Guess what folks: we are celebrating a birthday this week. That’s right, Many Minds has reached the ripe age of one year old. Not sure how old that is in podcast years, exactly, but it’s definitely a landmark that we’re proud of. Please no gifts, but, as always, you’re encouraged to share the show with a friend, write a review, or give us a shout out on social.
To help mark this milestone we’ve got a great episode for you. My guest is the writer, Brian Christian. Brian is a visiting scholar at the University of California Berkeley and the author of three widely acclaimed books: The Most Human Human, published in 2011; Algorithms To Live By, co-authored with Tom Griffiths and published in 2016; and most recently, The Alignment Problem. It was published this past fall and it’s the focus of our conversation in this episode.
The alignment problem, put simply, is the problem of building artificial intelligences—machine learning systems, for instance—that do what we want them to do, that both reflect and further our values. This is harder to do than you might think, and it’s more important than ever.
As Brian and I discuss, machine learning is becoming increasingly pervasive in everyday life—though it’s sometimes invisible. It’s working in the background every time we snap a photo or hop on Facebook. Companies are using it to sift resumes; courts are using it to make parole decisions. We are already trusting these systems with a bunch of important tasks, in other words. And as we rely on them in more and more domains, the alignment problem will only become that much more pressing.
In the course of laying out this problem, Brian’s book also offers a captivating history of machine learning and AI. Since their very beginnings, these fields have been formed through interaction with philosophy, psychology, mathematics, and neuroscience. Brian traces these interactions in fascinating detail—and brings them right up to the present moment. As he describes, machine learning today is not only informed by the latest advances in the cognitive sciences, it’s also propelling those advances.
This is a wide-ranging and illuminating conversation folks. And, if I may say so, it’s also an important one. Brian makes a compelling case, I think, that the alignment problem is one of the defining issues of our age. And he writes about it—and talks about it here—with such clarity and insight. I hope you enjoy this one. And, if you do, be sure to check out Brian’s book.
Happy birthday to us—and on to my conversation with Brian Christian. Enjoy!