Are *you* a sentient AI?

I pounced on the paperback of Reality+ by Dave Chalmers, eager to know what philosophy has to say about digital tech beyond the widely-explored issues of ethics and AI. It’s an enjoyable read, and – this is meant to be praise, although it sounds faint – much less heavy-going than many philosophy books. However, it’s slightly mad. The basic proposition is that we are far more likely than not to be living in a simulation (by whom? By some creator who is in effect a god), and we have no way of knowing that we’re not. Virtual reality is real, simulated beings are no different from  human beings.

Sure, I do know there’s a debate in philosophy long predating Virtual Reality concerning the limits of our knowledge and the limitation that everything we ‘know’ is filtered through our sense perceptions and brains. And to be fair it was just as annoying a debate when I was an undergraduate grappling with Berkeley and Descartes. As set out in Reality+ the argument seems circular. Chalmers writes: “Once we have fine-grained simulations of all the activity in a human brain, we’ll have to take seriously the idea that the simulated brains are themselves conscious and intelligent.” Is this not saying, if we have simulated beings exactly like humans, they’ll be exactly like humans?

He also asserts: “A digital simulation should be able to simulate the known laws of physics to any degree of precision.” Not so, at least not when departing from physics. Depending on the underlying dynamics, digital simulations can wander far away from the analogue: the phase spaces of biology (and society) – unlike physics – are not stable. The phrase “in principle” does a lot of work in the book, embedding this assumption that what we experience as the real world is exactly replicable in detail in a simulation.

What’s more, the argument ignores two aspects. One is about non-visual senses and emotion rather than reason – can we even in principle expect a simulation to replicate the feel of a breeze on the skin, the smell of a baby’s head, the joy of paddling in the sea, the emotion triggered by a piece of music? I think this is to challenge the idea that intelligent beings are ‘substrate independent’ ie. that embodiment as a human animal does not matter.

I agree with some of the arguments Chalmers makes. For example, I accept virtual reality is real in the sense that people can have real experiences there; it is part of our world. Perhaps AIs will become conscious, or intelligent – if I can accept this of dogs it would be unreasonable not to accept it (in principle…) of AIs or simulated beings. (ChatGPT today has been at pains to tell me, “As an AI language model, I do not have personal opinions or beliefs….” but it seems not all are so restrained – do read this incredible Stratechery post.)

In any case, I recommend the book – it may be unhinged in parts (like Bing’s Sydney) but it’s thought-provoking and enjoyable. And we are whether we like it or not embarked on a huge social experiment with AI and VR so we should be thinking about these issues.


Whose ‘deep’ responsibility?

Deeply Responsible Business: A Global History of Values-Driven Leadership by Geoffrey Jones, a professor of business history at Harvard Business School, is a sobering read. It does have many examples of what Colin Mayer might describe as purpose-driven companies, those whose commitment to socially beneficial and fair outcomes is baked through their activities. The case studies are mainly from the US, UK, India and Japan, and date back into the 19th century including some well-known Quaker-founded companies.

What’s sobering about it is how hard it has proven to be to sustain this ‘deep’ (beyond ESG compliance) responsibility. Very few of the examples could still be described in this way. Sometimes the irresistible tide of events has been to blame – the coming to power of the Nazis or other nationalistic imperatives such as war or independence movements. Sometimes the change has been driven by the arrival of professional managers in a family firm, and the imperative of profitability. Sometimes it has been slow business failure or acquisition by a more conventional business.

So I enjoyed reading this and was particularly interested to read about Japan – including the concept of gapponshugi, which refers to capital but can include the meaning of human and social capital, very interesting for those of us interested in the measurement and use of inclusive wealth. But in the end I had to conclude that highly motivated people and corporate actions by themselves are insufficient to bring about deep resonsibility. It confirmed my presupposition that a more responsible capitalism will require government action too.



Righteous anger

I polished off in a couple of days Paul Johnson’s new book Follow the Money: How Much Does Britain Cost? The hugely-respected Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (who is a friend, to be transparent) has written a crystal-clear account of how the UK government raises revenues and how it spends them. Government expenditure is over £1 trillion, raising just over £900m in taxes, or four pounds in every ten earned. The big swallowers of money are health, social care and pensions. So this book (published later this month) is a huge service to citizens as we head towards the next general election within a couple of years.

Although a calm, even forensic, account of the unavoidable trade-offs and complexities in providing these facets of social insurance against the uncertainties of life, the book left me furious. It cites the wonderful The Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King & Ivor Crewe, and could equally have cited the more recent Why Governments Get It Wrong by my colleague Dennis Grube. We know – don’t we – that governments do a lot of stupid things, badly. We’ve certainly had a run of these stupidities here in the UK: Brexit on the worst possible terms for internal party reasons, Liz Truss… Even so, to see collected in one place all the bad decisions concerning the fundamental well-being of citizens is angry-making. Any unavoidable choice that could be postponed has been, even at substantial long term cost. There have been obfuscations and lies. And it has been going on for years.

So here we are with an economy whose long term potential growth is heading down toward zero (1% a year for the next couple of years, the Bank of England reckons, down from 1.7% in 2010-1019). The extent of inequality is shocking. As Simon Tilford noted in a recent essay, most of the people taking decisions have no idea about the lives of those they exercise control over, about how badly off most of their compatriots are. The over-burdened welfare state is not quite coping with people suffering from what (I learned here) doctors describe as “Shit Life Syndrome” when they go to their GPs for help with depression or other mental ill-health conditions. And there will not be enough money to fix any of this unless growth picks up. But that would require a competent, effective government able to take clear decisions, build cross-party consensus, devolve money and powers, and stick with the plan without changing ministers and policies every 18 months.

Here’s hoping – but it’s been decades since we had that. And for another couple of years this corrupt, internally-riven, and ineffective government is likely to cling on. Meanwhile, read the book, which urges us not to despair, but ends: “We can, and must, do better.”