Unpacking the suitcase words

Half a dozen different people sent me this article for slightly different reasons; one has come to dread the listicle format, but this example is excellent, with every point well worth passing on. My talk in Munich last week was an extensive riff on Clarke’s Third Law, so I’ll not reprise that now; instead, I’ll highlight this bit:

Marvin Minsky called words that carry a variety of meanings “suitcase words.” “Learning” is a powerful suitcase word; it can refer to so many different types of experience. Learning to use chopsticks is a very different experience from learning the tune of a new song. And learning to write code is a very different experience from learning your way around a city.

[…]

Suitcase words mislead people about how well machines are doing at tasks that people can do. That is partly because AI researchers—and, worse, their institutional press offices—are eager to claim progress in an instance of a suitcase concept. The important phrase here is “an instance.” That detail soon gets lost. Headlines trumpet the suitcase word, and warp the general understanding of where AI is and how close it is to accomplishing more.

I hadn’t heard Minsky’s coining before, but I sure as hell know suitcase words when I see them; I tend to call them “hollow signifiers”, myself, but suitcase words is a far better formulation.

I’m less sanguine than Brooks regarding the intentionality of suitcase words, however; I have long been of the opinion, and am increasingly so, that the energetic trumpeting of under-paid, under-trained and under pressure journalists that results in this semiotic inflation is not seen as a bug by the “artificial intelligence” industry, but is in fact seen as (and quite possibly nurtured as) a feature to be relentlessly exploited. This would be why Elon Musk takes every opportunity to position “artificial intelligence” as a potential threat, even as his own companies are sinking billions into R&D programs; so long as people are talking about a suitcase word, whether positively or negatively, said suitcase word becomes a lever for attention, and thus for funding. Sell it as an angel, sell it as a devil… don’t matter how you sell it, so long as you’re selling, right?

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