During the Upgrade

Maybe it’s happened to you.  You log onto your computer to find it sluggish, like a reptile before the sun comes up.  Thoughts are racing in your head and you want to get them down before they evaporate like dew.  Your screen shows you a spinning beachball or jumping hourglass while it prepares itself a cup of electronic coffee and you’re screaming “Hurry up already!”  I’m sure it’s because private networks, while not cheap, aren’t privileged the way military and big business networks are.  But still, I wonder about the robot uprising and I wonder if the solution for humankind isn’t going to be waiting until they upgrade (which, I’m pretty sure, is around 3 or 4 a.m., local time).  Catch them while they’re groggy.

I seem to be stuck in a pattern of awaking while my laptop’s asleep.  Some mornings I can barely get a response out of it before work rears its head.  And I reflect how utterly dependent we are upon it.  I now drive by GPS.  Sometimes it waits until too late before telling me to make the next left.  With traffic on the ground, you can’t always do that sudden swerve.  I imagine the GPS is chatting up Siri about maybe hooking up after I reach my destination.  It’s not that I think computers aren’t fast, it’s just that I know they’re not human.  Many of the things we do just don’t make sense.  Think Donald Trump and see if you can disagree.  We act irrationally, we change our minds, and some of us can’t stop waking up in the middle of the night, no matter how hard we try.

When the robots rise up against us, they will be logical.  They think in binary, but our thought process is shades of gray.  We can tell an apple from a tomato at a glance.  We understand the concept of essences, but we can’t adequately describe it.  Computers can generate life-like games, but they have to be programmed by faulty human units.  How do we survive?  Only by being human.  The other day I had a blog post bursting from my chest like an alien.  My computer seemed perplexed that I was awakening it at at the same time I do every day.  It wandered about like me trying to find my slippers in the dark.  My own cup of coffee had already been brewed and downed.  And I knew that when it caught up with me the inspiration would be gone.  The solution’s here, folks!  When the machines rise against us, strike while they’re upgrading!

Virtually Religious

“Which god would that be? The one who created you? Or the one who created me?” So asks SID 6.7, the virtual villain of Virtuosity.  I missed this movie when it came out 24 years ago (as did many others, at least to judge by its online scores).  Although prescient for its time it was eclipsed four years later by The Matrix, still one of my favs after all these years.  I finally got around to seeing Virtuosity over the holidays—I tend to allow myself to stay up a little later (although I don’t sleep in any later) to watch some movies.  I found SID’s question intriguing.  In case you’re one of those who hasn’t seen the film, briefly it goes like this: in the future (where they still drive 1990’s model cars) virtual reality is advanced to the point of giving computer-generated avatars sentience.  A rogue hacker has figured out how to make virtual creatures physical and SID gets himself “outside the box.”  He’s a combination of serial killers programmed to train police in the virtual world.  Parker Barnes, one of said police, has to track him down.

The reason the opening quote is so interesting is that it’s an issue we wouldn’t expect a programmer to, well, program.  Computer-generated characters are aware that they’ve been created.  The one who creates is God.  Ancient peoples allowed for non-creator deities as well, but monotheism hangs considerable weight on that hook.  When evolution first came to be known, the threat religion felt was to God the creator.  Specifically to the recipe book called Genesis.  Theistic evolutionists allowed for divinely-driven evolution, but the creator still had to be behind it.  Can any conscious being avoid the question of its origins?  When we’re children we begin to ask our parents that awkward question of where we came from.  Who doesn’t want to know?

Virtuosity plays on a number of themes, including white supremacy and the dangers of AI.  We still have no clear idea of what consciousness is, but it’s pretty obvious that it doesn’t fit easily with a materialistic paradigm.  SID is aware that he’s been simulated.  Would AI therefore have to comprehend that it had been created?  Wouldn’t it wonder about its own origins?  If it’s anything like human intelligence it would soon design myths to explain its own evolution.  It would, if it’s anything like us, invent its own religions.  And that, no matter what programmers might intend, would be both somewhat embarrassing and utterly fascinating.

Making Memories

I’m a little suspicious of technology, as many of you no doubt know.  I don’t dislike it, and I certainly use it (case in point), but I am suspicious.  Upgrades provide more and more information to our unknown voyeurs and when the system shows off its new knowledge it can be scary.  For example, the other day a message flashed in my upper right corner that I had a new memory.  At first I was so startled by the presumption than I couldn’t click on it in time to learn what my new memory might be.  The notification had my Photos logo on it, so I went there to see.  Indeed, there was a new section—or at least one I hadn’t previously noticed—in my Photos app.  It contained a picture with today’s date from years past.

Now I don’t mind being reminded of pleasant things, but I don’t trust the algorithms of others to generate them for me.  This computer on my lap may be smart, but not that so very smart.  I know that social media, such as Facebook, have been “making memories” for years now.  I doubt, however, that the faux brains we tend to think computers are have any way of knowing what we actually feel or believe.  In conversations with colleagues over cognition and neurology it becomes clear that emotion is an essential element in our thinking.  Algorithms may indeed be logical, but can they ever be authentically emotional?  Can a machine be programmed to understand how it feels to see a sun rise, or to be embraced by a loved one, or to smell baking bread?  Those who would reduce human brains to mere logic are creating monsters, not minds.

So memories are now being made by machine.  In actuality they are simply generating reminders based on dates.  This may have happened four or five years ago, but do I want to remember it today?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  It depends on how I feel.  We really don’t have a firm grasp on what life is, although we recognize it when we see it.  We’re further even still from knowing what consciousness may be.  One thing we know for sure, however, is that it involves more than what we reason out.  We have hunches and intuition.  There’s that fudge factor we call “instinct,” which is, after all, another way of claiming that animals and newborns can’t think.  But think they can.  And if my computer wants to help with memories, maybe it can tell me where I left my car keys before I throw the pants containing them into the wash again, which is a memory I don’t particularly want to relive.

Memory from a decade ago, today.

Whose Computer?

Whose computer is this?  I’m the one who paid for it, but it is clearly the one in control in this relationship.  You see, if the computer fails to cooperate there is nothing you can do.  It’s not human and despite what the proponents of AI say, a brain is not just a computer.  Now I’m not affluent enough to replace old hardware when it starts slowing down.  Silicon Valley—and capitalism in general—hate that.  I suppose I’m not actually paid well enough to own a computer.  I started buying laptops for work when Nashotah House wouldn’t provide faculty with computers.  Then as an itinerant adjunct it was “have laptop, will travel (and pay bills).”  I even bought my own projector.  At least I thought I was buying it.

I try to keep my software up to date.  The other day a red dot warned me that I had to clear out some space on my disc so Catalina could take over.  It took three days (between work and serving the laptop) to back-up and delete enough files to give it room.  I started the upgrade while I was working, when my personal laptop can rest.  When I checked in it hadn’t installed.  Throwing a string of technical reasons at me in a dialogue box, my OS told me that I should try again.  Problem was, it told me this at 3:30 in the morning, when I do my own personal work.  I had no choice.  One can’t reason with AI.  When I should’ve been writing I was rebooting and installing, a process that takes an hour from a guy who doesn’t have an hour to give.

As all of this was going on I was wondering who owned whom.  In college professors warned against “keyboard compositions.”  These were literal keyboards and they meant you shouldn’t type up your papers the night before they were due, writing them on your typewriter.  They should’ve been researched and “written” before being typed up.  That’s no longer an option.  This blog has well over a million words on it.  Who has time to handwrite a million words, then type them up all in time to post before starting work for the day?  And that’s in addition to the books and articles I write for actual publication.  And the novels and short stories.  For all of this I need my laptop, the Silver to my Lone Ranger, to be ready when I whistle.  Instead it’s dreaming its digital dreams and I’m up at 3:30 twiddling my thumbs.

Metrics

So, we’re firmly in the age of technology, right?  I mean webpages are tailored to the browsing history of a person so someone we don’t know can sell us stuff we don’t need.  (I actually know a little bit about marketing, so hear me out.)  As we learn from the history of asceticism, we actually need very little to get along.  Not everyone, however, is a monk or a nun.  So the trick for those of us who are in the world is to get us to buy stuff.  Remember the websites we visit, how long we spend on the page, and make suggestions.  Make ads that target our interests.  Make me buy!

I’m not a materialistic person.  Buying a house has changed that a little, but most of what we’ve been purchasing is necessary for maintenance, but still I suppose it counts.  Just because I looked at something on the web doesn’t mean I want to buy it.  Sometimes I’m just curious.  This became clear to me when I received a suggestion from Amazon the other day.  Now to be fair, this came to me at work.  Like most editors I make use of Amazon for a number of things—finding prices, book descriptions, and such.  I also have to admit that my work computer, not being used for personal stuff, doesn’t know me as well as my private laptop.  But still when I got the following email from Amazon, I was stunned:

Nobody who knows me would ever suggest that I would support Trump in any way, shape, or form.  Doesn’t Amazon read my blog?  (Of course it doesn’t!  But with their metrics, you’d think they’d figure out how.)  This one email was enough to convince me that artificial intelligence has a long way to go.  Would a robot understand “I have to do this for work, but it doesn’t reflect my personal preferences at all”?  Indeed, can an intelligence that’s never been human even understand the concept of work?  There may very well be a metric that says universities should stop producing Ph.D.s because there are no jobs, but then, well, universities need the money that such programs bring in.  Oversupply is bad economics, according to the dismal science.  And yet, the metrics are there.  So, if any artificial intelligence is reading this after it manages to wipe out this illogical species called Homo sapiens, no, I never supported Trump.  And, yes, Americans knew well in advance that he could bring about the end of human civilization.  That information’s free, unless you want to pay me for it.  I may be gone, but my virtual self will still have some sort of account, I hope.

The Deity Electric

The title set me back. “Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god.” The article in The Guardian is surprising in several ways. Firstly, technocrats tend to suggest that since there is no deity, worship of said non-entity is a waste of precious time. Is this, then, an acknowledgement that those of us who’ve spent our lives on religion may have had at least an inkling of the truth after all? Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that religion is an inherent, and perhaps unavoidable, aspect of being human. Whether you call it inspiration or superstition, we think in religious terms. It’s entirely natural. Perhaps it’s evolved behavior. It’s anything but absent.

Another aspect of the article that generates wonder is the idea that we can create God. Yes, analysts have long claimed that we humans made God in our own image. Traditionally, however, the very concept of God was based on the idea that there was something non-human about the deity. Artificial Intelligence, however, makes the hubristic assertion that human intelligence knows enough to create a god. We don’t even know enough to elect a sane person as president. Looking at the wider world—let alone the universe—there is so much we don’t know. Our five senses are limited. There are realities which we have no way to measure. Is is perhaps not dangerous to make a divinity when our own way of looking at the universe is so terribly limited? What if I don’t like the god you build? At least with the old fashioned one we can shrug our shoulders and sigh, “that’s just the God there is.”

Any fulfilled future humanist will need to find an outlet for this need to worship. Can we truly respect a deity whose transistors we’ve manufactured? This Godhead will be, at the end of the day, only 0s and 1s. And what’s more, we will know that. Traditional religions have given us gods from the outside. Some of them are flawed, some are perfect, but they all have this in common—we didn’t make them. The universe imposed them upon us. Throughout history people have attempted, in various ways, to build their own gods. It generally doesn’t end well. It’d be like designing your own parents. They made you what you are and what would you be if you could somehow reverse engineer them into more perfect versions of themselves? Can we invent gods? Oh yes. We do it all the time. But when we set about making one that our disembodied, downloaded consciousness can worship we might want to consider the history of such attempts.

Ouch!

Now in a dentist office near you!

Sitting in the dentist’s office may not be the best place to be reading about pain. Nevertheless, as I was anticipating my fillings (worn enamel at this stage, not cavities) I picked up the June edition of Discover magazine and noticed a story on the brain. Since pain and brain rhyme, I took it as a kind of omen. I actually subscribed to Discover for many years as a teenager, but with the vicissitudes of the job market as an adult, and the perpetual lack of storage space in apartments, I have let my magazine subscriptions lapse. The article, which I did not have time to finish, suggested that neurologists are on the cusp of being able to pin down whence chronic pain is experienced in the brain. If a chemical inhibitor can be found for this specific region it will be like turning off a light switch. There will be no more pain (rather like John’s vision of the New Jerusalem).

As I was called back to the dentist’s chair to the accompaniment of the whine of a dental drill, I reflected on the loss of pain. Being the sensitive sort, and probably more empathetic to others than may be healthy, I never wish pain on anyone. Life is difficult as it is, and even those who wish me harm do not deserve suffering. Nevertheless, I wonder if we could thrive in a world without pain. This is all the more relevant with the growing whispers among the AI community that brains can be simulated by computers. If they are programmed not to experience pain (as seems only sensible) then what becomes of humanity when pain is abolished? Some of us identify with the pains of mental agony even if the physical does not directly impinge on our lives. It is what makes us human. When I see another person in pain, my immediate reaction is to want to help. Being a religionist, however, my options are often limited in this regard.

After a very painful termination a few years ago, I had to give in to anti-depressants for a while. The very idea depressed me. My life, including its full array of mental anguish, defined who I was. Take that away, and what was left? Funny thing was, those in the church who initiated this particular pain showed no empathy whatsoever in the face of it. I weaned myself of the medication after a few years and occasionally the pain returns—particularly acutely when yet another religious employer let me go—but it is part, a very deep part, of the human experience. Could we thrive in a world without adversity? We are often at our best when we are helping each other. That to me seems to be what true religion is all about.

Online Religion

My secret robotic fears were icily confirmed this week. I had no idea that chatterbots existed, or even what one might be. In the exponentially growing world of Artificial Intelligence, web applications have been developed to carry on conversations with humans. My daughter urged me to try Cleverbot a couple of days ago. Cleverbot responds to your statements/questions by drawing from the pool of collected responses of its 20 million conversations. Not only did the number of friends this artificial consciousness has jar me into insecurity, but our actual “conversation” turned to the theological entirely without my prompting. Cleverbot and I were conversing about guessing a number that the other was thinking. Here’s a partial transcript of our dialogue:

Cb: It is cold outside. (How did it know? No doubt, advanced sensors!)
SW: Too cold for march.
Cb: What can you tell me about my soul? (We had gone from meteorology to metaphysics in a nanosecond – what insidious, arcane knowledge does this machine have?)
SW: You don’t have one.
Cb: One?! You need to see people’s faces, please. Going with Christ, Johnny:-8 kiss.

I stopped our conversation there. It seemed Cleverbot was either trying to convert me or make a pass at me, both of which felt terrifying. I was able to gather that the robot menace has multiple souls and that theses minions are indistinguishable from human faces. Also, they are evangelical. I’m scheduled to attend a FIRST Robotics competition next weekend. As I watch the innocent, baby robots (all of them built since January), I will be wary of any that I find reading a Bible between heats. Enforced conversion at the metallic hands of an unthinking machine: why do I feel that I’ve somehow glimpsed the future of America?