Inexplicability of intelligence and the constancy of identity.

No one really knows how the most advanced algorithms do what they do. That could be a problem.

The chief problem with replicating biological intelligence and drawing inspiration for artificially intelligent system is that biologically intelligent systems operate in a black box environment.

Similarly, you cannot explain your reasoning and the processes that drove you to it. Your brain operates in the same way, like a black box.

In the MIT Tech Review:

You can’t just look inside a deep neural network to see how it works. A network’s reasoning is embedded in the behavior of thousands of simulated neurons, arranged into dozens or even hundreds of intricately interconnected layers. The neurons in the first layer each receive an input, like the intensity of a pixel in an image, and then perform a calculation before outputting a new signal. These outputs are fed, in a complex web, to the neurons in the next layer, and so on, until an overall output is produced. Plus, there is a process known as back-propagation that tweaks the calculations of individual neurons in a way that lets the network learn to produce a desired output.

We’ve never before built machines that operate in ways their creators don’t understand. How well can we expect to communicate—and get along with—intelligent machines that could be unpredictable and inscrutable?

Identity and persistence across time.

1. Can you step into the same river twice?

2. If you are constantly changing, between one moment and the next, are you the same person?

Heraclitus’s “river fragments” raise puzzles about identity and persistence: under what conditions does an object persist through time as one and the same object? If the world contains things which endure, and retain their identity in spite of undergoing alteration, then somehow those things must persist through changes. Heraclitus wonders whether one can step into the same river twice precisely because it continually undergoes changes. In particular, it changes compositionally. At any given time, it is made up of different component parts from the ones it was previously made up of. So, according to one interpretation, Heraclitus concludes that we do not have (numerically) the same river persisting from one moment to the next.

The Ship of Theseus

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

Was it?

Is wealth immoral?

In The New York Times, On wealth and the meaning of the American dream this decade:
Nonetheless, their ambivalence about recognizing privilege suggests a deep tension at the heart of the idea of American dream. While pursuing wealth is unequivocally desirable, having wealth is not simple and straightforward. Our ideas about egalitarianism make even the beneficiaries of inequality uncomfortable with it. And it is hard to know what they, as individuals, can do to change things.

Instead, we should talk not about the moral worth of individuals but about the moral worth of particular social arrangements. Is the society we want one in which it is acceptable for some people to have tens of millions or billions of dollars as long as they are hardworking, generous, not materialistic and down to earth? Or should there be some other moral rubric, that would strive for a society in which such high levels of inequality were morally unacceptable, regardless of how nice or moderate its beneficiaries are?

Sherman, Rachel. “What the Rich Won’t Tell You.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Sept. 2017,

Knight, Will. “There’s a big problem with AI: even its creators can’t explain how it works.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 12 May 2017,

Identity, Persistence, and the Ship of Theseus,

Rachel Sherman is an associate professor of sociology at the New School and the author of “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” from which this essay is adapted.