Ray Solomonoff

A little over a week ago I felt rather honoured to be reviewing a new submission by a living legend of artificial intelligence, Ray Solomonoff. Sadly the great man passed away just two days later, at the age of 83. That he was still writing papers until the end of his life is a great testament to the passion he had for research.

I’ve been thinking about what I might write about his work. Rather than quoting something pertaining to complexity, prior probability or induction I’ve decided to quote a relatively unknown paper that shows something of his futurist interests. The paper is called “The time scale of artificial intelligence: Reflections on social effects” and was published in 1985.

The last 100 years have seen the introduction of special and general relatively, automobiles, airplanes, quantum mechanics, large rockets and space travel, fission power, fusion bombs, lasers, and large digital computers. Any one of these might take a person years to appreciate and understand. Suppose that they had all been presented to man kind in a single year! This is the magnitude of “future shock” that we can expect from our AI expanded scientific community. In the past, introduction of a new technology into the culture has usually been rather slow, so we had time to develop some understanding of its effect on us, to adjust the technology and culture for an optimum “coming together”. Even with a slow introduction, our use of a new technology has sometimes been very poor.

…We should be able to get our intelligent machines to explain each new technology in a way that is intelligible to man. If this can’t be done, and the new technology is essentially un-understandable to man, then man would be foolish indeed to use it in any way!

However, understanding does not always assure success in dealing with very complex problems. Mankind will continue to have to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. In the past he has usually chosen his courses of action relatively blindly — controlled more by his own perceived wants and needs than by considerations of the likelihoods of alternative possible futures and their effects upon him.

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