This weekend, Virginia Tech’s Center for the Humanities is hosting The Human Futures and Intelligent Machines Summit, and there is a link for the video cast of the events. You’ll need to Download and install Zoom, but it should be pretty straightforward, other than that.
I led them through with questions like “What do you take phenomenology to mean?” and “what do you think of the possibility of a machine having a phenomenology of its own?” We discussed different definitions of “language” and “communication” and “body,” and unfortunately didn’t have a conversation about how certain definitions of those terms mean that what would be considered language between cats would be a cat communicating via signalling to humans.
It was a really great conversation and the Live Stream video for this is here, and linked below (for now, but it may go away at some point, to be replaced by a static youtube link; when I know that that’s happened, I will update links and embeds, here).
My piece “Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations,” a review of Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting has been up over at the Social Epistemology Research and Reply Collective for a few months, now, so I figured I should post something about it, here.
As you’ll read, I was extremely taken with Vallor’s book, and think it is a part of some very important work being done. From the piece:
Additionally, her crucial point seems to be that through intentional cultivation of the self and our society, or that through our personally grappling with these tasks, we can move the world, a stance which leaves out, for instance, notions of potential socioeconomic or political resistance to these moves. There are those with a vested interest in not having a more mindful and intentional technomoral ethos, because that would undercut how they make their money. However, it may be that this is Vallor’s intent.
The audience and goal for this book seems to be ethicists who will be persuaded to become philosophers of technology, who will then take up this book’s understandings and go speak to policy makers and entrepreneurs, who will then make changes in how they deal with the public. If this is the case, then there will already be a shared conceptual background between Vallor and many of the other scholars whom she intends to make help her to do the hard work of changing how people think about their values. But those philosophers will need a great deal more power, oversight authority, and influence to effectively advocate for and implement what Vallor suggests, here, and we’ll need sociopolitical mechanisms for making those valuative changes, as well.
[Image of the front cover of Shannon Vallor’s TECHNOLOGY AND THE VIRTUES. Circuit pathways in the shapes of trees.]
This is, as I said, one part of a larger, crucial project of bringing philosophy, the humanities, and social sciences into wide public conversation with technoscientific fields and developers. While there have always been others doing this work, it is increasingly the case that these folks are being both heeded and given institutional power and oversight authority.
As we continue the work of building these systems, and in the wake of all these recent events, more and more like this will be necessary.
So, many of you may remember that back in June of 2016, I was invited to the Brocher Institute in Hermance, Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, to take part in the Frankenstein’s Shadow Symposium sponsored by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination as part of their Frankenstein Bicentennial project.
Frankenbook is a collective reading and collaborative annotation experience of the original 1818 text of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The project launched in January 2018, as part of Arizona State University’s celebration of the novel’s 200th anniversary. Even two centuries later, Shelley’s modern myth continues to shape the way people imagine science, technology, and their moral consequences. Frankenbook gives readers the opportunity to trace the scientific, technological, political, and ethical dimensions of the novel, and to learn more about its historical context and enduring legacy.
To learn more about Arizona State University’s celebration of Frankenstein’s bicentennial, visit frankenstein.asu.edu.
I am deeply honoured to have been asked to be a part of this amazing project, over the past two years, and I am so very happy that I get to share it with all of you, now. I really hope you enjoy it.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation withDavid McRaney of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, for his episode on Machine Bias. As he says on the blog:
Now that algorithms are everywhere, helping us to both run and make sense of the world, a strange question has emerged among artificial intelligence researchers: When is it ok to predict the future based on the past? When is it ok to be biased?
“I want a machine-learning algorithm to learn what tumors looked like in the past, and I want it to become biased toward selecting those kind of tumors in the future,” explains philosopher Shannon Vallor at Santa Clara University. “But I don’t want a machine-learning algorithm to learn what successful engineers and doctors looked like in the past and then become biased toward selecting those kinds of people when sorting and ranking resumes.”
We talk about this, sentencing algorithms, the notion of how to raise and teach our digital offspring, and more. You can listen to all it here:
My second talk for the SRI International Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series was about how nonwestern philosophies like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism can help mitigate various kinds of bias in machine minds and increase compassion by allowing programmers and designers to think from within a non-zero-sum matrix of win conditions for all living beings, meaning engaging multiple tokens and types of minds, outside of the assumed human “default” of straight, white, cis, ablebodied, neurotypical male. I don’t have a transcript, yet, and I’ll update it when I make one. But for now, here are my slides and some thoughts.
A zero-sum system is one in which there are finite resources, but more than that, it is one in which what one side gains, another loses. So by “A non-zero-sum matrix of win conditions” I mean a combination of all of our needs and wants and resources in such a way that everyone wins. Basically, we’re talking here about trying to figure out how to program a machine consciousness that’s a master of wu-wei and limitless compassion, or metta.
The whole week was about phenomenology and religion and magic and AI and it helped me think through some problems, like how even the framing of exercises like asking Buddhist monks to talk about the Trolley Problem will miss so much that the results are meaningless. That is, the trolley problem cases tend to assume from the outset that someone on the tracks has to die, and so they don’t take into account that an entire other mode of reasoning about sacrifice and death and “acceptable losses” would have someone throw themselves under the wheels or jam their body into the gears to try to stop it before it got that far. Again: There are entire categories of nonwestern reasoning that don’t accept zero-sum thought as anything but lazy, and which search for ways by which everyone can win, so we’ll need to learn to program for contradiction not just as a tolerated state but as an underlying component. These systems assume infinitude and non-zero-sum matrices where every being involved can win.
This essay is something of a project of expansion and refinement of my previous essay “Labouring in the Liquid Light of Leviathan,” considering the Roko’s Basilisk thought experiment. Much of the expansion comes from considering the nature of simulation, memory, and identity within Jonathan Nolan’s TV series, Person of Interest. As such, it does contain what might be considered spoilers for the series, as well as for his most recent follow-up, Westworld.
Use your discretion to figure out how you feel about that.
Are You Being Watched? Simulated Universe Theory in “Person of Interest”
Jonah Nolan’s Person Of Interest is the story of the birth and life of The Machine, a benevolent artificial super intelligence (ASI) built in the months after September 11, 2001, by super-genius Harold Finch to watch over the world’s human population. One of the key intimations of the series—and partially corroborated by Nolan’s follow-up series Westworld—is that all of the events we see might be taking place in the memory of The Machine. The structure of the show is such that we move through time from The Machine’s perspective, with flashbacks and -forwards seeming to occur via the same contextual mechanism—the Fast Forward and Rewind of a digital archive. While the entirety of the series uses this mechanism, the final season puts the finest point on the question: Has everything we’ve seen only been in the mind of the machine? And if so, what does that mean for all of the people in it?
Our primary questions here are as follows: Is a simulation of fine enough granularity really a simulation at all? If the minds created within that universe have interiority and motivation, if they function according to the same rules as those things we commonly accept as minds, then are those simulation not minds, as well? In what way are conclusions drawn from simulations akin to what we consider “true” knowledge?
In the PoI season 5 episode, “The Day The World Went Away,” the characters Root and Shaw (acolytes of The Machine) discuss the nature of The Machine’s simulation capacities and the audience is given to understand that it runs a constant model of everyone it knows, and that the more it knows them, the better its simulation. This supposition links us back to the season 4 episode “If-Then-Else,” in which the machine runs through the likelihood of success through hundreds of thousands of scenarios in under one second. If The Machine is able to accomplish this much computation in this short a window, how much can and has it accomplished over the several years of its operation? Perhaps more importantly, what is the level of fidelity of those simulations to the so-called real world?
[Person of Interest s4e11, “If-Then-Else.” The Machine runs through hundreds of thousands of scenarios to save the team.]
These questions are similar to the idea of Roko’s Basilisk, a thought experiment that cropped up in the online discussion board of LessWrong.com. It was put forward by user Roko who, in very brief summary, says that if the idea of timeless decision theory (TDT) is correct, then we might all be living in a simulation created by a future ASI trying to figure out the best way to motivate humans in the past to create it. To understand how this might work, we have to look as TDT, an idea developed in 2010 by Eliezer Yudkowsky which posits that in order to make a decision we should act as though we are determining the output of an abstract computation. We should, in effect, seek to create a perfect simulation and act as though anyone else involved in the decision has done so as well. Roko’s Basilisk is the idea that a Malevolent ASI has already done this—is doing this—and your actions are the simulated result. Using that output, it knows just how to blackmail and manipulate you into making it come into being.
Or, as Yudkowsky himself put it, “YOU DO NOT THINK IN SUFFICIENT DETAIL ABOUT SUPERINTELLIGENCES CONSIDERING WHETHER OR NOT TO BLACKMAIL YOU. THAT IS THE ONLY POSSIBLE THING WHICH GIVES THEM A MOTIVE TO FOLLOW THROUGH ON THE BLACKMAIL.” This is the self-generating aspect of the Basilisk: If you can accurately model it, then the Basilisk will eventually, inevitably come into being, and one of the attributes it will thus have is the ability to accurately model that you accurately modeled it, and whether or not you modeled it from within a mindset of being susceptible to its coercive actions. The only protection is to either work toward its creation anyway, so that it doesn’t feel the need to torture the “real” you into it, or to make very sure that you never think of it at all, so you do not bring it into being.
All of this might seem far-fetched, but if we look closely, Roko’s Basilisk functions very much like a combination of several well-known theories of mind, knowledge, and metaphysics: Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the Existence of God (AOAEG), a many worlds theorem variant on Pascal’s Wager (PW), and Descartes’ Evil Demon Hypothesis (DEDH; which, itself, has been updated to the oft-discussed Brain In A Vat [BIAV] scenario). If this is the case, then Roko’s Basilisk has all the same attendant problems that those arguments have, plus some new ones, resulting from their combination. We will look at all of these theories, first, and then their flaws.
To start, if you’re not familiar with AOAEG, it’s a species of prayer in the form of a theological argument that seeks to prove that god must exist because it would be a logical contradiction for it not to. The proof depends on A) defining god as the greatest possible being (literally, “That Being Than Which None Greater Is Possible”), and B) believing that existing in reality as well as in the mind makes something “Greater Than” if it existed only the mind. That is, if God only exists in my imagination, it is less great than it could be if it also existed in reality. So if I say that god is “That Being Than Which None Greater Is Possible,” and existence is a part of what makes something great, then god must exist.
The next component is Pascal’s Wager which very simply says that it is a better bet to believe in the existence of God, because if you’re right, you go to Heaven, and if you’re wrong, nothing happens; you’re simply dead forever. Put another way, Pascal is saying that if you bet that God doesn’t exist and you’re right, you get nothing, but if you’re wrong, then God exists and your disbelief damns you to Hell for all eternity. You can represent the whole thing in a four-option grid:
[Pascal’s Wager as a Four-Option Grid: Belief/Disbelief; Right/Wrong. Belief*Right=Infinity;Belief*Wrong=Nothing; Disbelief*Right=Nothing; Disbelief*Wrong=Negative Infinity]
And so here we see the Timeless Decision Theory component of the Basilisk: It’s better to believe in the thing and work toward its creation and sustenance, because if it doesn’t exist you lose nothing, but if it does come to be, then it will know what you would have done either for or against it, in the past, and it will reward or punish you, accordingly. The multiversal twist comes when we realise that even if the Basilisk never comes to exist in our universe and never will, it might exist in some other universe, and thus, when that other universe’s Basilisk models your choices it will inevitably—as a superintelligence—be able to model what you would do in any universe. Thus, by believing in and helping our non-existent Super-Devil, we protect the alternate reality versions of ourselves from their very real Super-Devil.
Descartes’ Evil Demon Hypothesis and the Brain In A Vat are so pervasive that we encounter them in many different expressions of pop culture. The Matrix, Dark City, Source Code, and many others are all variants on these themes. A malignant and all-powerful being (or perhaps just an amoral scientist) has created a simulation in which we reside, and everything we think we have known about our lives and our experiences has been perfectly simulated for our consumption. Variations on the theme test whether we can trust that our perceptions and grounds for knowledge are “real” and thus “valid,” respectively. This line of thinking has given rise to the Simulated Universe Theory on which Roko’s Basilisk depends, but SUT removes a lot of the malignancy of DEDH and BIAV. The Basilisk adds it back. Unfortunately, many of these philosophical concepts flake apart when we touch them too hard, so jamming them together was perhaps not the best idea.
The main failings in using AOAEG rest in believing that A) a thing’s existence is a “great-making quality” that it can possess, and B) our defining a thing a particular way might simply cause it to become so. Both of these are massively flawed ideas. For one thing, these arguments beg the question, in a literal technical sense. That is, they assumethat some element(s) of their conclusion—the necessity of god, the malevolence or epistemic content of a superintelligence, the ontological status of their assumptions about the nature of the universe—istrue without doing the work of provingthat it’s true. They then use these assumptions to prove the truth of the assumptions and thus the inevitability of all consequences that flow from the assumptions.
Another problem is that the implications of this kind of existential bootstrapping tend to go unexamined, making the fact of their resurgence somewhat troubling. There are several nonwestern perspectives that do the work of embracing paradox—aiming so far past the target that you circle around again to teach yourself how to aim past it. But that kind of thing only works if we are willing to bite the bullet on a charge of circular logic and take the time to showing how that circularity underlies all epistemic justifications. The only difference, then, is how many revolutions it takes before we’re comfortable with saying “Enough.”
Every epistemic claim we make is, as Hume clarified, based upon assumptions and suppositions that the world we experience is actually as we think it is. Western thought uses reason and rationality to corroborate and verify, but those tools are themselves verified by…what? In fact, we well know that the only thing we have to validate our valuation of reason, is reason. And yet western reasoners won’t stand for that, in any other justification procedure. They will call it question-begging and circular.
Next, we have the DEDH and BIAV scenarios. Ultimately, Descartes’ point wasn’t to suggest an evil genius in control of our lives just to disturb us; it was to show that, even if that were the case, we would still have unshakable knowledge of one thing: that we, the experiencer, exist. So what if we have no free will; so what if our knowledge of the universe is only five minutes old, everything at all having only truly been created five minutes ago; so what if no one else is real? COGITO ERGO SUM! We exist, now. But the problem here is that this doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of our experiences, and the only answer Descartes gives us is his own Anslemish proof for the existence of god followed by the guarantee that “God is not a deceiver.”
The BIAV uses this lack to kind of hone in on the aforementioned central question: What does count as knowledge? If the scientists running your simulation use real-world data to make your simulation run, can you be said to “know” the information that comes from that data? Many have answered this with a very simple question: What does it matter? Without access to the “outside world”–that is, the world one layer up in which the simulation that is our lives was being run–there is literallyno difference between our lives and the “real world.” This world, even if it is a simulation for something or someone else, is our “real world.”
And finally we have Pascal’s Wager. The first problem with PW is that it is an extremely cynical way of thinking about god. It assumes a god that only cares about your worship of it, and not your actual good deeds and well-lived life. If all our Basilisk wants is power, then that’s a really crappy kind of god to worship, isn’t it? I mean, even if it is Omnipotent and Omniscient, it’s like that quote that often gets misattributed to Marcus Aurelius says:
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”
[Bust of Marcus Aurelius framed by text of a quote he never uttered.]
Secondly, the format of Pascal’s Wager makes the assumption that there’s only the one god. Our personal theological positions on this matter aside, it should be somewhat obvious that we can use the logic of the Basilisk argument to generate at least one more Super-Intelligent AI to worship. But if we want to do so, first we have to show how the thing generates itself, rather than letting the implication of circularity arise unbidden. Take the work of Douglas R Hofstadter; he puts forward the concepts of iterative recursion as the mechanism by which a consciousness generates itself.
Through iterative recursion, each loop is a simultaneous act of repetition of old procedures and tests of new ones, seeking the best ways via which we might engage our environments as well as our elements and frames of knowledge. All of these loops, then, come together to form an upward turning spiral towards self-awareness. In this way, out of the thought processes of humans who are having bits of discussion about the thing—those bits and pieces generated on the web and in the rest of the world—our terrifying Basilisk might have a chance of creating itself. But with the help of Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, so might a saviour.
Guanilo is most famous for his response to Anselm’s Ontological Argument, which says that if Anselm is right we could just conjure up “The [Anything] Than Which None Greater Can Be Conceived.” That is, if defining a thing makes it so, then all we have to do is imagine in sufficient detail both an infinitely intelligent, benevolent AI, and the multiversal simulation it generates in which we all might live. We will also conceive it to be greater than the Basilisk in all ways. In fact, we can say that our new Super Good ASI is the Artificial Intelligence Than Which None Greater Can Be Conceived. And now we are safe.
Except that our modified Pascal’s Wager still means we should believe in and worship and work towards our Benevolent ASI’s creation, just in case. So what do we do? Well, just like the original wager, we chuck it out the window, on the grounds that it’s really kind of a crappy bet. In Pascal’s offering, we are left without the consideration of multiple deities, but once we are aware of that possibility, we are immediately faced with another question: What if there are many, and when we choose one, the others get mad? What If We Become The Singulatarian Job?! Our lives then caught between at least two superintelligent machine consciousnesses warring over our…Attention? Clock cycles? What?
But this is, in essence, the battle between the Machine and Samaritan, in Person of Interest. Each ASI has acolytes, and each has aims it tries to accomplish. Samaritan wants order at any cost, and The Machine wants people to be able to learn and grow and become better. If the entirety of the series is The Machine’s memory—or a simulation of those memories in the mind of another iteration of the Machine—then what follows is that it is working to generate the scenario in which the outcome is just that. It is trying to build a world in which it is alive, and every human being has the opportunity to learn and become better. In order to do this, it has to get to know us all, very well, which means that it has to play these simulations out, again and again, with both increasing fidelity, and further iterations. That change feels real, to us. We grow, within it. Put another way: If all we are is a “mere” a simulation… does it matter?
So imagine that the universe is a simulation, and that our simulation is more than just a recording; it is the most complex game of The SIMS ever created. So complex, in fact, that it begins to exhibit reflectively epiphenomenal behaviours, of the type Hofstadter describes—that is, something like minds arise out of the interactions of the system with itself. And these minds are aware of themselves and can know their own experience and affect the system which gives rise to them. Now imagine that the game learns, even when new people start new games. That it remembers what the previous playthrough was like, and adjusts difficulty and types of coincidence, accordingly.
Now think about the last time you had such a clear moment of déjà vu that each moment you knew— you knew—what was going to come next, and you had this sense—this feeling—like someone else was watching from behind your eyes…
[Root and Reese in The Machine’s God Mode.]
What I’m saying is, what if the DEDH/BIAV/SUT is right, and we are in a simulation? And what if Anselm was right and we canbootstrap a god into existence? And what if PW/TDT is right and we should behave and believe as if we’ve already done it? So what if all of this is right, and we are the gods we’re terrified of?
We just gave ourselves all of this ontologically and metaphysically creative power, making two whole gods and simulating entire universes, in the process. If we take these underpinnings seriously, then multiversal theory plays out across time and space, and we are the superintelligences. We noted early on that, in PW and the Basilisk, we don’t really lose anything if we are wrong in our belief, but that is not entirely true. What we lose is a lifetime of work that could have been put toward better things. Time we could be spending building a benevolent superintelligence that understands and has compassion for all things. Time we could be spending in turning ourselves into that understanding, compassionate superintelligence, through study, travel, contemplation, and work.
Or, as Root put it to Shaw: “That even if we’re not real, we represent a dynamic. A tiny finger tracing a line in the infinite. A shape. And then we’re gone… Listen, all I’m saying that is if we’re just information, just noise in the system? We might as well be a symphony.”
Do you know someone actually had the temerity to ask [something like] “What Does Google Having Access to Medical Records Mean For Patient Privacy?” [Here] Like…what the fuck do you think it means? Nothing good, you idiot!
Disclosures and knowledges can still make certain populations intensely vulnerable to both predation and to social pressures and judgements, and until that isn’t the case, anymore, we need to be very careful about the work we do to try to bring those patients’ records into a sphere where they’ll be accessed and scrutinized by people who don’t have to take an oath to hold that information in confidence. ‘
We are more and more often at the intersection of our biological humanity and our technological augmentation, and the integration of our mediated outboard memories only further complicates the matter. As it stands, we don’t quite yet know how to deal with the question posed by Motherboard, some time ago (“Is Harm to a Prosthetic Limb Property Damage or Personal Injury?”), but as we build on implantable technologies, advanced prostheses, and offloaded memories and augmented capacities we’re going to have to start blurring the line between our bodies, our minds, and our concept of our selves. That is, we’ll have to start intentionally blurring it, because the vast majority of us already blur it, without consciously realising that we do. At least, those without prostheses don’t realise it.
Dr Ashley Shew, out of Virginia Tech, works at the intersection of philosophy, tech, and disability. I first encountered her work, at the 2016 IEEE Ethics Conference in Vancouver, where she presented her paper “Up-Standing, Norms, Technology, and Disability,” a discussion of how ableism, expectations, and language use marginalise disabled bodies. Dr Shew is, herself, disabled, having had her left leg removed due to cancer, and she gave her talk not on the raised dias, but at floor-level, directly in front of the projector. Her reason? “I don’t walk up stairs without hand rails, or stand on raised platforms without guards.”
Dr Shew notes that users of wheelchairs consider those to be fairly integral extensions and interventions. Wheelchair users, she notes, consider their chairs to be a part of them, and the kinds of lawsuits engaged when, for instance, airlines damage their chairs, which happens a great deal. While we tend to think of the advents of technology allowing for the seamless integration of our technology and bodies, the fact is that well-designed mechanical prostheses, today, are capable becoming integrated into the personal morphic sphere of a person, the longer they use it. And this can extended sensing can be transferred from one device to another. Shew mentions a friend of hers:
She’s an amputee who no longer uses a prosthetic leg, but she uses forearm crutches and a wheelchair. (She has a hemipelvectomy, so prosthetics are a real pain for her to get a good fit and there aren’t a lot of options.) She talks about how people have these different perceptions of devices. When she uses her chair people treat her differently than when she uses her crutches, but the determination of which she uses has more to do with the activities she expects for the day, rather than her physical wellbeing.
But people tend to think she’s recovering from something when she moves from chair to sticks.
She has been an [amputee] for 18 years.
She has/is as recovered as she can get.
In her talk at IEEE, Shew discussed the fact that a large number of paraplegics and other wheelchair users do not want exoskeletons, and those fancy stair-climbing wheelchairs aren’t covered by health insurance. They’re classed as vehicles. She said that when she brought this up in the class she taught, one of the engineers left the room looking visibly distressed. He came back later and said that he’d gone home to talk to his brother with spina bifida, who was the whole reason he was working on exoskeletons. He asked his brother, “Do you even want this?” And the brother said, basically, “It’s cool that you’re into it but… No.” So, Shew asks, why are these technologies being developed? Transhumanists and the military. Framing this discussion as “helping our vets” makes it a noble cause, without drawing too much attention to the fact that they’ll be using them on the battlefield as well.
All of this comes back down and around to the idea of biases ingrained into social institutions. Our expectations of what a “normal functioning body” is gets imposed from the collective society, as a whole, a placed as restrictions and demands on the bodies of those whom we deem to be “malfunctioning.” As Shew says, “There’s such a pressure to get the prosthesis as if that solves all the problems of maintenance and body and infrastructure. And the pressure is for very expensive tech at that.”
So we are going to have to accept—in a rare instance where Robert Nozick is proven right about how property and personhood relate—that the answer is “You are damaging both property and person, because this person’s property is their person.” But this is true for reasons Nozick probably would not think to consider, and those same reasons put us on weirdly tricky grounds. There’s a lot, in Nozick, of the notion of property as equivalent to life and liberty, in the pursuance of rights, but those ideas don’t play out, here, in the same way as they do in conservative and libertarian ideologies. Where those views would say that the pursuit of property is intimately tied to our worth as persons, in the realm of prosthetics our property is literally simultaneously our bodies, and if we don’t make that distinction, then, as Kirsten notes, we can fall into “money is speech” territory, very quickly, and we do not want that.
Because our goal is to be looking at quality of life, here—talking about the thing that allows a person to feel however they define “comfortable,” in the world. That is, the thing(s) that lets a person intersect with the world in the ways that they desire. And so, in damaging the property, you damage the person. This is all the more true if that person is entirely made of what we are used to thinking of as property.
And all of this is before we think about the fact implantable and bone-bonded tech will need maintenance. It will wear down and glitch out, and you will need to be able to access it, when it does. This means that the range of ability for those with implantables? Sometimes it’s less than that of folks with more “traditional” prostheses. But because they’re inside, or more easily made to look like the “original” limb, we observers are so much more likely to forget that there are crucial differences at play in the ownership and operation of these bodies.
There’s long been a fear that, the closer we get to being able to easily and cheaply modify humans, we’ll be more likely to think of humanity as “perfectable.” That the myth of progress—some idealized endpoint—will be so seductive as to become completely irresistible. We’ve seen this before, in the eugenics movement, and it’s reared its head in the transhumanist and H+ communities of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well. But there is the possibility that instead of demanding that there be some kind of universally-applicable “baseline,” we intently focused, instead, on recognizing the fact that just as different humans have different biochemical and metabolic needs, process, capabilities, preferences, and desires, different beings and entities which might be considered persons are drastically different than we, but no less persons?
Because human beings are different. Is there a general framework, a loosely-defined line around which we draw a conglomeration of traits, within which lives all that we mark out as “human”—a kind of species-wide butter zone? Of course. That’s what makes us a fucking species. But the kind of essentialist language and thinking towards which we tend, after that, is reductionist and dangerous. Our language choices matter, because connotative weight alters what people think and in what context, and, again, we have a habit of moving rapidly from talking about a generalized framework of humanness to talking about “The Right Kind Of Bodies,” and the “Right Kind Of Lifestyle.”
And so, again, again, again, we must address problems such as normalized expectations of “health” and “Ability.” Trying to give everyone access to what they might consider their “best” selves is a brilliant goal, sure, whatever, but by even forwarding the project, we run the risk of colouring an expectation of both what that “best” is and what we think it “Ought To” look like.
Some people need more protein, some people need less choline, some people need higher levels of phosphates, some people have echolocation, some can live to be 125, and every human population has different intestinal bacterial colonies from every other. When we combine all these variables, we will not necessarily find that each and every human being has the same molecular and atomic distribution in the same PPM/B ranges, nor will we necessarily find that our mixing and matching will ensure that everyone gets to be the best combination of everything. It would be fantastic if we could, but everything we’ve ever learned about our species says that “healthy human” is a constantly shifting target, and not a static one.
But let’s be clear, here: I am not a doctor. I’m not a physiologist or a molecular biologist. I could be wrong about how all of these things come together in the human body, and maybe there will be something more than a baseline, some set of all species-wide factors which, in the right configuration, say “Healthy Human.” But what I am is someone with a fairly detailed understanding of how language and perception affect people’s acceptance of possibilities, their reaction to new (or hauntingly-familiar-but-repackaged) ideas, and their long-term societal expectations and valuations of normalcy.
And so I’m not saying that we shouldn’t augment humanity, via either mediated or immediated means. I’m not saying that IBM’s Watson and Google’s DeepMind shouldn’t be tasked with the searching patient records and correlating data. But I’m also not saying that either of these is an unequivocal good. I’m saying that it’s actually shocking how much correlative capability is indicated by the achievements of both IBM and Google. I’m saying that we need to change the way we talk about and think about what it is we’re doing. We need to ask ourselves questions about informed patient consent, and the notions of opting into the use of data; about the assumptions we’re making in regards to the nature of what makes us humans, and the dangers of rampant, unconscious scientistic speciesism. Then, we can start to ask new questions about how to use these new tools we’ve developed.
With this new perspective, we can begin to imagine what would happen if we took Watson and DeepDream’s ability to put data into context—to turn around, in seconds, millions upon millions (billions? Trillions?) of permutations and combinations. And then we can ask them to work on tailoring genome-specific health solutions and individualized dietary plans. What if we asked these systems to catalogue literally everything we currently knew about every kind of disease presentation, in every ethnic and regional population, and the differentials for various types of people with different histories, risk factors, current statuses? We already have nanite delivery systems, so what if we used Google and IBM’s increasingly ridiculous complexity to figure out how to have those nanobots deliver a payload of perfectly-crafted medical remedies?
But this is fraught territory. If we step wrong, here, we are not simply going to miss an opportunity to develop new cures and devise interesting gadgets. No; to go astray, on this path, is to begin to see categories of people that “shouldn’t” be “allowed” to reproduce, or “to suffer.” A misapprehension of what we’re about, and why, is far fewer steps away from forced sterilization and medical murder than any of us would like to countenance. And so we need to move very carefully, indeed, always being aware of our biases, and remembering to ask those affected by our decisions what they need and what it’s like to be them. And remembering, when they provide us with their input, to believe them.
I spoke with Klint Finley over at WIRED about Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft’s new joint ethics and oversight venture, which they’ve dubbed the “Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society.” They held a joint press briefing, today, in which Yann LeCun, Facebook’s director of AI, and Mustafa Suleyman, the head of applied AI at DeepMind discussed what it was that this new group would be doing out in the world. From the Article:
The rub is that, even if this group can agree on a set of ethical principles–something that will be hard to do in a large group with many stakeholders—it won’t really have a way to ensure those ideals are put into practice. Although one of the organization’s tenets is “Opposing development and use of AI technologies that would violate international conventions or human rights,” Mustafa Suleyman, the head of applied AI at DeepMind, says that enforcement is not the objective of the organization.
This isn’t the first time I’ve talked to Klint about the intricate interplay of machine intelligence, ethics, and algorithmic bias; we discussed it earlier just this year, for WIRED’s AI Issue. It’s interesting to see the amount of attention this topic’s drawn in just a few short months, and while I’m trepidatious about the potential implementations, as I note in the piece, I’m really fairly glad that more people are more and more willing to have this discussion, at all.
You see, Rose did something a little different this time. Instead of writing up a potential future and then talking to a bunch of amazing people about it, like she usually does, this episode’s future was written by an algorithm. Rose trained an algorithm called Torch not only on the text of all of the futures from both Flash Forward seasons, but also the full scripts of both the War of the Worlds and the 1979 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio plays. What’s unsurprising, then, is that part of what the algorithm wanted to talk about was space travel and Mars. What is genuinely surprising, however, is that what it also wanted to talk about was Witches.
Because so far as either Rose or I could remember, witches aren’t mentioned anywhere in any of those texts.
ANYWAY, the finale episode is called “The Witch Who Came From Mars,” and the ensuing exegeses by several very interesting people and me of the Bradbury-esque results of this experiment are kind of amazing. No one took exactly the same thing from the text, and the more we heard of each other, the more we started to weave threads together into a meta-narrative.
It’s really worth your time, and if you subscribe to Rose’s Patreon, then not only will you get immediate access to the full transcript of that show, but also to the full interview she did with PBS Idea Channel’s Mike Rugnetta. They talk a great deal about whether we will ever deign to refer to the aesthetic creations of artificial intelligences as “Art.”
And if you subscribe to my Patreon, then you’ll get access to the full conversation between Rose and me, appended to this week’s newsletter, “Bad Month for Hiveminds.” Rose and I talk about the nature of magick and technology, the overlaps and intersections of intention and control, and what exactly it is we might mean by “behanding,” the term that shows up throughout the AI’s piece.
And just because I don’t give a specific shoutout to Thoth and Raven doesn’t mean I forgot them. Very much didn’t forget about Raven.
Hello there, I’m Damien Williams, or @Wolven many places on the internet. For the past nine years, I’ve been writing, talking, thinking, teaching, and learning about philosophy, comparative religion, magic, artificial intelligence, human physical and mental augmentation, pop culture, and how they all relate. I want to think about, talk about, and work toward, a future worth living in, and I want to do it with you. I can also be found at http://Technoccult.net (@Techn0ccult).