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Neil deGrasse Tyson on AI Fears and Pluto’s Demotion

Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why fears about AI are overblown and how bad data led to Pluto becoming a planet.
Jun 9th, 2023 6:00am by
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The problem with artificial intelligence, said famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is that people don’t realize how long they’ve been using technologies that are, essentially, AI. So they think it’s something new. But really AI is something that’s been around for a while, from Google Maps to Siri, he pointed out.

“The dire predictions for AI make very good media clickbait as, of course, the public now thinks of AI as an enemy of society without really understanding what role it has already played in society,” Tyson said. “I think once you become accustomed to something, you no longer think of it as AI. I can talk into my cell phone and say, ‘Where’s the nearest Starbucks, I want to get there before it closes and I need the shortest traffic route,’ and [it] gives you that answer in moments, and not a single human being was involved in that decision. So again, this is not a computer doing something rote. It’s a computer figuring stuff out that a human being might have done and would have taken longer. Nobody’s calling that AI — why not?”

Tyson, who directs the Hayden Planetarium, spoke last week in New York at Rev 4, a data science and analytics conference held by Domino Data Lab. Tyson pointed out that computers and AI have been doing the tasks of humans for some time now.

“Part of me sees what’s happened in recent months, where this AI power has crossed over this line in the sand and now it’s affecting people in the liberal arts world. It can now compose their term paper and they’re losing their shit over it. They’re freaking out over this,” Tyson said. “And I think ‘What do you think it’s been doing for the rest of us for the past 60 years?’ When it beat us at chess? Did you say, oh my gosh, ‘That’s the end of the world?’ No, you didn’t, you were intrigued by this. It beat us at Go, it beat us at Jeopardy. Now it can write a term paper, and you’re freaking out.”

He acknowledged that guidance is needed with AI, as it is with any powerful tool, but pointed out that he doesn’t think it’s uniquely placed to end civilization relative to other powerful tools — “We’ve created nuclear weapons that are controlled by computers,” he added.

“Yes, you put in some checks and balances, but the idea that some humanoid robot is going to come out, that’s not the direction we’re going,” he said. ”It’s a hard problem, because people fear what they don’t understand. And you have the captains of industry saying, ‘We should fear this.’ We presume they understand what they’re talking about. So my reply here is, yes, we should fear it enough to monitor our actions closely about what you’re doing with it.”

Tyson sat on the Defense Innovation Board at the Pentagon, where they talked about the role of AI and a kill decision. If there’s such a thing as the ethics of war, then AI can never make that ultimate decision, so the board recommended there must be a human in the loop and the military adopted the recommendation.

That said, AI’s ability to create deep fakes, from voice to video, may finally break the internet, he cautioned. It will even make it hard to peddle conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, he said.

“Nobody can trust anything. Even the people who didn’t used to trust things, they can’t even trust the things that were wrong that they trusted. So that’s basically the end of the internet,” Tyson said. “People will return to having one on one conversations with each other and actually calling people on the phone and the internet will just be this a playground of fake things. The tombstone [will be] internet 1992 to 2024 — 32 years, it had a good run, rest in peace.”

Tyson challenged the audience with reflections on data, including a look at how bad data led to Pluto becoming — then unbecoming — a planet. It was first identified as a planet because  Neptune’s orbit didn’t follow Newton’s Law, leading astrophysicists to believe there must be a Planet X out there that was affecting Neptune’s orbit. Astronomers found the space where Planet X should have been and there was a small object they named Pluto. The moon has five times the mass of Pluto and there’s no way something so small could have disrupted Neptune’s orbit, he said.

“I have hate mail from children,” Tyson said. “I was implicated in this demotion. I didn’t demote, but I was definitely an accessory. I definitely drove a getaway car on this one.”

It was a problem of bad data collected over 10 years by the US Naval Observatory, he said. Once that data was removed, Neptune “landed right on” Newton’s Law, eliminating the need for Planet X.

In a similar vein, Mercury’s orbit does not follow Newton’s Law, which led to another search for a hypothetical planet called Vulcan (after the Roman god, not Spock‘s home planet) until Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

“1916, Albert Einstein introduces an upgrade in the laws of physics, the laws of motion and the laws of gravity, the general theory of relativity demonstrating that under strong gravitational fields, the laws of motion do not follow Newton’s law,” he said. “It’s general relativity. It’s a different physics model. Vulcan died overnight — it was unnecessary.”

Data and even the frameworks in which the data is used can be flawed, he added.

“Even if the analysis is accurate within itself, the fact that you do this analysis instead of that is what could be flawed,” he told the audience of data scientists.

Domino Data Lab paid for The New Stack’s travel and accommodations to attend the Rev4 conference.

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