Sunday, 28 April 2013

Vigilant against the post-human future

Artificial moons, 'geriatiric robots' designed to listen to old people, vats for growing chicken wings - all of these have been predicted in recent decades.  None have happened quite like that.  They rarely do.

This is partly because many elements of the technological futures the big corporations want are actually highly unpleasant or ineffective for everyone else.  And partly because, compared to a century ago - when motor cars, cinematography, submarines, planes were developing so fast - our own technology has actually slowed to a snail's pace.  I've been travelling on jumbo jets now for 40 years.

I know that isn't the conventional view, but I can only apologise for seeing things differently.

But there is one insidious corporate myth which is instantly recognisable.  And there it was again in the Sunday Times this morning, quoted in a review of the new book The New Digital Age, co-authored by Eric Schmidt, chairman of the famous tax-avoiding corporation Google.

"The online experience [will be] as real as real life, and perhaps even better."

The review was by the one person who has most effectively punctured this kind of corporate yearning, Bryan  Appleyard, whose own book The Brain is Wider than the Sky, explains how the digital world is conspiring to reduce human capabilities in order to show how digital versions are somehow equal or superior.  I can't say I've actually read Schmidt's book ("to read it would be to condone it"; F. R. Leavis), so perhaps I shouldn't comment until I have - but this phrase 'better than real' is so interesting, I can't help it.

It was a phrase pinpointed as belonging particularly to California by Umberto Eco in an essay in 1996 called Travels in Hyper-reality.  When I was writing my book Authenticity, there it was again - the idea pedalled by Ray Kurzweil and other virtual reality cheerleaders that virtual sex will be, you guessed it, 'better than the real thing'.

The idea that there is something imperfect about the human spirit that makes it so successful is beyond them. So is the idea that it is the very imperfections in a human body that makes sex exciting.  The diversity of human thought makes progress possible.

This is how I put it in my book The Age to Come:

"The post-modern advocate of artificial intelligence Ray Kurzweil suggests that the first artificial brain will be developed by 2029. The simplest computer has long since exceeded the memory and calculating skills of the cleverest human being. The computer Deep Blue beat the chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1995, it was a formative moment for the age that is to come. Because the challenge is now to set out what it is that human beings can do which no machine ever can – they can create, they can love and they can care."

They can do this in a way that works and fulfils, unlike the geriatric robot.  They can also teach and heal better than the virtual teachers and doctors the corporate world wants, because they can make relationships.

Bryan Appleyard points out that the endorsements of Schmidt's book by Branson, Blair and Clinton demonstrate that his book is the direction the establishment wants to go.  Our problem, it seems to me, is that it is such a narrow future, such an ineffective one, as well as such an isolated and tyrannical one.  The post-human future is shiny, perfect and owned by the tax avoiders.  We should be extremely suspicious of it.


Anonymous said...

If an artificial brain were as complicated and powerful as a human one, why would it not have the same capacity to form relationships that humans do?

Of course it would be comforting for us to believe that humans can do things that machines will never be able to. But that doesn't make it so.

Se Moncho said...

Next disrupting technologies will be biological, not digital. Biotecnology will change our civilization in unimaginable ways, if the ecological crisis do not destroy it previously.

David Boyle said...

Anonymous, I'm not sure you're right about this. If you were old and bedridden and you had a companion, and discovered that it was actually a highly complex computer, would you be disappointed?

Anonymous said...

I have to say that what you're suggesting sounds like a form of prejudice on the part of the person involved, if the only reason for the disappointment were that the companion was a computer - and not anything to do with the way in which the companion actually behaved or communicated.

David Boyle said...

But what you're suggesting is that the obvious difference being cared for by a human being should be made illegal - a new offence of discrimination against machines! This is a very interesting debate!

Anonymous said...

I didn't suggest making anything illegal. I just commented on your implication that there are things humans can do that machines will never be able to. That seems very unlikely, unless one accepts some kind of religious argument based on machines not having souls or something of that sort.

As for whether artificial intelligences should have legal rights, I find it very difficult to see why they shouldn't, if we get to the stage where their capabilities are comparable (or superior) to those of human intelligences.

David Boyle said...

The real issue comes down to whether or not the machine has consciousness and self-awareness, and there again the problem is definition. The Turing test certainly doesn't do it. Complexity isn't enough in itself. I maintain that, until that point, if we discovered our partner was actually a very well programmed machine, we would be a little disappointed - and not because we are prejudiced against machines, but because we wanted to be loved.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the crucial question is whether, if you could build an electronic analogue of an whole brain, you think it would have these qualities of consciousness and self-awareness.

For the answer to be "No", you have to be invoking something beyond the material world, don't you? This seems to me to be essentially a religious concept.

Philosophical arguments aside, if it turns out to be technologically possible to manufacture artificial intelligences which mimic human intelligence in every respect, then it's also going to be possible to manufacture AIs with powers of intelligence and reasoning that significantly exceed those of humans. At that point the question of the relationship between the AIs and human beings would become very difficult.

David Boyle said...

Doesn't your word 'mimic' rather give the game away. It isn't the same - but I agree we move into territory about consciousness that is not entirely about about what you can see. And actually that is as it should be. Consciousness is not yet fully defined and it would need to be befroe we can tell whether it exists - otherwise, it is all about mimicking - not the same as actual reality.

Anonymous said...

But if you can't define consciousness, how can you treat the presence of consciousness as your criterion for a real personality, or real relationships? If you don't really know what it is, how can you be sure an artificial intelligence can't have it?

martin said...

if we don't really know what conciousness is,then there is no way machinery,no matter how sophisticated,can have it,because after is mankind..who doesn't really know what conciousness is..that makes and programs technology and robots..and as such,mankind creates it,so mankind can destroy without a trace too.conversley..this is the films of frankensteins monster coming true and if these creations manage to break their programs through some design fault..then we may well have a load of uncontrollable "zombies" running around which will be difficult to they will be almost indestrucable and soul-less..soul is invisible and spiritual and can be imparted only to tissue of living,functioning animalistic beings.