Artificial Intelligence and Mythmaking

The Latvian version of this article is available in print in the April 2021 issue of Forbes Latvia

Steve Jobs was a masterful storyteller.

One of his more powerful analogies was when he would talk about the impression that was made on him by an article in ‘Scientific American’ when he was twelve years old that discussed the required caloric expenditure of animals to travel a given distance. At the very top of the list was the condor. Humans, “the crown of creation,” were a third of the way down the list.

But one of the researchers had had the inspiration to also test the efficiency of a human riding a bicycle. The human riding the bicycle blew away the condor and propelled itself to the top of the list.

And Jobs continued: “it really made a big impression on me that we humans are tool builders, and we can fashion tools that amplify these inherent abilities that we have to spectacular magnitudes. And so for me, a computer has always been a bicycle of the mind.”

What a powerful analogy. And Jobs was absolutely correct. Our ability to make tools that amplify our abilities or shape the physical realm is one of humanity’s defining traits. But so is our ability to tell stories and create myths. Combining the two was Jobs’ superpower. It was also something that the ancient Greeks understood very well.

It is hard to overstate the influence of the ancient Greeks on the modern world. Their observations, calculations and systemization of the natural world formed much of the basis for modern science. The Greeks created the earliest known analogue computing device – known today as the Antikythera mechanism – that could be used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses decades in advance. The Antikythera mechanism was found in a shipwreck between Crete and the Greek mainland. Nothing similar is known to have existed until more than a thousand years later, when astronomical clocks began to be developed again in Europe in the 14th century.

What’s more, Aristotle’s treatise on logic ‘The Organon’ serves as a foundation of Boolean mathematics which is the foundation of computational science. And it is computational science in its current iteration of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning that is the closest approximation of having created modern, promethean fire.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the titan that stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans, thus creating civilization. His punishment was to be chained to rock in the Caucasus Mountains and have his liver eaten by an eagle on a daily basis, only to be restored the next day to be eaten again the very next day in an infinite loop.

Perhaps is then fitting that according to the Stanford Institute for HumanCentered Artificial Intelligence ‘AI Index Report 2021’, the majority of AI funding last year went to “Drugs, Cancer, Molecular, Drug Discovery”. More than USD 13.8 billion was invested, which is 4.5 times higher than 2019. There are no signs of the magnitude on these investments receding as AI technology continues to revolutionize medicine.

Imaging technology and computational power are changing the way we can detect and treat disease, and I was blown away last year when Rauls Vēliņš, the Director of Roche Latvia, told me about the companies that they were working with in their healthcare start-up incubator, and how Latvia-based AI companies AImuno and Smartomnica are working with data sets and imagery from Roche Canada to generate diagnostic information that could better target lung cancer treatment therapies. Incredible stuff. Bioinformatics is changing the world as we know it by enabling a deeper understanding than ever before of what is happening within our bodies on a cellular level.

This type of AI technology is referred to as Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI), as it is directed towards a specific problem. Computers playing chess or ‘Go’ are also iterations of ANI, and the progress made in analyzing and spotting patterns in large data is massively impressive.

The other type of AI is Artificial General Intelligence, which would be manifest in computers doing anything a human can. It could also be the catalyst of irreversibly changing life as we know it. In Greek mythology the Titans were deposed by the Olympian gods. Could humanity as we know it suffer a similar fate? According to Google scientist François Chollet, this will not be happening anytime soon:

“I know this is a very heretic thing to say in the current climate, where a lot of well-funded large- scale gradient-descent projects get carried out as a way to generate bombastic press articles that misleadingly suggest that human-level AI is perhaps a few years away. Many people have staked a lot on this illusion. But it’s still an illusion.”

Chollet makes a very important point. Our imaginations and will to believe have run ahead of our actual scientific and computational ability. This, of course, does not seem to faze our current era’s foremost mythmaker, Elon Musk.

Part of the mythology built around Tesla is that Tesla cars will be fully self-driving. Musk previously claimed, that Tesla would be ‘close to Level 5’ driving autonomy by the end of 2021, but according to a recent Forbes article by James Morris “a series of emails between Tesla and the California Department of Motor Vehicles have come to light, admitting this “autosteer on city streets” capability is no more than Level 2.”

Level 2 automation is referred to as “hands off”, which means that the automated system can accelerate brake and steer, but that he driver must be ready to intervene at all times.

At Level 3 (“eyes off”): The driver can safely turn their attention away from the driving tasks but must still be prepared to intervene within some limited time.

Level 4 is referred to as “mind off”, as the driver may safely go to sleep or leave the driver’s seat.

At Level 5 the “steering wheel optional”: no human intervention is required at all. The robotic vehicle would work on all kinds of surfaces, all over the world, all year around, in all weather conditions.

Clearly, Musk’s mythmaking has run ahead of the actual science in question.

However, it is also important to note that Musk has cautioned about the increasing power and potential consequences of AI: “We have to figure out some way to ensure that the advent of digital super intelligence is one which is symbiotic with humanity. I think that is the single biggest existential crisis that we face and the most pressing one.”

Musk’s prodigious ability to build his own myth and legend has been reflected in the amazing ascent of the price of Tesla shares. His other major company, SpaceX, is creating phenomenal advances in space flight and propelling our ability to reach the firmament. This might draw comparisons to the Greek myth of Icarus, whose waxen wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. But when it comes to the prospect of AI general intelligence, Musk’s ultimate legacy might be more likened to Greek myth of Cassandra, who could see the future, but was cursed by the gods, so that no one would actually believe her.

The ancient Greeks devoted themselves to scientific inquiry, but also understood that reason alone could not reflect the true depth of the human experience. To fill this gap, they created bountiful mythology, not as a consequence of their ignorance, but rather to illuminate our propensity for heroism and weakness, genius and folly – traits that are also abundant in financial markets.

AI will change our world and provide incredible opportunities for investors, but we will have to tread carefully and try to avoid hubris at all costs.  

One recent example of what the future might hold both in terms of AI technology and returns for investors was the IPO of AI company C3.ia – which locked down the most excellent ticker symbol ‘AI’. C3.ai went public at $42 per share on December 8th, raising $900 million. Less than two months later its share price reached $183.60. A month later it had halved. C3.ai’s share price continues to defy rational valuation parameters, and it is clear that the ‘story’ is taking precedence over the data, which is interesting considering the fact that it is a company that builds technology to analyze and generate predictions from data. What is also prescient is that C3.ai intends to spend the proceeds of its IPO not on processing power, but on increasing their human sales force. It seems as if the cutting edge of today’s AI has crunched the numbers and agrees with the ancient Greeks: logic and tools cannot be separated from myth.