single, iconic ad directed by Ridley Blade Runner Scott, was less than two years old. Ronald Reagan, immortalized by Gore Vidal as “the acting president”, was hailing the mujahideen in Afghanistan as “freedom fighters”.
The world was mired in Cyber Cold War mode; the talk was all about electronic counter-measures, with American C3s (command, control, communications) programmed to destroy Soviet C3s, and both the US and the USSR under MAD (mutually assured destruction) nuclear policies being able to destroy the earth 100 times over. Edward Snowden was not yet a three-year-old.
It was in this context that I set out to do a special report for a now defunct magazine about Artificial Intelligence (AI), roving from the Computer Museum in Boston to Apple in Cupertino and Pixar in San Rafael, and then to the campuses of Stanford, Berkeley and the MIT.
AI had been “inaugurated” in 1956 by Stanford’s John McCarthy and MIT professor Marvin Minsky, then a student at Harvard. The basic idea, according to Minsky, was that any intelligence trait could be described so precisely that a machine could be created to simulate it.
My trip inevitably involved meeting a fabulous cast of characters. At the MIT’s AI lab, there was Minsky and an inveterate iconoclast, Joseph Weizenbaum, who had coined the term “artificial intelligentsia” and believed computers could never “think” just like a human being.
At Stanford, there was Edward Feigenbaum, absolutely paranoid about Japanese scientific progress; he believed that if the Japanese a fifth-generation (5G) program, based on artificial intelligence, “the US will be able to bill itself as the first great post-industrial agrarian society”.
And at Berkeley, still under the flame of hippie utopian populism, there was Robert Wilensky – Brooklyn accent, Yale gloss, California overtones; and philosopher Robert Dreyfus, a tireless enemy of AI who got his kicks delivering lectures such as “Conventional AI as a Paradigm of Degenerated Research”.
Meet Kim No-VAX
Soon I was deep into Minsky’s “frames” – a basic concept to organize every subsequent AI program – and the “Chomsky paradigm”; the notion that language is at the root of knowledge, and that formal syntax is at the root of language. That was the Bible of cognitive science at the MIT.
. . . . . . .
Human beings don’t have the appropriate engineering for the society they developed. Over a million years of evolution, the instinct of getting together in small communities, belligerent and compact, turned out to be correct. But then, in the 20th century, Man ceased to adapt. Technology overtook evolution. The brain of an ancestral creature, like a rat, which sees provocation in the face of every stranger, is the brain that now controls the earth’s destiny.
It’s as if Wilensky was describing the NSA as it would be 28 years later. Some questions still remain unanswered; for instance, if our race does not fit anymore the society it built, who’d guarantee that its machines are properly engineered? Who’d guarantee that intelligent machines act in our interest?
What was already clear by then was that “intelligent” computers would not end a global arms race. And it would be a long time, up to the Snowden revelations in 2013, for most of the planet to have a clearer idea of how the NSA orchestrates the Orwellian-Panopticon complex. As for my back to the future trip, in the end I did not manage to uncover the “secret” of AI. But I’ll always remain very fond of Kim No-VAX.