Law in the Internet Society

From Intelligence to Influence

-- By JustinFlaumenhaft - 25 Nov 2020

The History of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its Limitations

The Origins of AI

The first conference dedicated to the study of “artificial intelligence” was held at Dartmouth College in the summer of 1956. It was a small conference, attended by just eleven people, but it proposed an enormous undertaking:

The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves [1].

Thus, the field of artificial intelligence was born. It became clear, however, that the project of endowing a machine with intelligence would require much more than a single summer to accomplish. In the years that followed, AI researchers set out to conquer many different domains of human competence with computers. Early successes in machine-driven translation and pattern recognition stoked the optimism of the AI research community. Marvin Minksy, head of the MIT AI Lab, announced that “within a generation we will have intelligent computers like HAL in the film, 2001” [2].

The Gadfly of AI

Among the burgeoning field of AI’s staunchest critics was Huberts Dreyfus. Dreyfus was an unlikely figure to emerge as an AI commentator: he was not only a philosopher, but a continental philosopher, interested primarily in existentialism and phenomenology. This was an obscure area of expertise even by the standards of his philosopher colleagues. It is hardly surprising, then, that the AI community paid little heed to Dreyfus’s criticism—many derided it as foolish [3].

In Dreyfus’ view, the AI researchers fundamentally misunderstood the phenomenon they were attempting to emulate. According to Dreyfus, the AI researchers tended to think of the human mind in much the same way as they thought of computers: as “general-purpose symbol manipulators.” On this view, the human mind was continuous with a simple digital calculator. Both worked by processing information, in the form of binary bits (via neurons or transistors), according to formal rules. This view contemplated a world organized neatly into a set of independent, determinate facts and governed by strict rules—the perfect substrate for a computer-like mind [2].

Drawing from phenomenology, Dreyfus highlighted some crucial differences between humans and computers. Dreyfus stressed that humans, unlike computers, are embodied beings that participate in a world of relevance, meaning, and goals. On Dreyfus’ view, these characteristics of human existence were essential to human-like intelligence. He doubted that a disembodied machine detachedly manipulating symbols and following instructions could exhibit genuinely intelligent behavior and predicted that the AI research program would soon face insurmountable obstacles if it continued on its course [2].

Tree Climbing with One's Eyes on the Moon

By the mid 1970’s, after enduring a decade of ridicule, Dreyfus seemed to have been vindicated. The early successes in areas like machine language translations and pattern recognition were followed by significant stagnation. In the realm of machine translation, the fuzzy line between semantics and syntax proved to be a serious challenge for computers. Formal, explicit instructions for computers faltered in the face of ambiguity, vagueness, and complexity.

Promising initial results had buoyed unrealistically high expectations about the progress of AI research. While Dreyfus acknowledged the ingenuity of the AI researchers' work, he suggested that their efforts had brought them no closer to artificial intelligence than climbing a tree brought one closer to the moon. The quixotic quest to formalize all of human understanding and knowledge—a pursuit stretching back to Plato—had reached a dead end.

From Symbol Manipulation to Behavior Manipulation

The Rise of Big Data

The preceding history is useful for putting contemporary AI into perspective. Amid calls to take precautions against super-intelligent AI, it is worth bearing in mind the history of overzealousness about the capabilities of AI as well as AI's proven limitations. The real threat posed by “AI” is not the fantasy of super-intelligence, but rather the use of the technology by surveillance capitalists to mine the data of its users and influence their behavior.

The ultimate disillusionment with the grand AI ambitions hatched at the Dartmouth conference led the field of AI in a different direction. Interest turned from symbolic AI to perceptrons—loosely modeled on neurons—and ultimately gave rise to the machine learning models like artificial neural networks, which define the contemporary paradigm of AI.These models mark a distinct shift from symbolic AI. Instead of utilizing a set of predetermined, explicit rules, artificial neural networks “learn” by being fed large volumes of data. These algorithms use statistical and mathematical methods to identify patterns in the data through a process of iterative adjustments.

If symbolic AI relied upon the cleverness of its programmers, machine learning relies equally upon the quantity of its training data: machine learning models require vast volumes of training data to work well. For example, Google’s AlphaGo? , which famously won four out of five go matches against the reigning go world champion, was trained on “30 million board positions from 160,000 real-life games taken from a go database”[4]. While mastery of go is a notable achievement, it provides scant evidence of human-like general intelligence. A machine learning algorithm can glean patterns from large datasets to accomplish narrowly defined tasks, but it does not have anything like a mind of their own. AlphaGo? cannot even be said to know that it is playing go.

However, companies like Facebook and Google, searching for more profitable business models, looked to machine learning algorithms to turn their vast stores of data into valuable commodities to be sold to advertisers. Thus, the quest to build computers that emulated human thought ended not with intelligent computers, but with computers that preyed on human intelligence by monitoring and influencing it.


[2] Dreyfus, Hubert L. What Computers Can't Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. The MIT Press, 1984.

[3] Dreyfus, Hubert L. “Standing Up to Analytic Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence at MIT in the Sixties,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association , NOVEMBER 2013, Vol. 87 (NOVEMBER 2013), pp. 78-92 .


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r8 - 07 Jan 2021 - 23:56:49 - JustinFlaumenhaft
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