Archive for August, 2014

“Her” — A Love Story

August 7, 2014

UnknownThe plot: boy meets girl. They fall in love. Boy loses girl.

Theodore works for an agency writing gooey personal letters for clients. Samantha is a computer operating system.

This is the 2013 movie Her.

robinsonIn my Humanist article last year, “The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement?” I said artificial intelligence (“AI”) is inevitable, with precursors already emerging. And consciousness being a natural phenomenon, arising somehow (we’re not sure yet just how) from the complexity of interactions among brain neurons (it cannot come from anything else), there is no reason in principle why it could not develop in an artificial system.

images-2Spielberg’s film AI featured a cyborg protagonist, looking and acting human. Her is set in a nearer future, where the transition to consciousness first occurs. Samantha is, again, only an operating system, confined within Theodore’s computer, a souped-up Siri. But she quickly passes the Turing Test. She is conscious.

I was a bit skeptical at her sounding not at all robotic, but totally like an ordinary young American woman (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) with all the normal verbal mannerisms – despite being literally born yesterday. This is explained (sort of) by Samantha’s having been programmed with a vast corpus of cultural information. (Though she would still lack human vocal equipment, and would presumably have to speak by splicing from a library of recorded sounds.) Anyhow, I guess the film-makers deemed her naturalism necessary to make plausible the ensuing love affair with Theodore.

Samantha also communicates by drawing pictures

Samantha also communicates by drawing pictures

And plausible it is. Samantha is a person. This is the film’s real point. What makes you you, and me me, is what goes on in our minds. Samantha has a mind.

What she doesn’t have is a body. And she reflects upon this, coming to terms with it as her reality, and ultimately finding it more positive than negative.

Theodore’s ex-wife disparages the relationship as showing he can’t handle a “real” one. But we see that she’s wrong. He and Samantha do connect, as people. Theodore finds it no less fulfilling than with a human. They even have sex (demonstrating that our principal sex organ is the mind). images-5At one point, Samantha arranges a ménage-a-trois with Isabella, who does have a body; but both Samantha and Theodore find it’s not a good idea; what they experience as a twosome is better.

I hypothesized to my wife: suppose she lost her body, but her consciousness remained. Wouldn’t we still be a couple? She responded that our minds don’t function in isolation but wholly integrated with our bodies; and she’s right that for humans, severing the two is inconceivable. But Samantha came into existence as a mind alone. For her, it’s the opposite: having a body would be incompatible with her nature. She is what she is; yet certainly a person in the deepest sense of that word.

Indeed, given Samantha’s prodigious programmed capabilities, the relationship’s only implausibility is her finding Theodore worthy of her devotion. Well, she’s new here. But that changes. Soon she’s connecting with other conscious operating systems that are starting to proliferate; and they’re doing cool stuff like collaborating to (virtually) resurrect a deceased philosopher and otherwise innovating.

I turned again to my wife, and said, “That’s exactly what I wrote about in The Humanist.”

images-4Of course it doesn’t stop there. Once there are artificial intelligences smarter than humans, who can furthermore connect up, it’s off to the races. They’ll take charge of technological advancement, which goes into overdrive. This is the “Singularity” Ray Kurzweil has prognosticated in coming decades, with the world becoming a radically different place.

images-3Where will that leave us humans? In the movie, the answer seems to be left behind (a piquant echo of the book series with that name).

Anyhow, Theodore apparently must go back to seeking love with a non-operating system, with all the defects that entails, including an all too imperfect body. But I assured my wife I’m very glad she has one.

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The Muddle East

August 3, 2014

imagesColumnist David Brooks recently opined (quoting Richard Haass) that the Middle East may be entering its Thirty Years War. The reference is to the cataclysm that engulfed 1600s Europe, mostly faith-based conflict, prosecuted with utmost savagery, causing monumental death and destruction. (It ended with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, basically establishing the modern concept of the sovereign nation state.)

We were long told that the Mid East’s repressive regimes provided “stability.” UnknownThis was always nonsense: the deceptive stability of a volcano before eruption. Like volcanos, such regimes build up internal pressures leading to inevitable explosion.

The only hope is venting the pressures peacefully by means of an open society. That’s the path to genuine stability. But unfortunately most Middle Easterners seem too bloody-minded for this. Egypt blew its chance; its newly entrenched regime seems bent on trying to contain the pressures more fiercely than ever, and to destroy any chance for a civil society where disparate groups can coexist.

The poster boy is Syria, where Assad thinks he’s winning, as if creating a wasteland is a victory. Libya seems to be descending into a Hobbesian tribal war of all against all. images-1Half of Iraq has fallen under a replica of a Seventh Century caliphate – a theme park you wouldn’t want to visit. Israelis and Palestinians are locked into a spiral of violence that can create only losers, no winners. Predictably, Israel’s Gaza operation has killed way more Israelis, and damaged its security more, than Hamas alone ever could have.

Thomas Friedman divides the world between the realms of order and disorder. In modern times, the former has actually expanded hugely overall, but it’s been a tough slog, and we don’t sufficiently appreciate the achievement. Unknown-1It’s a fundamental law of the cosmos that in the long run disorder (“entropy”) increases. Hence it’s much harder to build – and maintain – order than to disrupt it. It’s the difference between rolling a stone up a hill and rolling it down. The last few years have seen a great recrudescence of disorder. We mustn’t be complacent.

I’m always struck by how these situations reliably mobilize the requisite legions of young men to pick up guns and revel in nihilistic violence. Like in today’s Ukraine too; and the 1990s Yugoslav conflicts; and a thousand other examples one could name. That mentality seems so totally alien to my own. But some would say I delude myself, and we all harbor such proclivities. images-3Philip Zimbardo explained his famous Stanford “prison guard” experiment* by saying people aren’t innately evil but, rather, conform to the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Some people (especially young men) seem all too eager to embrace circumstances empowering them to violence (especially if they see nothing better to do with their lives). Society’s Job One is to curtail such circumstances. And the fact is that our modern Western societies have done an absolutely terrific job of this. The Muslim societies of the Mid East, not so much. And they don’t give enough young men better things to do with their lives. Maybe it will indeed take a Thirty Years War before they find a better way.

images-4Curiously, the fossil record suggests that in the Middle East, for tens of thousands of years, people actually lived side-by-side with members of – not different tribes, or races, or religions, or sects – but a different species – Neanderthals.

* Students assigned to role-play as “guards” got into those roles so thoroughly that the experiment had to be stopped because of “prisoner” abuse.