The Natural Stupidity of Artificial Intelligence by A. Michael Noll


The Natural Stupidity of Artificial Intelligence

A. Michael Noll

June 17, 2018

© Copyright 2018 AMN

Clearly, the future is coming, but at times we seem mostly to be chasing the past. Artificial intelligence is today’s “new” rage. But I think it is mostly hype and faith, coupled with a blind, and perhaps deliberate, ignorance of what was done decades ago.

In the 1960’s, digital computers were programmed and used at Bell Telephone Laboratories (Bell Labs) to “compose” music. Today the same algorithmic approach is called artificial intelligence. Digital computers were also programmed in the early 1960s at Bell Labs to create art. And today this too is called artificial intelligence. Back then decades ago, the intelligence was the human who wrote the program and also the human who chose which computer-generated music and art was most liked.

A modern jetliner can fly itself. But is this artificial intelligence, or simply computer control following algorithms? The human pilots are just there to take over in case of an emergency.

What is “artificial intelligence?” “Artificial” means false, fake, not natural. “Intelligence” is the ability to process information and then to perform appropriate actions. It seems to imply some sort of innate human ability. Clearly, a machine is not human and thus cannot possess human qualities, such as intelligence. The “intelligence” of a machine consists of programmed algorithms that the machine carries out. It is not a human quality – it is fake.

I am reminded of decades ago when we were told that the human brain was like a digital computer, and that neurons rather than bits were involved. Well, this theory went nowhere and the human brain is still much of a mystery. There was decades ago the computer program ELIZA created by Joseph Weizenbaum that could act as a psychotherapist.* Weizenbaum explored in his book the human fascination with autonomous machines. – and this was over four decades ago. I expressed concern in 1961 about computers that could learn and act.**

Today there clearly is considerable hype and publicity being given to artificial intelligence. It promises much, but seems mostly to attract investors and big companies that hope to cash in on it all (or the next “new” thing). The ignorance of what went on in the past, coupled with the lust of greed, is the natural stupidity of artificial intelligence.


* Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason, W. H. Freeman and Company (New York), 1976.

** A. Michael Noll, “Electronic Computer – Friend or Foe?” the Orbit, Vol. 5, No.3 (March 1961), Newark College of Engineering, pp. 8 & 16.

A. Michael Noll

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Smart Devices – Foolish Users by A. Michael Noll


April 26th, 2018

Smart Devices – Foolish Users

A. Michael Noll

April 26, 2018

© Copyright 2018 AMN

It seems we have become slaves to our computers and smart phones, with near constant updating, synching, and battery recharging. The devices might be considered “smart,” but the users seem to be “foolish” and perhaps even “stupid.”

We are slaves to these devices. We need to feed them electricity to keep them charged, and groom them with updates. They disturb us with interruptions and demands for our attention. We become mesmerized and perhaps hypnotized by what they display to us on their screens.

We discover that their real owners are the suppliers of information, such as Facebook, Google, and the “cloud.” We willingly give over our most intimate personal information, and then seem surprised when it is misused.

They will evolve, we are told, with artificial intelligence into even smarter devices. We will be left wondering whether their artificial intelligence should be contrasted with our apparent natural stupidity. But the myth of the coming artificial intelligence is nothing new – we have been waiting for decades for the dawn of this new age. For me, I am not smart enough for a smart phone, but if I had one, I would put it away in a drawer — and forget it. It could then linger in its “smartness,” while I have my own life to enjoy without interruption and caring for its upkeep.

A. Michael Noll

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Stimulating Perspective on Free Digital Society by Richard Stallman: Not So Free?


Yesterday afternoon, April 11, Richard Stallman, President and Founder of the Free Software Foundation gave a rather comprehensive and critical perspective on the ways in which our digital society is not meeting his definition of a free society. His talk, entitled ‘A Free Digital Society’ began with a focus on free software, meaning software that does not control the user – as users control free software. He developed a set of criteria for the requirements underpinning free software over the first hour of his talk, what he called the four freedoms. To Stallman, free software is a basic human right.

During the second hour, he moved through a litany of other problems with a free digital society, including surveillance, censorship, Internet services, which collect personal data, electronic voting, and the war on sharing around copyright – all of which paint a pretty grim picture of our not so free digital society. I found this to be quite stimulating since we have had decades of discussions about computer-based communication and information technologies like the Internet as ‘technologies of freedom’. It is so important for these widely accepted views to be challenged by critics as sharp as Richard Stallman.

Richard Stallman Lecture

His talk filled our large lecture hall to standing room only, and we had more people lined up for autographs of his book at the end of his two and half hours of his talk and Q&A that attend most lectures. We will post the talk online in due course.

Richard Stallman graduated from Harvard University with a bachelors degree in physics, and went on to work for the AI Lab at MIT before founding the Free Software Foundation. He has won many honors and awards, from honorary doctorates to a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He has been a pioneer not only in free software, but also in coining the term ‘copyleft’. I had a fascinating discussion with him about Joe Weizenbaum, the author of Computer Power and Human Reason, who wrote about the ‘hackers’ in the AI lab, when the concept of the hacker was defined by their work ethic and not at all by security.

Standing Room Only

Bill Dutton

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