AI and The Simple World of Richard David Precht

Richard David Precht would walk around the world completely naked if he were the perfect person. If one follows the arguments in his latest book “Artificial Intelligence and the Meaning of Life: An Essay“, then we don’t need technology in general and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular, because man is already perfect anyway. That’s why Precht wouldn’t need shoes, clothes and glasses, because these are all man-made technologies and cultural assets to make us more perfect. And we don’t need AI to make us more perfect, as he generally assumes AI researchers do.

I have read the book from cover to cover and turned the pages back again: at no point is the term intelligence defined, or in general an attempt made to define terms. They are simply interspersed and sometimes misused, as it happens with emotions and feelings, for example.

Right at the beginning Precht makes it clear that he is above explaining artificial intelligence himself. In other words, technically, how AI works. And therefore what AI actually is. It’s a pity, because maybe he himself would have understood AI and its limitations and possibilities better and changed his argumentation. I also reproach him for this, because I myself wrote a book on AI (“When Monkeys Teach Monkeys: How AI Really Make Us Human“) and with the help of definitions of terms I try to bring the readers closer to the topic.

What is intelligence in the artificial and human sense? Can machines develop consciousness and how would we recognize this? Are machines capable of showing and feeling empathy?

Exciting discussions with AI masterminds and AI practitioners from Silicon Valley provide the reader with valuable new insights and mindsets. An indispensable AI guide for present and future!

€24,99 | 304 pages | 27.2.2020
Amazon | Plassen-Buchverlag

It would not be Precht if he had not unerringly identified the AI villains. His antagonists are Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk. Musk, whom he describes as a visionary – and Precht doesn’t mean this as a compliment – who always promises more than he delivers, but has actually delivered everything he has ever promised and tackled. Not always at the time as announced, but he has delivered: Tesla, SpaceX, PayPal, Boring, HyperLoop, NeuraLink, OpenAI…

While Precht types into his computer dressed, benefits from the advantages of his heated apartment, from electricity and vaccinations, and occasionally stands in front of the camera, he speaks out against all other technologies he has not yet understood (and defined), and throws all the researchers and developers, and the organizations that pay for them, into the same drawer.

He generally accuses AI researchers of naivety and forces himself into the discussion, with accusations that ultimately say more about him and his world than the people and companies to whom he blanketly accuses of malice, greed and naivety. He has not taken the trouble to really understand AI himself, nor does he offer any solutions. He retreats to the comfortable position that human morality and ethics are too complex and diverse. Thus there is no need and no possibility to structure. He accuses everyone who tries to do so of thinking too utilitarian and of being morally and ethically cruel.

Instead, he calls for radical thinking, regrets that radical philosophers are not given a place on ethics committees and demonizes a business ethicist for making compromises. To all others, he insinuates that they care little about the fate of people in the cobalt mines of Nigeria or lithium deposits in South America, demonizing electric cars, AI or other technologies – from “Silicon Valley”. Who doesn’t seem to mean themselves by this, because the technologies they use (computers, mobile phones, microphones, cameras, oil heating) have apparently been produced morally and ethically completely compatible with human rights and sustainability.

His arguments are similar to those with which other moralizers drooled over innovations from the past, such as the railway, the mirror, the umbrella, the lift or the airplane. These did not solve any problems, were morally reprehensible and harmful, and harmed humanity. In principle, they were all against nature, to make people seem less perfect. Intelligences, which we are supposed to create and expand, are therefore pointless in view of his experiences with most people who just want to relax but do not want to expand their intelligence. An argument we know from the introduction of reading, writing and arithmetic. Most people did not need these skills – according to the opinion at the time – and yet everyone is taught them today.

In preparation for my own AI book “When Monkeys Teach Monkeys: How AI Really Makes Us Human“, I took the trouble to interview AI researchers, read several dozen non-fiction books on AI and related fields, and listened to all episodes of the best and most detailed podcast on AI by Lex Fridman. And one thing is clear: these people are anything but naive about the moral, ethical, and other implications of their work. They ask very precise and deeper questions about what it means to be human and artificial intelligence, and they try to find answers and propose solutions.

No matter how much one searches in Precht’s book, on 242 pages he cannot think of a single example of a positive application of AI. But such examples would help to show AI researchers how to do it right, according to Precht. But nothing ever comes. No matter how many times you turn the book upside down, there is nothing.

But it would be so simple: the findings from AI research, which actually takes place across disciplines between computer scientists, AI experts, behavioral scientists, neuroscientists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians or physicians and even philosophers, already show us today – at the beginning of AI history – how the human brain, the body and human societies function and where it raises new questions, where we are wrong, and where we have not even scratched the surface.

AI also forces us to show our colors. We humans and philosophy have so far been able to easily pull our heads out of the noose when moral and ethical questions arose. With AI we could no longer muddle through and cheat, and we have to become more precise and create frameworks

The book’s subtitle promises insights into the “meaning of life”, but this is only touched on at the very end, and it is not really explained what it is, nor how people could find it for themselves. And whether it actually exists.

Statler & Waldorf

Precht makes it easy for himself: he is the critic who comfortably shouts from the front row of the audience – like the two Muppet characters Statler & Waldorf, but this time in personal union – to the sweat-soaked AI researchers in the arena, who try out AI, tackle it, expand and improve it, that their efforts are pointless, they have no idea, and are nothing more than naive idiots. Precht does not present solutions and proposed solutions on a single page in the book. Nor does Precht have any idea what it should be like and how to get there, because these would be visions, and visionaries in Precht’s black and white world of thought are people who have no understanding of the world and mankind and from whom we must protect ourselves.

The book is dripping with commonplaces, shows how little Precht understands about AI or autonomous cars (I myself have written books on both topics) and what a simple understanding he has (keyword: death algorithms) and – you can’t get rid of this feeling – boasts about it subliminally. Precht dazzles with mentions and quotations of philosophers from different centuries, often strung together without context. Instead, he presents his opinions with all the more self-confidence. Somewhat little, if you as a reader want to understand the potential and risks of artificial intelligence.

Quintessence: AI is bad, AI researchers are naive; humans are perfect and only the philosophers have the perspective.

After this criticism, I think you can understand why I cannot recommend his book. There are so many others and better ones by authors who really understand something about it and can explain it more coherently.

What is intelligence in the artificial and human sense? Can machines develop consciousness and how would we recognize this? Are machines capable of showing and feeling empathy?

Exciting discussions with AI masterminds and AI practitioners from Silicon Valley provide the reader with valuable new insights and mindsets. An indispensable AI guide for present and future!

€24,99 | 304 pages | 27.2.2020
Amazon | Plassen-Buchverlag

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