Flash Fiction: Two Brainstorms about Trees

September 2, 2014

Sometimes I think the project of building a strong AI machine is like building a tree. Doesn’t that sound strange? We usually talk of growing a tree, but why don’t we build trees instead? Well, the same question applies to artificial intelligence.

Small child off alone, hunting bugs in Kinuta Park - June 29, 2014

Small child off alone, hunting bugs in Kinuta Park – June 29, 2014 (Enlarge)

In theory it’s possible to build a tree molecule-by-molecule in a very advanced 3-D printer, and that tree would be alive like any other tree. It would grow and eventually produce fertile seeds. It would carry out its metabolism in a seasonal cycle and heal itself when damaged or diseased.

On the other hand, if you want a tree, it’s much easier just to grow one the natural way from a seed.

The problem is that you just get natural trees from natural seeds, and you can’t determine precisely how the tree will look or function. You can’t make a tree grow by itself into a bonsai. You can’t grow a tree naturally and have it produce three kinds of juicy fruit all year round for your table. You can’t take natural seeds and grow trees that sprout elegant furniture instead of ordinary branches. If this is the kind of thing you want to do, you might need to resort to the 3-D printing method.

In the same way, if you want to build a fully conscious AI person, you could in theory program it by hand, specifying all the neural network connections yourself. But it would be much easier just to set up a digital environment where digital evolution could take place and where the AI person could grow by itself, without a human programmer’s detailed intervention.

Flash fiction: A Creationist Christmas Tree

Two people were out walking in the park, and they came to a magnificent old tree, so they stopped and admired it. One guy asked the other:

“Who created this tree? Who set its strong trunk in the ground and wrapped it securely with bark? Who attached the branches one by one and spread out the twigs? Who sprinkled the leaves all around to clothe the tree and make it complete?”

“No one did,” said the other. “This tree wasn’t constructed piece by piece, but it grew gradually from a tiny seed. The process took years and years.”

“I don’t believe that!” snarled the first guy. “It’s just a theory. How could a huge stately tree develop out of such a tiny insignificant seed? The seed is so simple, and the tree is irreducibly complex. It surely violates some basic law of physics, because there isn’t enough energy in the seed to produce a whole tree like that. No, I really believe the tree must have had a builder.”

There’s a big difference between a real Christmas tree and an artificial one. The fake tree is an example of creationism. So what about AI? Are we going to build a fake AI like a fake Christmas tree? I would prefer to build a real AI, a living AI that grows and branches out on its own. I want an AI that stands on its own and pursues its own destiny.