On boiling frogs

SittingIf you drop a frog into a pan of boiling water it will jump out. Frogs aren’t stupid. But if a frog is sitting in a pan which is gradually heated it will become soporific and fail to notice when it boils to death at 100 degrees. This story has been told many times, not least by the leading management thinker, Charles Handy, in his best-selling book The Age of Unreason.

Unfortunately, the story isn’t true. It was put about by 19th-century experimenters, but has been refuted several times since. Never mind: it’s a good metaphor, and metaphors aren’t supposed to be literally true.

The white heat of technology

Metaphorically, we are all in boiling water now, and the heat is technology. Moore’s Law means that computers double their performance every eighteen months, and this drives the exponential improvement in artificial intelligence (AI). Pretty much every adult in the developing world knows that smartphones and other gadgets are getting smarter at an amazing rate, and you don’t hear many people argue that the progress is going to run out of steam any time soon.

But how many people are asking themselves, Where it is all heading? Well, we all lead busy lives, and we know how hard it is to forecast anything, so why bother?

Life on an exponential curve

Unfortunately, most of us don’t yet understand what being on an exponential curve means. People sometimes talk about the “knee” of an exponential curve – the point at which the past looks uneventful and the future looks like a dramatic take-off. But the reality is that you are always at the knee: on an exponential curve, the past always looks flat and the future always looks vertical. When you understand this, it makes the question of where it is all heading a compelling one.

The exponential improvement in artificial intelligence presents us with two important challenges. In the short term it brings us automation, and we don’t yet know whether that will render most people unemployed in the next two or three decades, or whether humans will manage to scamper up the value chain and keep finding new, interesting and lucrative things to do which computers can’t (yet) match. In the longer term it may bring us artificial general intelligence (AGI), and we don’t yet know whether that will be great news or terrible.

Most people aren’t thinking about these things yet: most of us are still like the frog in the slowly boiling water. But in the last year, the publication of Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence has woken quite a few people up to the risks posed by AGI, because leading technologists like Elon Musk and Bill Gates read it and talked about it. The fact that artificial intelligence presents us with great promise but also great challenges is now openly discussed in the mainstream media. So maybe the metaphor works after all: maybe the metaphorical frog will jump out of the metaphorical water.

Out of the pan…

And if it does, where will it jump? Will there be a rational debate about AI? Or will it become another subject where we make up our minds about what should be done before we have a complete grasp of the facts, and then filter out the evidence we receive to exclude anything which challenges our opinion? Our track record isn’t great, and we can’t afford to get this one wrong!





5 thoughts on “On boiling frogs

  1. Curiously, I also wrote about boiling frogs in a novel that I’ve been writing. It’s a problem with human thinking that really bugs me.

    Here’s a snippet, in case you’re interested:

    When I was thirteen my biology teacher taught us something foolish. She told us that, if one were to place a frog in a pot of cold water and heat it up slowly, the frog would simply croak away happily, enjoying the warmth, thinking about munching on a large, juicy fly, ignorant of the fact that in a few minutes it will be too hot to jump out and will be well on its way to the froggy afterlife.
    What somehow managed to slip my teacher’s mind was that some of us mischievous science nerds would consider this an interesting hypothesis not to be believed until it had been thoroughly processed by the scientific method, tested, re-tested, peer reviewed and published. I looked over at Jim who nodded and winked, apparently having the same thought as myself.
    After school the two of us wondered off to a nearby pond. With my lunch box in my hand, I quickly captured a frog; a big one, but still agile enough to be able to hop out of a small pot.
    When we arrived at my home I explained the experiment to my little brother, who was just as excited about furthering his scientific studies as we were. I poured cold water into a pot and placed it on the cold stove. The silly frog, however, was not very interested in science and decided to hop out of the cold pot before we had turned the stove on at all. Repeating the experiment produced the same results and I came to the conclusion that my teacher had not been very scientific and was merely repeating an old wives’ tale. The experience, however, had not been a failure, because it had helped me to learn a valuable lesson which would keep repeating itself over and over: Frogs are smarter than us.

  2. There is a great cartoon of a human demonstrating superiority over animals by pressing a button which explodes her head. Unfortunately I can’t find it, which proves that Google’s AI is still far from perfect.

    • It must be quite interesting to write about the current state of technology and the future, and come back to re-read it a few years later to see how things have changed, and find whether or not we had the right idea about what would happen. I’m still looking forward to the outcome of a bet that I can find by googling: calum chace “bet”

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