Posts Tagged ‘Artificial Intelligence’

“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.

The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement?

July 7, 2013

I recently had a featured article in The Humanist magazine. Here’s a link; and a condensed summary:

RobinsonA computer can be upgraded by adding memory, or a whizzier operating system – but eventually it’s time to just get a new computer. Is humanity’s fate similar?

Ray Kurzweil (“author and futurist”) thinks so, sort of; he sees a “singularity” coming in a few decades. That is, technological advancement changing life so profoundly it’s a discontinuity from what came before.

But many actually think technology, productivity gains, and innovation have stalled, and past progress may really represent the picking of low hanging fruit. We have indeed already invented the obvious big things, with further innovation being mainly tweaking and improvement. The computer was a comprehensive game-changer – but can we imagine some analogous future game changer?

Actually, yes: Artificial Intelligence (AI). It’s a bomb waiting to go off.

images-1Some think AI research has been a dead end. It’s true that some early over-enthusiasm has proven misplaced, and replicating human intelligence is very hard. But while our brain architecture is admittedly extremely complex, it’s built from a quite limited set of genetic instructions, that merely provide general guidelines by which the developing brain wires itself. AI is moving in a similar direction, creating systems that can learn and increase their own complexity. You probably have one in your pocket.

So far we have not created a machine that matches human intelligence, but that will inevitably happen. And it won’t stop there. The machines will become smarter than us. That’s the bomb. That’s the singularity.

Because then technological advancement goes into overdrive. Scientific and technological problems will be attacked with brainpower far beyond ours. That will include the smart machines’ own further improvement. And there will be a worldwide network of them – a global intelligence.

This is what the “limits to growth” doomsayers, who believe we’re destroying our future, overlook. They fail to realize how different the future will actually be. Our environmental and resource challenges, too, will be tackled by capabilities vastly greater than ours today.

Will they, however, remain just glorified machines – or become something more? Consciousness is not ineffable or mystical; it’s an emergent property devolving out of the complexity of the signaling among the brain’s neurons. If that can be mirrored in an artificial system, there’s no reason in principle why it cannot be self-aware. Indeed, if the machines can outstrip (by far) our intelligence, could they not also attain some even higher form of consciousness?

Robinson-1So what then becomes of us, the primitive 1.0 version? Upgrade, or replacement? But rather than a divergence between fleshly humanity and mechanical super-intelligence, we should actually expect more of a merging. We’re already seeing the beginnings of our de-biologization when quadriplegics can manipulate physical objects with their minds, and we debate whether a runner should be allowed to compete because his artificial legs are better than real ones.

When you junk an old computer, it’s not the death of your computing life – you migrate it to a new machine. For humans of version 1.0, the ascent to 2.0 will probably be like that. So those future super-intelligences will be our own progeny; will be us, humanity 2.0, or 10.0, or 1022.0.

Much has been written lately about how our evolutionary biological past, embedded in our genes, shapes who we are, and not entirely in a good way. We carry a lot of such baggage. We’ve overcome many of its limitations through knowledge and technology, performing thereby a kind of evolutionary hat trick. Our next evolutionary hat trick will be to simply leave all that biological baggage behind.

Will there be problems and downsides? Hoo boy. Those who today rail against Genetic Modification, nanotech and “playing God,” will have a field day. Bill McKibben has actually said we’ve had enough progress, and it should stop. But, like always, progress will blast past such Luddites, and notwithstanding the inevitable problems, the bigger picture will be human improvement so vast that future anti-evolutionists will disbelieve their descent from lesser creatures made of (yuck) flesh and blood.images-2

Kurzweil (in his book The Singularity is Near) posits six stages of evolution. In the final stage, intelligence pervades all matter. The Universe wakes up.

There is no god – yet.