Wednesday, March 25, 2015

AI hype as job security for software engineers

My student told me, "My setup is exactly the same as Brian's, but his works and mine doesn't."

"No," I replied, "if your setup does not work, that is because it is different than Brian's."

We got online so I could see his screen. Brian and I had set "PYTHONPATH" to point to a particular directory. When I asked to see the other student's value for "PYTHONPATH," he said, "Oh, I used 'PATH' for that. I thought it wouldn't matter."

So he had set the wrong variable. But rather than seeing the box in front of him as a dumb machine, where you have to set each switch properly or it won't work, he viewed it as something semi-magical that would just "know" that by 'PATH' he meant 'PYTHONPATH.' And if it wasn't working, well, the likely explanation was that the box was busy thinking about something else, like world domination, rather than it just being a dumb machine, in which he had set a switch wrong.

I can't conceive of how anyone could program decently who really believes that the computer he is trying to program is also thinking its own thoughts. Instead of building a machine in circuitry that does what he wants it to (a task that is already plenty complex!), the "programmer" of a thinking machine would always be engaged in Holmes-Moriarty paradoxes and so forth. Thus, I conclude that when you see an experienced software engineer promoting the idea of "Artificial Intelligence," he is really engaged in subverting the competition: if enough young people buy into the hype, they will become unable to think as programmers, and the older folks' jobs will be safe.

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"If your approach to mathematics is mechanical not mystical, you're not going to go anywhere." -- Nassim Nicholas Taleb