Traveling home on the Sunday after Thanksgiving provided an interesting insight into the future of AI and autonomous vehicles.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the annual I-35 post-Tday traffic jam. It’s something of a tradition as everyone simultaneously returns home. You never know precisely when or where it will happen or how bad it will be, but you know the traffic will drop from 80 mph to 0. In years past, you’d hit the slowdown and everyone would have to make a decision based on what little they could see ahead of them: Get off or stay on. Getting off the interstate and taking the parallel access road might be quicker by bypassing an accident. Or it might not. It was a gamble either way. And everyone had to make that decision independently. Hence, some got off and some stayed on.
This year, we happened to have our Google maps navigation up on one of our iPhones so that we could see ahead where the problems were and how bad they’d be (so that we could time when stops for the kids). As we approached what turned out to be an over-turned semi-trailer, Google maps said to get off the highway because that route was quicker. So we started trying to get off. But so did a surprising amount of other drivers too. I’m betting that most of them also had a GPS navigation system telling them the same thing at the same time. The problem is that the access road next to the interstate isn’t capable of handling the volume of traffic that hit it; it’s only 1 or 2 lanes in most places. So traffic on the access road suddenly slowed significantly. Then, before we could actually reach the exit ramp, Google maps had detected the slower traffic on the access roads and now told us to stay on the interstate as that route was now faster.
The irony of it amused me enough to alleviate some of the traffic stress. But it pointed to a larger looming problem with AIs and autonomous vehicles. The traffic system is designed to accommodate thousands of drivers operating a independent decision makers. Not everyone will do the same thing. GPS navigation systems are already eliminating some of that independence and creating new traffic problems. Autonomous vehicles will take that to the next step.
If you ask two locals (especially in smaller towns) what’s the best route to a nearby city or town, you’ll often get 2 different answers. Each of them has their preferred route. If, in the future, all the cars drive themselves and use the same navigation algorithms and traffic updates, they’ll all take the same routes, thereby clogging that route and leaving alternate routes open and faster. It’s quite plausible then that they’ll all receive a traffic update simultaneously and re-route, clogging the second route and opening up the first.
All this is to say that if all (weak) AIs solve the same problems in the same ways, then a sort of groupthink will emerge. We humans will then be along for the groupthink ride. As another example, if we increasingly allow search algorithms not only to answer questions for us, but tell us which questions to ask, we will increasingly groupthink our way to the same (potentially highly objectionable) conclusions. Except it’s not really groupthink. We’ll have automated that the job of groupthink to our new AIs driving us around and teaching us about the world.
Sometimes as I stare at the blinking cursor while waiting for the coffee to kick in so I can write, I end up daydreaming a bit. At times the daydream takes the form of imagining I were conversing with various “great” philosophers from various points in history. I always end up wondering if they would understand or recognize as philosophy any number of contemporary philosophical methods, ideas, arguments, or positions. What would Plato, for instance, think of contemporary modal logic? How well would Kant or Anselm receive an explanation of Kripke’s Naming and Necessity? Or what would Aristotle think of feminist work in ethics of care?
Recently, there has been posts on Daily Nous and The Philosophers’ Cocoon on what contemporary philosophy should the “greats” read. The ensuing discussion has brought these daydreams to my mind’s surface. I agree that it’s a fun question to ask, since often imagine conversations with the “greats.” But if this question is to serve as a proxy for what works in contemporary philosophy are good or demonstrate progress in the field, then this is the right question. Instead I think there is a better question to ask, one that is more enlightening, even if unanswerable. What contemporary philosophy should the next great philosophers read?
Brian Leiter recently shared this excerpt from Harry Frankfurt’s contribution to Portraits of American Philosophy:
I believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums. Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field. There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivsts. In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke. In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead. Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines–and not only in Europe, but here as well. And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.
The lively impact of these impressive figures has faded. We are no longer busily preoccupied with responding to them. Except for a few contributors of somewhat less general scope, such as Habermas, no one has replaced the imposingly great figures of the recent past in providing us with contagiously inspiring direction. Nowadays, there are really no conspicuously fresh, bold, and intellectually exciting new challenges or innovations. For the most part, the field is quiet. We seem, more or less, to be marking time. (pp. 125-126)
With respect, I think Frankfurt couldn’t be more wrong. Philosophy is hardly in the doldrums. This comment both misrepresents the contemporary status of our discipline and typifies an antiquated notion of what constitutes non-doldrum, energetic, thriving, and creative philosophy.
Philosophers are famous for their armchairs. It’s where we supposedly do all our thinking. (Experimental philosophers are supposedly burning their armchairs, but we’ll leave that for another day.) I have one too. The most comfortable chair in my house is called “The Philosopher’s Chair.” I’ve had many deep thoughts (and deep naps) in it. But no more. I’m taking up the war on sitting.
I am happy to announce that this fall I will be joining the faculty at Michigan State University as a post-doctoral Research Fellow. I will be joining the NSF-funded Toolbox Project under Michael O’Rourke.
I like the idea of Groucho Marxism as a theory of political philosophy. Though humorous, it isn’t a silly idea. The central claim is that often the most effective way of making your political point or realizing your political agenda is through humor, especially satire and mockery. As Mel Brooks said, “If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win. That’s what they do so well; they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter–they can’t win. You show how crazy they are.”
Groucho Marxism, the political theory of humor, is an idea that I want to explore and develop as my career progresses. I’ve long been interested in the philosophical analysis of humorous utterances. But to do that work in philosophy of language, one must recognize the political power humorous discourse can have. Humor can be, and had been, a powerful tool of social commentary and change.
Welcome to the location of my blog. I’ve left my old Blogger site behind and embraced WordPress. It is so much better. And now my blog is on the same domain as the rest of my site.
I’ve brought all my old posts over, though all the comments were lost in the transition.
If you’re not already familiar with philpapers.org, check it out now. It is a tremendous repository of philosophical literature. And even more impressively, it is elaborately categorized. If you’re a philosopher, you couldn’t ask for a much better research tool. There isn’t a better way to find out what is being published on topics you’re researching.
For some time now, I’ve been the editor of the Conversational Implicature leaf on philpapers. Since a lot of my research is on this topic, it works out nicely. I was even able to add several papers to the database when I first took over.
Just recently, I’ve also taken over as the editor for Conventional Implicature and Implicature, Misc. leafs, as well as the larger category of Implicature.
If you’re a philosopher, check to see if you’re area of research has an editor. Several still don’t and could use knowledgable people to manage them. And it helps the discipline as a whole.
(Originally published Dec. 11, 2012)
The fall term is over. It’s been a very busy one, and there were many interesting and exciting things to report. But I can’t now, though maybe later. I found out on Monday that one of my students was hit and killed by a car over the weekend. She was only 19. The class felt odd and empty with her empty chair this morning during the final exam. Though some students already knew, I didn’t have the heart to tell the whole class before their final. But I did tell them afterwards. What a terrible, tragic way to end a semester.
In memoriam, Jessie Winterholler.