Metaphors for AI

Roel M. Hogervorst


Categories: blog Tags: 100DaysToOffload AI Machine learning AI myths

I have seen many mental models about smart assistants, about computers and about machine learning systems. I thought it would be nice to create an overview.

I do not like the term Artificial Intelligence (AI) for machine learning because it evokes ideas about fantasy robots: the beings you see or read about in fiction.

This often takes form in:

AI is our slave

This is very present in science fiction. Science fiction talks about the future, but is a reflection of the present. So what does it say about the present when you imagine slaves everywhere?

We expect AI to serve us. But they are inanimate objects we should not consider them alive.

The word robot comes from slavic origins as robota (forced laborer == slave), by Chech writer Čapek.

Fortunately there are many more ways we can think about our relationship with AI.

Machine learning is a compression of data (long history)

We train a model on a lot of historic data. If we see that as years of experience made accessible eloquently written by Patrick Tanguay (2021).

These systems are not super intelligent, they have superhistory.

Other people say similar things.

AI is augmented Intelligence

We shouldn’t worry about Artificial general intelligence. we should care about what current systems can do for us now.

A lot of AI already can—and, I’d argue, should—be considered as an augmentation.

The systems can help us, because they are different. They will never be as smart as a human, but don’t need to. they can be smart as an animal, as smart as a puppy.

Which brings us to other animal metaphors

AI is like an animal

We should not see AI, and the mistakes they make as almost human, but animal, other, like a squid, or an alien.

From AI is not a horse:

There is a whole spectrum of the kinds of relationships we have with animals. Some, like mules or chickens, are being used primarily in a functional way. We are interested in their output. Some AI species can similarly be considered work animals. But also there are some AIs that we may keep primarily to satisfy our emotional or aesthetic needs, in the same way that we keep cats or dogs: for partnership, care, companionship. Horses probably lie somewhere in between.

In many ways the horse metaphor represents what I would love AI to develop into. I’d love to have AI horses that would be attuned to my style of intellectual and creative riding. The stable would include a few different breeds, carefully selected and lovingly trained, tamed (but never too much) and cared for. They would roam the information steppes freely when I’m busy doing something else. And together we would ride to the intellectual horizon, wherever the wind of ideas may take us. Finally, when my time comes to die, these immortal horses would be set free to continue living the dataverse on their own (provided that I dedicate some money to support them in my will). Or maybe some horses will be passed on to a friend who can add them to her stable and ride them occasionally, allowing each horse to take the lead, to show the way to somewhere I used to go…

But we can go smaller too:

AI as microbiome

Also from AI is not a horse:

Think of bacteria, viruses, fungi and all the other microscopic things that live inside us and on us. There are millions of them, all over our bodies. Some are harmful, some neutral, some beneficial (but all depends on the numbers). Some, like mitochondria, have been more deeply and fundamentally integrated, so that they are no longer considered to be separately alive. Others are very much separate and fully alive, but also absolutely essential for our survival, like many of our gut bacteria. So here we have our alternative metaphor: maybe AI doesn’t represent our slaves, our pets or our horses. Maybe we can think of AI as our microbiome.

AI is machine learning, machine learning is just a machine

AI is a tool, a machine, just like cars, a spade, or an aircraft.

AI as imitation of outputs

(talked about this one yesterday)


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