What Do Illusion and A.I. Have in Common? / by Robert Smith

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Some may have noticed that the headline quote above the title of Rage is from Derren Brown, and you may have wondered: what is an award-winning TV and stage illusionist doing commenting on a book about algorithms and A.I.?

I don’t think it’s surprising. Illusionists are interested in people’s perceptions (and tricking them, but I don’t think that’s the whole point). Stage and TV magic focuses on the fact that people’s perceptions aren’t merely sensors tuned to reality, like those of a machine. Instead, human perception is integrated into a physical human being, with a psychology and a sociology, and those complex integrations are an inescapable part of perceived reality. Illusionists (be they magicians, mentalists, or even escape artists) exploit that complex reality to mislead and entertain.

But the best of them, those like Derren Brown, also use it to teach people about themselves. In that way, their magic is a kind of demonstrative philosophy: a way of making the philosophical examination of how we perceive reality practical and instructive. It’s therefore unsurprising that Derren recently wrote a best-selling book on how being “happy” is a philosophical concept that we can use in our own lives. In fact, if you look back at Mr Brown’s books, I think you’ll find they all have something philosophical to say about how people perceive, think about, and live their worlds.

That isn’t unlike the perspective I try to relate in Rage, because I think of A.I. as a branch of philosophy too. Historically, I see the pursuit of mechanical intelligence as a way of seeing the holes in machine perception, and what those holes can teach us about what’s uniquely human in our seeing and dealing with our complex and uncertain world. And I think they can teach use something about living better, with or without smart machines.

I imagine this is why Derren seemed to like the book so much, saying it is “beautiful, accessible and truly important” and that he “loved it.”

Derren has sent me a few probing philosophical questions since he read the book, and his having found the book stimulating of these questions is even more gratifying to me than the enthusiasm of his review (which you can read in full here).

Thanks, Derren Brown, and I look forward to discussing Hume and Kant with you in the near future!