Missing Link: Artificial intelligence in spiritual weightlessness

It’s summer and it’s been over ten years now. Of course, this is not to be understood in a meteorological or calendar sense, but refers to the ongoing boom in artificial intelligence (AI). After several “AI winters” in which the financial support for the technology was drastically reduced after disappointed expectations, she is currently experiencing an unprecedented career boost.

What is missing: In the fast-paced world of technology, there is often time to re-sort all the news and background information. At the weekend we want to take it, follow the side paths away from the current, try different perspectives and make nuances audible.

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Laughed at for a long time, especially by the humanities and the arts pages, the potential of AI is now also being recognized and taken seriously outside of specialist circles. Research funds are flowing in mightier streams than ever before. And in this sunny moment of all things, Google employee Blake Lemoine clouds the blue AI sky with dark clouds when he announces that a chatbot he oversees has apparently developed consciousness and feelings and must be considered vulnerable.

Is Lemoine an unfortunate fanatic misled by his own creation, or should we honor and protect him as a whistleblower who gave us early warning of a problematic development? Naturally, opinions differ.

What is undisputed, however, is that Lemoine’s statements turned out to be a “career limiting move” (CLM) for him, i.e. a step that limits his career: he was given a leave of absence from Google. Apparently, his superiors see him primarily as a troublemaker who is hindering the AI’s career, which is currently going so well.

Lemoine is probably not an isolated case, but merely the most spectacular and prominent victim of a process that is otherwise difficult to grasp. Because it seems as if dealing with “strong AI” in general has become more and more of a CLM in recent years. Strong AI refers to a general, comprehensive intelligence, as developed by humans and other biological creatures. “Weak AI”, on the other hand, stands for applications of the technology to narrowly defined tasks such as text analysis, image evaluation or language processing.

While the beginnings of the research field, which developed in the middle of the last century and saw its birth with the Dartmouth Conference of 1956, were clearly characterized by strong AI, the current AI summer is primarily – if not exclusively – dominated by the weak, but commercial worn attractive AI.

Although hardly anyone will openly say that strong AI is a dubious research topic, there is generally a growing reluctance to deal with it at all. The federal government has completely hidden them in its AI strategy. Researchers are sensitive when their work is placed near strong AI. The media, and especially the film industry, is regularly accused at conferences and in specialist publications of overestimating this aspect and thereby fueling false expectations and fears that do not do justice to real research.

In the meantime, there are repeated calls for terms such as “intelligence” or “autonomy” to be completely dispensed with and replaced with more technical-sounding terms in order to “objectify” the discussion. Based on the debates about weapon systems and other military AI applications, this conceptual evasive maneuver has now also reached the civilian sector.

The vision that originally brought the field of research into being fell into disrepute just at the moment when the resulting technologies were approaching maturity for application. What is interesting about this process is that it is apparently not limited to AI research, but can also be observed elsewhere.

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Rocket technology, for example, grew out of a desire to make space travel possible. Inspired by the stories of Jules Verne, researchers such as Konstantin Tsiolkowski and Hermann Oberth first developed the theoretical framework, which in turn inspired engineers such as Wernher von Braun and Sergej Korolev to tackle the technical realization of the vision – which would soon turn out to be CLM.

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