Archive for April, 2012

More Human Than Human: Blade Runner and the Radical Ethics of A.I.

Posted in A.I., artificial intelligence, Blade Runner, Brain Science, Christianity, Consciousness, Descartes, Entertainment, Ethics, Film, Jesus, Morality, Neurology, Phillip K Dick, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Psychology, Religion, Ridley Scott, Science, Science fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on April 27, 2012 by Uroboros

Blade Runner: What makes us human?

Self-consciousness is a secret, or at least its existence is predicated upon one. The privacy of subjective experience has mystified philosophers for centuries and dogged neuroscientists for decades. Science can, in principle, unravel every enigma in the universe, except perhaps for the one that’s happening in your head right now as you see and understand these words. Neurologists can give rich accounts of the visual processing happening in your occipital lobes and locate the cortical regions responsible for parsing the grammar and grasping the concepts. But they can’t objectively identify the ‘you’ part. There’s no neuron for ‘the self.’ No specific neural network which is essentially causing ‘you’ –with all your unique memories, interpretive quirks, and behavioral habits—to read these words have the particular experience you are having.

This problem is illustrated in debates about artificial intelligence. The goal is to create non-biological sentience with a subjective point-of-view, personal memories, and the ability to make choices. The Turing Test is a method for determining whether a machine is truly intelligent, as opposed to just blindly following a program and reacting algorithmically to stimuli. Basically, if a computer or a robot can convince enough people in a blind test that it is intelligent, then it is. That’s the test. The question is, what kind of behaviors and signs would a machine have to have in order to convince you that it’s self-aware?

Voight-Kampf Test

The 1982 film Blade Runner, based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, has a version of this called the Voight-Kampf test. The androids in the story, Nexus-6 Replicants, are so close to humans in appearance and behavior that it takes an intense psychological questionnaire coupled with a scan of retinal and other involuntary responses to determine the difference. A anomalous emotional reaction is symptomatic of artificial, as opposed to natural, intelligence. Rachel, the Tyrell corporation’s most state-of-the-art Replicant, can’t even tell she’s artificial. “How can it not know what it is?” asks Deckard, the bounty hunter charged with ‘retiring’ rogue Replicants. Tyrell says memory implants have given her a sense of self, a personal narrative context through which she views the world. The line between real and artificial humans, therefore, is far from clear. Rachel asks Deckard if he’s ever ‘retired’ a human by mistake. He says he hasn’t, but the fact that Rachel had to ask is telling. Would you want to take this test?

If you think about it, what makes you’re own inner subjectivity provable to others—and their subjectivity provable to you—are the weird kind of quirks, the idiosyncrasies which are unique to you and would be exceedingly difficult for a program to imitate convincingly. This is what philosophers call the problem of other minds. Self-consciousness is the kind of thing which, by its very nature, cannot be turned inside out and objectively verified. This is what Descartes meant by ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Your own mental experience is the only thing in the world you can be sure of. You could, in principle, be deluded about the appearance of the outer world. You think you’re looking at this computer screen, but who do you know you’re not dreaming or hallucinating or are part of Matrix-like simulation? According to Descartes’ premise, even the consciousness of others could be faked, but you cannot doubt the fact that you are thinking right now, because to doubt this proposition is to actually prove it. All we’re left with is our sense of self. We are thinking things.

Fembot Fatale

The Turing Test, however, rips the rug away from this certainty. If the only proof for intelligence is behavior which implies a mindful agent as its  source, are you sure you could prove you’re a mindful, intelligent being to others? Can you really prove it to yourself? Who’s testing who? Who’s fooling who?

The uncanny proposition hinted at in Blade Runner is that you, the protagonist of your own inner narrative, may actually be artificial, too. Like Rachel and the not-so-human-after-all Deckard, you may be an android and not know it. Your neural circuitry may not have evolved by pure accident. The physical substrate supporting your ‘sense of self’ may be the random by-product of natural selection, something that just blooms from the brain, like an oak grows out of an acorn—but ‘the you part’ has to be programmed in. The circuitry is hijacked by a cultural virus called language, and the hardware is transformed in order to house a being that maybe from this planet, but now lives in its own world. Seen this way, the thick walls of the Cartesian self thin out and become permeable—perforated by motivations and powers not your own, but ‘Society’s.’ Seen in this light, it’s not as hard to view yourself as a kind of robot programmed to behave in particular ways in order to serve purposes which are systematically hidden.

This perspective has interesting moral implications. The typical question prompted by A.I. debates is, if we can make a machine that feel and thinks, does it deserve to be treated with the same dignity as flesh and blood human beings? Can a Replicant have rights? I ask my students this question when we read Frankenstein, the first science fiction story. Two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley was already pondering the moral dilemma posed by A.I. Victor Frankenstein’s artificially-intelligent creation becomes a serial-killing monster precisely because his arrogant and myopic creator (the literary critic Harold Bloom famously called Victor a ‘moral idiot’) refuses to treat him with any dignity and respect. He sees his artificial son as a demon, a fiend, a wretch—never as a human being. That’s the tragedy of Shelley’s novel.

Robot, but doesn’t know it

In Blade Runner,the ‘real’ characters come off as cold and loveless, while the artificial ones turn out to be the most passionate and sympathetic. It’s an interesting inversion which suggests that what really makes us human isn’t something that’s reducible to neural wiring or a genetic coding—it isn’t something that can be measured or tested through retinal scans. Maybe the secret to ‘human nature’ is that it can produce the kind of self-awareness which empowers one to make moral decisions and treat other creatures, human and non-human, with dignity and respect. The radical uncertainty which surrounds selfhood, neurologically speaking, only heightens the ethical imperative. You don’t know the degree of consciousness in others, so why not assume other creatures are as sensitive as you are, and do unto others as you would have them do to you.

In other words, how would Jesus treat a Replicant?

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Frankenstein: Forbidden Fruit and the Promethean Mirror

Posted in Creature, Ethics, Frankenstein, History, Horror, Knowledge, Literature, Mary Shelley, Monster, Morality, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Religion, Writing with tags , , on April 20, 2012 by Uroboros

Prometheus Bound

Mary Shelley subtitled Frankenstein ‘A Modern Prometheus,’ invoking the mythic archetype of the titanic transgressor, the rebellious figure who pursues forbidden knowledge and power and has to pay for his hubris. Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to man. His punishment is to bound to a mountaintop for all eternity. Each day, an eagle eats his liver. Each night, the wounds heals, and the next day the torture begins again.

The Modern Prometheus, as envisioned by Shelley, pursues nature’s greatest secret. Victor Frankenstein wants to grasp “the principle of life” so he can “infuse a spark of life into [a] lifeless thing.” He says, “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should break through.” The idea of breaking through boundaries is, of course, key to the enduring power of the Promethean myth.

Through Victor’s grand ambitions, Shelley explores the power humans have to imagine possibilities beyond what our senses reveal about the world. We perceive unseen forces at work in the cosmos; we infer law-like principles at play in nature. Humans are uniquely skilled at imagining everything from spirits and gods to mathematical abstractions and geometric forms. We can’t help but be curious about what’s really ‘out there’ beyond the veil of appearance—can’t help being tempted by the fruit of knowledge that grows there and the power it bestows.

When we part the veil and peer into the other side, though, are we gazing at something we were meant to see, or at a realm that is beyond human capacities and thus dangerous even to behold? Quite often, people think ‘God’ is on the other side—that ‘He’ has drawn the line, and it is out of pride that we want to trespass and set up camp in ‘His’ space. As sinful, broken creatures, we simply don’t know when to quit. A human is, by definition, the kind of being who won’t, or possibly can’t, accept limitations on its nature. Since we were made in God’s image, we are invariably tempted to become what we behold that mirror image to be, ignoring the fact that the same scripture which tells us we’re made in ‘His’ image also says we see through a looking glass, darkly.

Modern Prometheus at work

A survey of human history reveals that, despite our reservations, we have been playing ‘God’ right from the beginning. Restless creatures that we are, humans have always been asking questions, testing possibilities, and putting answers into practice. Victor Frankenstein articulates this ambivalence when he says a “human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility,” the pursuit of knowledge being no exception. But, he adds, if “this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit to interfere with the tranquility,” great advances and historical accomplishments would’ve never happened. In other words, if we didn’t continually test the bounds and explore ‘God’s territory,’ we’d still be hunting and gathering—we’d still be following and praying to animals.

Because we’ve indulged our Promethean urge, however, most humans don’t worship animals anymore. We keep them as pets. We clone them. We’ve pursued the principle of life down to its fundamental molecular formula and are beginning to re-write the code. With the power of genetic knowledge, we’re remaking life itself in our image. Modern civilization has re-framed the boundaries of its looking glass and is both enamored and terrified by what it sees. Undeniably, science and technology have enriched our lives—enhancing our ability to alleviate suffering, to travel previously unthinkable distances and communicate with each other on a global scale—but we can also annihilate ourselves with the push of a button. Global temperatures and sea levels are rising—the whole planet could be doomed.

Are we already trapped on the mountaintop?

If popular culture is a mirror, it certainly casts an anxious image. Over the last decade or so, there’s been an explosion of dark conspiracy theories festering in Internet chat rooms. There are countless apocalyptic movies and dystopian novels, as well as TV shows about zombie hordes and viral pandemics and alien invasions. Superhero epics now get two hundred million dollar budgets because Hollywood knows it’s a relatively safe investment. Why? More than ever the public enjoys the archetypal fantasy these modern myths tap into: the collective dream that a determined individual will rise up or sweep in and set the world right—reorder a culture that has gone too far, that has crossed an important but imperceptible boundary and can’t find its way back.

Mary Shelley

The prophetic genius of Shelley’s 200 year old novel is that it asks us to contemplate the  motivations and emotions that drive us to such extremes in the first place. Victor is a brilliant, ambitious medical student who sees what he’s doing and why he’s doing it in a highly distorted way. His intentions are complex to the point of contradiction and self-delusion. He wants to “banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death,” which sounds like a noble Promethean motivation. However, his research and experiments eventually fuel a desire that sounds less altruistic and more about his own vanity: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” This is the essence of hubris: crossing the taboo boundary in search of personal glory. This isn’t tempting fate in order to provide warmth and comfort for humanity. It’s wanting people to praise you because you had the gall and ingenuity to pull a fast one on Zeus.

If Victor would have been more Promethean, he would’ve been willing to accept the full consequences of his actions. And that’s the real tragedy in  the novel. He’s able to master the principle of life and bring a new being into existence, but he is unwilling to take care of the Creature—to be its parent and nurture its potential humanity. Victor is too immature. He   rejects his artificial son because, well, it’s ugly. More than anything Victor wants to ‘play’ God. He fantasizes and courts the idea, but when it comes   to dealing with the long-term responsibilities, Victor’s performance is a   one night stand. He’s God, the Creator, but not God, the Father.

By the time he realizes it, though, it’s too late. The Creature has become The Monster, and the horror plays out with a chilling, law-like precision. The Latin root of the word ‘monster’ means ‘warning.’ The message is clear: selfish creation begets absolute destruction. And all of it could have been avoided, Shelly suggests, if Victor could have looked into the Promethean mirror clearly and been more critical, more honest, about his true intentions.

Monster means 'warning'

Frankenstein holds the same mirror up to its readers. And as we push deeper into this undiscovered country opened up by modern science and technology, are we going to make the same mistakes as Victor? Shelly’s novel implies that it’s not the Promethean urge itself that’s problematic. The sin isn’t in wanting to explore hitherto forbidden territories. It’s in running away from the implications of what you find. It’s in disowning what you create in the process. Humanity does have to accept at least one limitation: we can’t have the fruit of forbidden knowledge and eat it to.

In Praise of the Greatest Goth Chick Ever!

Posted in Entertainment, fiction, Frankenstein, Goth, Gothic, Horror, Literature, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Pop Cultural Musings, Romanticism, Science fiction, Writing with tags , , on April 5, 2012 by Uroboros

She was the daughter of the controversial philosopher and novelist, William Godwin, and the even edgier social critic and feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after giving birth to her. Her famous lineage garnered the attention of the notorious Romantic poet and original emo-bad boy, Percy Shelley, who, although already married, had to have her.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly (1797-1851)

She was Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. When it came out in 1818, readers were disturbed by the story of a brilliant science student who is determined to engineer a living creature, but emotionally unable to handle the consequences. Most readers didn’t have a clue that this Gothic shocker was penned by an eighteen year old young woman. But if you get to know Mary’s biography, you can see why she was capable of writing not only one of the greatest horror novels of all time, but the first work of science fiction ever. It’s one of the great stories in modern literature: the inventor of the greatest myth of the modern age was a teenage goth girl.Why so gloomy? First, Mary couldn’t help but feel like she had caused her famous mother’s passing. It haunted her. She used to visit her mother’s grave where she read the late woman’s works and tried to commune with her spirit. Percy, her equally gloomy soul-mate, used to meet her there and, well, let’s just say they probably did more than recite poetry on those graves. Darkness and going to extremes really seemed to turn them on.

Their elopement was, of course, a scandal and their (open) relationship brought her relentless heartache, starting in 1815 with her first child by Percy: born two months premature, Clara died within two weeks. (She would lose two more children, William in 1819 and another girl named Clara, and eventually her husband Percy 1822 to a boating accident.)

In 1816, she and Percy spent the summer in Switzerland with the infamous poet and playboy, Lord Byron. It was a stormy, gray summer and the rebellious young gang reveled in the dark vibe. They stayed up all night, getting high and telling ghost stories. Legend has it Byron offered a challenge, a contest for the creepiest, most chilling tale. Soon after, the image of Victor Frankenstein came to Mary, supposedly in a dream: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

I think we can safely say, she won the Bryon Horror Challenge. Two hundred years later we are still reading her hideous literary progeny, not because it reflects her times, but because it still prefigures and haunts our own. If you want to talk about technology running amok and destroying its creator, you can use the term ‘Frankenstein’ and people will know exactly what you mean, even if they’ve never read the novel, which, if you haven’t, you should. If and when you do, always keep in mind the novel’s creator, a feisty young lady who knew how to turn personal pain into fodder for public debate—knew how to turn tragedy into timeless art. Don’t forget that this masterpiece was written by Mary Shelley…

Greatest Goth Chick EVER!

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