Letting the Better Become the Enemy of the Good

“Until A.I. engineers can encode empathy, Wordsworth’s ‘inward tenderness,’ the rest of it—tweeting, telling knock-knock jokes, making dinner reservations, giving directions—doesn’t amount to much.”—Anthony Lydgate

This is a recent O’Reilly design newsletter quote of the week, originally quoted here. This statement is both stupid and false.

One, it declares that anything else but empathy doesn’t matter. Really? Quite a few not-as-snobby humans have found an AI that makes dinner reservations and gives directions worth purchasing. How many countries can Apple buy again?

Second, this ignores the role of AI in computer games, where it has made a huge impact. Are people willing to pay for a better computer opponent? Yes. Does this lead to more enjoyment for people? Yes. Does it matter? If the wellbeing of humans matters, then yes.

Third, it makes the better the enemy of the good. Complaining that a technology that quite a few people use nearly daily just doesn’t “amount to much” is nothing more than snobbery. It ignores the needs of others, the desires of others, and the hard work that AI engineers did to achieve those results. Is the writer also unhappy that the Wright brothers’ success at Kitty Hawk wasn’t a 747?

Fourth, the benefits of an AI demonstrating empathy is an open question. It would be logically simple to have an AI that demonstrated empathy in trivial concerns, but still chose to be unempathetic in larger matters. What then is the value of this empathy? Something more than empathy governs the use of empathy, so empathy cannot be the grand prize.

Fifth, the very wording of the statement, that the nature of empathy can be understood well enough to be reduced to an algorithm – no matter how complex – is both risible and insulting. It assumes that human spirituality can both be fully understood and reducible to logic. Fortunately, that cannot be so.

I am not impressed by some high-falutin’ psuedo-cognosceti that imagines himself witty and insightful. If someone is thinking, “You need to read the article,” then my response is, “Do I need an entire article to explain a faulty explanation? If so, that is an admission of poor writing and weak logic.”

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