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Synthetic Intelligence

…the question whether machines can think as relevant as the question whether submarines can swim.

- Dijkstra

An artificial diamond is something like cubic zirconia. It's not a diamond — it's not even carbon — but can still serve as an appropriate substitute for an engagement ring.
A synthetic diamond is simply created in a lab. It's real, genuine carbon, but it wasn't created by pressure from the Earth's crust.

This may not seem like a big deal, but whether or not we consider something an "imitation" has huge moral and legal repurcussions.

"Test-Tube Babies" are Babies

Let's start with an uncontroversal example: a "test-tube baby" is a baby.

In-vitro fertilization (IVF) produces a real human embryo, which grows into a real human fetus, which is born, and grows into a real human child, then real human adult with a real human job. But IVF is artificial insemination. Science found a substitute for the real thing. It's like life finds a way or something.

"Synthetic Meat" is Meat

You Call That Meat? Not So Fast, Cattle Ranchers Say

— NY Times

The fight against ‘fake meat' has officially begun


Artificial meat is meat-like. It is sometimes considered a substitute for meat, composed of soy or something.
But synthetic meat is cloned from animal flesh. It is the literally the flesh of a cow or chicken or whatever, but grown under different conditions.

Unfortunately, ranchers and farmers are exploiting U.S. policy with weak vocabulary. Artificial and synthetic meats are not "fake meats". And everybody may pay more money for a subpar, unethical product because we didn't choose the right words soon enough.

"Champagne" is Champagne

Many people use the term Champagne as a generic term for sparkling wine but in some countries, it is illegal to label any product Champagne unless it both comes from the Champagne region and is produced under the rules of the appellation. Specifically, in the EU countries, only sparkling wine which comes from the Champagne region of France can be legally labelled as Champagne.


Champagne must be grown in Champagne, France. Champagne is not Prosecco.

Imagine you have two grape seeds: plant one seed in Paris and the other in Champagne. Even though the resulting wines may be indistinguishable, one wine is "champagne" and the other is just plain ol' "sparkling wine".
And "sparkling wine" doesn't sell nearly as well. Because the EU will fine you or imprison you or whatever for calling that grape-juice "champagne" without the proper license. And the people of Champagne rake in massive amounts of cash off of the policing of "fake" vs. "real".

"Mickey Mouse" is Mickey Mouse

…a perfect, molecule-by-molecule recreation of an original Picasso would be considered a "forgery", but any image of the Coca-Cola logo is completely real and subject to trademark laws.


Much like champagne, the words "synthetic" and "artificial" don't apply here. You can't synthesize champagne. You can't synthesize Banksy. You can't synthesize Mickey Mouse.

You can't make an authentic Banksy because you aren't Banksy, and that's one of the requirements of producing art by Banksy. Any attempt wouldn't be artificial or synthetic — it would be forgery.

But U.S. law throws this concept for a loop. When Disney copyrighted Mickey, they were saying, that you can make the real Mickey, it's just illegal to do so without Disney's permission under specific circumstances. And so in fact, anything mistaken for Mickey is Mickey. But don't do it… or else.

"Synthetic Intelligence" is Intelligence

If intelligence is like Mickey Mouse, we might say that anything that passes a Turing Test needs to pay taxes.
But likeness of thought is not necessarily thought.

If intelligence is like a work of Banksy, we might say that non-human thought is fake or forgery.
But in the secular worldview, there is no author of our human minds. And there is no authenticity without an author.

If intelligence is like champagne, we might say that only human intelligence is authentic: all other intelligence is "animal" or "alien" or "something else".
But there's nothing special about the human brain: any sufficiently-large computer could simulate one. And it doesn't matter whether the thoughts occur in Champagne, Earth, or Champagne, Mars. Intelligence is intelligence independent of the origin.

If intelligence is like meat, then we might say that non-human minds might be intelligent. We may say that non-conscious agents with intelligent behavior are "artificial", while conscious ones are "synthetic".
In other words, artificial intelligence is a substitute for intelligent thought. It may be a system that is behaving intelligently, but it is completely devoid of experience or any whiff of consciousness.
And so synthetic intelligence can refer to real, conscious intelligence that is produced by alternative means. It's the real-deal, but not created naturally.

My Fears

I'm afraid that we won't outgrow the phrase "artificial intelligence", and that my future silicon friends will be treated as mere substitutes for humans.

I'm afraid that in a few decades, when we starting synthesizing minds that dream and feel and love, that we will still be calling them "test-tube souls".

I'm afraid that our specific choice of words, right now, will continue to affect ethics and policies and laws regarding synthetic intelligence.