social dynamics

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2017 SRI Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series Final Report

So, as you know, back in the summer of 2017 I participated in SRI International’s Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series. This series was an eight week program of workshops the current state of the field around, the potential future paths toward, and the moral and social implications of the notion of conscious machines. To do this, we brought together a rotating cast of dozens of researchers in AI, machine learning, psychedelics research, ethics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, cognitive computing, neuroscience, comparative religious studies, robotics, psychology, and much more.

Image of a rectangular name card with a stylized "Technology & Consciousness" logo, at the top, the name Damien Williams in bold in the middle, and SRI International italicized at the bottom; to the right a blurry wavy image of what appears to be a tree with a person standing next to it and another tree in the background to the left., all partially mirrored in a surface at the bottom of the image.

[Image of my name card from the Technology & Consciousness workshop series.]

We traveled from Arlington, VA, to Menlo Park, CA, to Cambridge, UK, and back, and while my primary role was that of conference co-ordinator and note-taker (that place in the intro where it says I “maintained scrupulous notes?” Think 405 pages/160,656 words of notes, taken over eight 5-day weeks of meetings), I also had three separate opportunities to present: 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. In relation to this report, I would draw your attention to the following passage:

An objection to this privileging of sentience is that it is anthropomorphic “meat chauvinism”: we are projecting considerations onto technology that derive from our biology. Perhaps conscious technology could have morally salient aspects distinct from sentience: the basic elements of its consciousness could be different than ours.

All of these meetings were held under the auspices of the Chatham House Rule, which meant that there were many things I couldn’t tell you about them, such as the names of the other attendees, or what exactly they said in the context of the meetings. What I was able tell you, however, was what I talked about, and I did, several times. But as of this week, I can give you even more than that.

This past Thursday, SRI released an official public report on all of the proceedings and findings from the 2017 SRI Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series, and they have told all of the participants that they can share said report as widely as they wish. Crucially, that means that I can share it with you. You can either click this link, here, or read it directly, after the cut.

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[This paper was prepared for the 2019 Towards Conscious AI Systems Symposium co-located with the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence 2019 Spring Symposium Series.

Much of this work derived from my final presentation at the 2017 SRI Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series: “Science, Ethics, Epistemology, and Society: Gains for All via New Kinds of Minds”.]

Abstract. This paper explores the moral, epistemological, and legal implications of multiple different definitions and formulations of human and nonhuman consciousness. Drawing upon research from race, gender, and disability studies, including the phenomenological basis for knowledge and claims to consciousness, I discuss the history of the struggles for personhood among different groups of humans, as well as nonhuman animals, and systems. In exploring the history of personhood struggles, we have a precedent for how engagements and recognition of conscious machines are likely to progress, and, more importantly, a roadmap of pitfalls to avoid. When dealing with questions of consciousness and personhood, we are ultimately dealing with questions of power and oppression as well as knowledge and ontological status—questions which require a situated and relational understanding of the stakeholders involved. To that end, I conclude with a call and outline for how to place nuance, relationality, and contextualization before and above the systematization of rules or tests, in determining or applying labels of consciousness.

Keywords: Consciousness, Machine Consciousness, Philosophy of Mind, Phenomenology, Bodyminds

[Overlapping images of an Octopus carrying a shell, a Mantis Shrimp on the sea floor, and a Pepper Robot]

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[Direct Link to Mp3]

Above is the (heavily edited) audio of my final talk for the SRI Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series. The names and voices of other participants have been removed in accordance with the Chatham House Rule.

Below you’ll find the slide deck for my presentation, and below the cut you’ll find the Outline and my notes. For now, this will have to stand in for a transcript, but if you’ve been following the Technoccult Newsletter or the Patreon, then some of this will be strikingly familiar.

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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 I 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.

I. Overview
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:

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(Direct Link to the Mp3)

On Friday, I needed to do a thread of a thing, so if you hate threads and you were waiting until I collected it, here it is.

But this originally needed to be done in situ. It needed to be a serialized and systematized intervention and imposition into the machinery of that particular flow of time. That day…

There is a principle within many schools of magical thought known as “shielding.” In practice and theory, it’s closely related to the notion of “grounding” and the notion of “centering.” (If you need to think of magical praxis as merely a cipher for psychological manipulation toward particular behaviours or outcomes, these all still scan.)

When you ground, when you centre, when you shield, you are anchoring yourself in an awareness of a) your present moment, your temporality; b) your Self and all emotions and thoughts; and c) your environment. You are using your awareness to carve out a space for you to safely inhabit while in the fullness of that awareness. It’s a way to regroup, breathe, gather yourself, and know what and where you are, and to know what’s there with you.

You can shield your self, your home, your car, your group of friends, but moving parts do increase the complexity of what you’re trying to hold in mind, which may lead to anxiety or frustration, which kind of opposes the exercise’s point. (Another sympathetic notion, here, is that of “warding,” though that can be said to be more for objects,not people.)

So what is the point?

The point is that many of us are being drained, today, this week, this month, this year, this life, and we need to remember to take the time to regroup and recharge. We need to shield ourselves, our spaces, and those we love, to ward them against those things that would sap us of strength and the will to fight. We know we are strong. We know that we are fierce, and capable. But we must not lash out wildly, meaninglessly. We mustn’t be lured into exhausting ourselves. We must collect ourselves, protect ourselves, replenish ourselves, and by “ourselves” I also obviously mean “each other.”

Mutual support and endurance will be crucial.

…So imagine that you’ve built a web out of all the things you love, and all of the things you love are connected to each other and the strands between them vibrate when touched. And you touch them all, yes?

And so you touch them all and they all touch you and the energy you generate is cyclically replenished, like ocean currents and gravity. And you use what you build—that thrumming hum of energy—to blanket and to protect and to energize that which creates it.

And we’ll do this every day. We’ll do this like breathing. We’ll do this like the way our muscles and tendons and bones slide across and pull against and support each other. We’ll do this like heartbeats. Cyclical. Mutually supporting. The burden on all of us, together, so that it’s never on any one of us alone.

So please take some time today, tomorrow, very soon to build your shields. Because, soon, we’re going to need you to deploy them more and more.

Thank you, and good luck.


The audio and text above are modified versions of this Twitter thread. This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about the overlap of politics, psychology, philosophy, and magic, and if you think it’ll be the last, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Sometimes, there isn’t much it feels like we can do, but we can support  and shield each other. We have to remember that, in the days, weeks, month, and years to come. We should probably be doing our best to remember it forever.

Anyway, I hope this helps.

Until Next Time

So I’m quoted in this article in The Atlantic on the use of technology in leveraging sociological dynamics to combat online harassment: “Why Online Allies Matter in Fighting Harassment.”

An experiment by Kevin Munger used bots to test which groups white men responded to when being called out on their racist harassment online. Findings largely unsurprising (Powerful white men; they responded favourably to powerful white men), save for the fact that anonimity INCREASED effectiveness of treatment, and visible identity decreased it. That one was weird. But it’s still nice to see all of this codified.

Good to see use of Bertrand & Mullainathan’s “Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” as the idea of using “Black Sounding Names” to signal purported ethnicity of bot thus clearly models what he thought those he expected to be racist would think, rather than indicating his own belief. (However, it could be asked whether there’s a meaningful difference, here, as he still had to choose the names he thought would “sound black.”)

The Reactance study Munger discusses—the one that shows that people double down on factually incorrect prejudices—is the same one I used in “On The Invisible Architecture of Bias

A few things Ed Yong and I talked about that didn’t get into the article, due to space:

-Would like to see this experimental model applied to other forms of prejudice (racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc language), and was thus very glad to see the footnote about misogynist harassment.

-I take some exception to the use of Dovidio/Gaertner and Crandall et al definitions of racism, as those leave out the sociological aspects of power dynamics (“Racism/Sexism/Homophobia/Transphobia/Ableism= Prejudice + Power”) which seem crucial to understanding the findings of Munger’s experiment. He skirts close to this when he discusses the greater impact of “high status” individuals, but misses the opportunity to lay out the fact that:
–Institutionalised power dynamics as related to the interplay of in-group and out-group behaviour are pretty clearly going to affect why white people are more likely to listen to those they perceive as powerful white men, because
–The interplay of Power and status, interpersonally, is directly related to power and status institutionally.

-Deindividuation (loss of sense of self in favour of group identity) as a key factor and potential solution is very interesting.

Something we didn’t get to talk about but which I think is very important is the question of how we keep this from being used as a handbook. That is, what do we do in the face of people understand these mechanisms and who wish to use them to sow division and increase acceptance of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc ideals? Do we, then, become engaged in some kind of rolling arms race of sociological pressure?

…Which, I guess, has pretty much always been true, and we call it “civilization.”

Anyway, hope you enjoy it.