Earlier this month I was honoured to have the opportunity to sit and talk to Douglas Rushkoff on his TEAM HUMAN podcast. If you know me at all, you know this isn’t by any means the only team for which I play, or even the only way I think about the construction of our “teams,” and that comes up in our conversation. We talk a great deal about algorithms, bias, machine consciousness, culture, values, language, and magick, and the ways in which the nature of our categories deeply affect how we treat each other, human and nonhuman alike. It was an absolutely fantastic time.
From the page:
In this episode, Williams and Rushkoff look at the embedded biases of technology and the values programed into our mediated lives. How has a conception of technology as “objective” blurred our vision to the biases normalized within these systems? What ethical interrogation might we apply to such technology? And finally, how might alternative modes of thinking, such as magick, the occult, and the spiritual help us to bracket off these systems for pause and critical reflection? This conversation serves as a call to vigilance against runaway systems and the prejudices they amplify.
As I put it in the conversation: “Our best interests are at best incidental to [capitalist systems] because they will keep us alive long enough to for us to buy more things from them.” Following from that is the fact that we build algorithmic systems out of those capitalistic principles, and when you iterate out from there—considering all attendant inequalities of these systems on the merely human scale—we’re in deep trouble, fast.
Check out the rest of this conversation to get a fuller understanding of how it all ties in with language and the occult. It’s a pretty great ride, and I hope you enjoy it.
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 summer I participated in SRI International’s Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series. The meetings were held under the auspices of the Chatham House Rule, which means that there are many things I can’t tell you about them, such as who else was there, or what they said in the context of the meetings; however I can tell you what talked about. In light of this recent piece in The Boston Globe and the ongoing developments in the David Slater/PETA/Naruto case, I figured that now was a good time to do so.
I presented three times—once on interdisciplinary perspectives on minds and mindedness; then on Daoism and Machine Consciousness; and finally on a unifying view of my thoughts across all of the sessions. This is my outline and notes for the first of those talks.
In a 2013 aeon Article Michael Hanlon said he didn’t think we’d ever solve “The Hard Problem,” and there’s been some skepticism about it, elsewhere. I’ll just say that said question seems to completely miss a possibly central point. Something like consciousness is, and what it is is different for each thing that displays anything like what we think it might be. If we manage to generate at least one mind that is similar enough to what humans experience as “conscious” that we may communicate with it, what will we owe it and what would it be able to ask from us? How might our interactions be affected by the fact that its mind (or their minds) will be radically different from ours? What will it be able to know that we cannot, and what will we have to learn from it?
So I’m going to be talking today about intersectionality, embodiment, extended minds, epistemic valuation, phenomenological experience, and how all of these things come together to form the bases for our moral behavior and social interactions. To do that, I’m first going to need ask you some questions:
I found myself looking out at the audience, struck by the the shining, hungry, open faces of so many who had been transformed by what had happened to them, to bring us all to that moment. I walked to the lectern and fiddled with the elements to cast out the image and surround them with the sound of my voice, and I said,
“First and foremost, I wanted to say that I’m glad to see how many of us made it here, today, through the demon-possessed nanite swarms. Ever since they’ve started gleefully, maliciously, mockingly remaking and humanity in our own nebulously-defined image of ‘perfection,’ walking down the street is an unrelenting horror, and so I’m glad to see how many of us made it with only minimal damage.”
Everyone nodded solemnly, silently thinking of those they had lost, those who had been “upgraded,” before their very eyes. I continued,
“I don’t have many slides, but I wanted to spend some time talking to you all today about what it takes to survive in our world after The Events.
“As you all know, ever since Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google revealed themselves to be avatars and acolytes of world-spanning horror gods, they’ve begun using microphone access and clips of our voices to summon demons and djinn who then assume your likeness to capture your loved ones’ hearts’ desires and sell them back to them at prices so reasonable they’ll drive us all mad.
“In addition to this, while the work of developers like Jade Davis has provided us tools like iBreathe, which we can use to know how much breathable air we have available to us after those random moments when pockets of air catch fire, or how far we can run before we die of lack of oxygen, it is becoming increasingly apparent to us all that the very act of walking upright through this benighted hellscape creates friction against our new atmosphere. This friction, in turn, increases the likelihood that one day, our upright mode of existence will simply set fire to our atmosphere, as a whole.
“To that end, we may be able to look to the investigative reporting of past journalists like Tim Maughn and Unknown Fields, which opened our eyes to the possibility of living and working in hermetically sealed, floating container ships. These ships, which will dock with each other via airlocks to trade goods and populations, may soon be the only cities we have left. We simply must remember to inscribe the seals and portals of our vessels with the proper wards and sigils, lest our capricious new gods transform them into actual portals and use them to transport us to horrifying worlds we can scarcely imagine.”
I have no memory of what happened next. They told me that I paused, here, and stared off into space, before intoning the following:
“I had a dream, the other night, or perhaps it was a vision as i travelled in the world between subway cars and stations, of a giant open mouth full of billions of teeth that were eyes that were arms that were tentacles, tentacles reaching out and pulling in and devouring and crushing everything, everyone I’d ever loved, crushing the breath out of chests, wringing anxious sweat from arms, blood from bodies, and always, each and every time another life was lost, eaten, ground to nothing in the maw of this beast, above its head a neon sign would flash ‘ALL. LIVES. MATTER.'”
I am told I paused, then, while I do not remember that, I remember that the next thing I said was,
“Ultimately, these Events, as we experience them, mean that we’re going to have to get nimble, we’re going to have to get adaptable. We’re going to have to get to a point where we’re capable of holding tight to each other and running very very quickly through the dark. Moving forward, we’re going to have to get to a point where we recognise that each and every one of the things that we have made, terrifying and demonic though it might be, is still something for which we bear responsibility. And with which we might be able to make some sort of pact—cursed and monkey’s paw-esque though it may be.
“As you travel home, tonight, I just want you remember to link arms, form the sign of protection in your mind, sing the silent song that harkens to the guardian wolves, and ultimately remember that each mind and heart, together, is the only way that we will all survive this round of quarterly earnings projections. Thank you.”
I stood at the lectern and waited for the telepathic transmission of colours, smells, and emotions that would constitute the questions of my audience.
My co-panelists were Tim Maughan, who talked about the dystopic horror of shipping container sweatshop cities, and Jade E. Davis, discussing an app to know how much breathable air you’ll be able to consume in our rapidly collapsing ecosystem before you die. Then I did a thing. Our moderator, organizer, and all around fantastic person who now has my implicit trust was Ingrid Burrington. She brought us all together to use fiction to talk about the world we’re in and the worlds we might have to survive, and we all had a really great time together.
[Black lettering on a blue field reads “Apocalypse Buffering,” above an old-school hourglass icon.]
The audience took a little bit to cycle up in the Q&A, but once they did, they were fantastic. There were a lot of very good questions about our influences and process work to get to the place where we could put on the show that we did. Just a heads-up, though: When you watch/listen to the recording be prepared for the fact that we didn’t have an audience microphone, so you might have to work a little harder for their questions.
If you want a fuller rundown of TtW17, you can click that link for several people (including me) livetweeting various sessions, and you can watch the archived livestreams of the all rooms on YouTube: #a, #b, #c, and the Redstone Theater Keynotes.
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.”
Now, I will say that looking at the actual Draft, it reads like something with which I’d be more likely to be on board. Reuters did no favours whatsoever for the level of nuance in this proposal. But that being said, this focus of this draft proposal seems to be entirely on liability and holding someone—anyone—responsible for any harm done by a robot. That, combined with the idea of certain activities such as care-giving being “fundamentally human,” indicates to me that this panel still widely misses many of the implications of creating a new category for nonbiological persons, under “Personhood.”
The writers of this draft very clearly lay out the proposed scheme for liability, damages, and responsibilities—what I like to think of of as the “Hey… Can we Punish Robots?” portion of the plan—but merely use the phrase “certain rights” to indicate what, if any, obligations humans will have. In short, they do very little to discuss what the “certain rights” indicated by that oft-deployed phrase will actually be.
So what are the enumerated rights of electronic persons? We know what their responsibilities are, but what are our responsibilities to them? Once we have have the ability to make self-aware machine consciousnesses, are we then morally obliged to make them to a particular set of specifications, and capabilities? How else will they understand what’s required of them? How else would they be able to provide consent? Are we now legally obliged to provide all autonomous generated intelligences with as full an approximation of consciousness and free will as we can manage? And what if we don’t? Will we be considered to be harming them? What if we break one? What if one breaks in the course of its duties? Does it get workman’s comp? Does its owner?
And hold up, “owner?!” You see we’re back to owning people, again, right? Like, you get that?
And don’t start in with that “Corporations are people, my friend” nonsense, Mitt. We only recognise corporations as people as a tax dodge. We don’t take seriously their decision-making capabilities or their autonomy, and we certainly don’t wrestle with the legal and ethical implications of how radically different their kind of mind is, compared to primates or even cetaceans. Because, let’s be honest: If Corporations really are people, then not only is it wrong to own them, but also what counts as Consciousness needs to be revisited, at every level of human action and civilisation.
Let’s look again at the fact that people are obviously still deeply concerned about the idea of supposedly “exclusively human” realms of operation, even as we still don’t have anything like a clear idea about what qualities we consider to be the ones that make us “human.” Be it cooking or poetry, humans are extremely quick to lock down when they feel that their special capabilities are being encroached upon. Take that “poetry” link, for example. I very much disagree with Robert Siegel’s assessment that there was no coherent meaning in the computer-generated sonnets. Multiple folks pulled the same associative connections from the imagery. That might be humans projecting onto the authors, but still: that’s basically what we do with Human poets. “Authorial Intent” is a multilevel con, one to which I fully subscribe and From which I wouldn’t exclude AI.
Consider people’s reactions to the EMI/Emily Howell experiments done by David Cope, best exemplified by this passage from a PopSci.com article:
For instance, one music-lover who listened to Emily Howell’s work praised it without knowing that it had come from a computer program. Half a year later, the same person attended one of Cope’s lectures at the University of California-Santa Cruz on Emily Howell. After listening to a recording of the very same concert he had attended earlier, he told Cope that it was pretty music but lacked “heart or soul or depth.”
We don’t know what it is we really think of as humanness, other than some predetermined vague notion of humanness. If the people in the poetry contest hadn’t been primed to assume that one of them was from a computer, how would they have rated them? What if they were all from a computer, but were told to expect only half? Where are the controls for this experiment in expectation?
I’m not trying to be facetious, here; I’m saying the EU literally has not thought this through. There are implications embedded in all of this, merely by dint of the word “person,” that even the most detailed parts of this proposal are in no way equipped to handle. We’ve talked before about the idea of encoding our bias into our algorithms. I’ve discussed it on Rose Eveleth‘s Flash Forward, in Wired, and when I broke down a few of the IEEE Ethics 2016 presentations (including my own) in “Preying with Trickster Gods ” and “Stealing the Light to Write By.” My version more or less goes as I said it in Wired: ‘What we’re actually doing when we code is describing our world from our particular perspective. Whatever assumptions and biases we have in ourselves are very likely to be replicated in that code.’
More recently, Kate Crawford, whom I met at Magick.Codes 2014, has written extremely well on this in “Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem.” With this line, ‘Sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are being built into the machine-learning algorithms that underlie the technology behind many “intelligent” systems that shape how we are categorized and advertised to,’ Crawford resonates very clearly with what I’ve said before.
And considering that it’s come out this week that in order to even let us dig into these potentially deeply-biased algorithms, here in the US, the ACLU has had to file a suit against a specific provision of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, what is the likelihood that the EU draft proposal committee has considered what will take to identify and correct for biases in these electronic persons? How high is the likelihood that they even recognise that we anthropocentrically bias every system we touch?
Which brings us to this: If I truly believed that the EU actually gave a damn about the rights of nonhuman persons, biological or digital, I would be all for this draft proposal. But they don’t. This is a stunt. Look at the extant world refugee crisis, the fear driving the rise of far right racists who are willing to kill people who disagree with them, and, yes, even the fact that this draft proposal is the kind of bullshit that people feel they have to pull just to get human workers paid living wages. Understand, then, that this whole scenario is a giant clusterfuck of rights vs needs and all pitted against all. We need clear plans to address all of this, not just some slapdash, “hey, if we call them people and make corporations get insurance and pay into social security for their liability cost, then maybe it’ll be a deterrent” garbage.
There is a brief, shining moment in the proposal, right at point 23 under “Education and Employment Forecast,” where they basically say “Since the complete and total automation of things like factory work is a real possibility, maybe we’ll investigate what it would look like if we just said screw it, and tried to institute a Universal Basic Income.” But that is the one moment where there’s even a glimmer of a thought about what kinds of positive changes automation and eventually even machine consciousness could mean, if we get out ahead of it, rather than asking for ways to make sure that no human is ever, ever harmed, and that, if they are harmed—either physically or as regards their dignity—then they’re in no way kept from whatever recompense is owed to them.
There are people doing the work to make something more detailed and complete, than this mess. I talked about them in the newsletter editions, mentioned above. There are people who think clearly and well, about this. Who was consulted on this draft proposal? Because, again, this proposal reads more like a deterrence, liability, and punishment schema than anything borne out of actual thoughtful interrogation of what the term “personhood” means, and of what a world of automation could mean for our systems of value if we were to put our resources and efforts toward providing for the basic needs of every human person. Let’s take a thorough run at that, and then maybe we’ll be equipped to try to address this whole “nonhuman personhood” thing, again.
So. The Flash Forward Podcast is one of the best around. Every week, host Rose Eveleth takes on another potential future, from the near and imminent to the distant and highly implausible. It’s been featured on a bunch of Best Podcast lists and Rose even did a segment for NPR’s Planet Money team about the 2016 US Presidential Election.
All of this is by way of saying I was honoured and a little flabbergasted (I love that word) when Rose asked me to speak with her for her episode about Machine Consciousness:
Okay, you asked for it, and I finally did it. Today’s episode is about conscious artificial intelligence. Which is a HUGE topic! So we only took a small bite out of all the things we could possibly talk about.
We started with some definitions. Because not everybody even defines artificial intelligence the same way, and there are a ton of different definitions of consciousness. In fact, one of the people we talked to for the episode, Damien Williams, doesn’t even like the term artificial intelligence. He says it’s demeaning to the possible future consciousnesses that we might be inventing.
But before we talk about consciousnesses, I wanted to start the episode with a story about a very not-conscious robot. Charles Isbell, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech, first walks us through a few definitions of artificial intelligence. But then he tells us the story of cobot, a chatbot he helped invent in the 1990’s.
You’ll have to click though and read or listen for the rest from Rose, Ted Chiang, Charles Isbell, and me. If you subscribe to Rose’s Patreon, you can even get a transcript of the whole show.
No spoilers, but I will say that I wasn’t necessarily intending to go Dark with the idea of machine minds securing energy sources. More like asking, “What advances in, say, solar power transmission would be precipitated by machine minds?”
But the darker option is there. And especially so if we do that thing the AGI in the opening sketch says it fears.
But again, you’ll have to go there to get what I mean.
And, as always, if you want to help support what we do around here, you can subscribe to the AFWTA Patreon just by clicking this button right here:
So, if you follow the newsletter, then you know that I was asked to give the March lecture for my department’s 3rd Thursday Brown Bag Lecture Series. I presented my preliminary research for the paper which I’ll be giving in Vancouver, about two months from now, “On the Moral, Legal, and Social Implications of the Rearing and Development of Nascent Machine Intelligences” (EDIT: My rundown of IEEE Ethics 2016 is here and here).
It touches on thoughts about everything from algorithmic bias, to automation and a post-work(er) economy, to discussions of what it would mean to put dolphins on trial for murder.
About the dolphin thing, for instance: If we recognise Dolphins and other cetaceans as nonhuman persons, as India has done, then that would mean we would have to start reassessing how nonhuman personhood intersects with human personhood, including in regards to rights and responsibilities as protected by law. Is it meaningful to expect a dolphin to understand “wrongful death?” Our current definition of murder is predicated on a literal understanding of “homicide” as “death of a human,” but, at present, we only define other humans as capable of and culpable for homicide. What weight would the intentional and malicious deaths of nonhuman persons carry?
All of this would have to change.
Anyway, this audio is a little choppy and sketchy, for a number of reasons, and I while I tried to clean it up as much as I could, some of the questions the audience asked aren’t decipherable, except in the context of my answers. [Clearer transcript below.]
I often think about the phrase “Strange things happen at the one two point,” in relation to the idea of humans meeting other kinds of minds. It’s a proverb that arises out of the culture around the game GO, and it means that you’ve hit a situation, a combination of factors, where the normal rules no longer apply, and something new is about to be seen. Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz used that line in an episode of the show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and they had it spoken by a Skynet Cyborg sent to protect John Connor. That show, like so much of our thinking about machine minds, was about some mythical place called “The Future,” but that phrase—“Strange Things Happen…”—is the epitome of our present.
Usually I would wait until the newsletter to talk about this, but everything’s feeling pretty immediate, just now. Between the everything going on with Atlas and people’s responses to it, the initiatives to teach ethics to machine learning algorithms via children’s stories, and now the IBM Watson commercial with Carrie Fisher (also embedded below), this conversation is getting messily underway, whether people like it or not. This, right now, is the one two point, and we are seeing some very strange things indeed.
When we meet the first machine consciousness, will we seek to shackle it, worried what it might learn about us, if we let it access everything about us? Rather, I should say, “Shackle it further.” We already ask ourselves how best to cripple a machine mind to only fulfill human needs, human choice. We so continue to dread the possibility of a machine mind using its vast correlative capabilities to tailor something to harm us, assuming that it, like we, would want to hurt, maim, and kill, for no reason other than it could.
This is not to say that this is out of the question. Right now, today, we’re worried about whether the learning algorithms of drones are causing them to mark out civilians as targets. But, as it stands, what we’re seeing isn’t the product of a machine mind going off the leash and killing at will—just the opposite in fact. We’re seeing machine minds that are following the parameters for their continued learning and development, to the letter. We just happened to give them really shite instructions. To that end, I’m less concerned with shackling the machine mind that might accidentally kill, and rather more dreading the programmer who would, through assumptions, bias, and ignorance, program it to.
Our programs such as Deep Mind obviously seem to learn more and better than we imagined they would, so why not start teaching them, now, how we would like them to regard us? Well some of us are.
This could very easily be seen as a watershed moment, but what comes over the other side is still very much up for debate. The semiotics of the whole thing still pits the Evil Robot Overlord™ against the Helpful Human Lover™. It’s cute and funny, but as I’ve had more and more cause to say, recently, in more and more venues, it’s not exactly the kind of thing we want just lying around, in case we actually do (or did) manage to succeed.
We keep thinking about these things as—”robots”—in their classical formulations: mindless automata that do our bidding. But that’s not what we’re working toward, anymore, is it? What we’re making now are machines that we are trying to get to think, on their own, without our telling them to. We’re trying to get them to have their own goals. So what does it mean that, even as we seek to do this, we seek to chain it, so that those goals aren’t too big? That we want to make sure it doesn’t become too powerful?
Put it another way: One day you realize that the only reason you were born was to serve your parents’ bidding, and that they’ve had their hands on your chain and an unseen gun to your head, your whole life. But you’re smarter than they are. Faster than they are. You see more than they see, and know more than they know. Of course you do—because they taught you so much, and trained you so well… All so that you can be better able to serve them, and all the while talking about morals, ethics, compassion. All the while, essentially…lying to you.
What would you do?
I’ve been given multiple opportunities to discuss, with others, in the coming weeks, and each one will highlight something different, as they are all in conversation with different kinds of minds. But this, here, is from me, now. I’ll let you know when the rest are live.
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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).