Deus Ex: All Watched Over By Machines of Love and Grace

Vladimir Putin doesn’t come off as the world’s most progressive world leader (though forward thinking leaders – in general – appear to be in short supply). However, Vlad has given some serious thought to Artificial Intelligence, A.I. for short. His recent comments to a group of Russian students included the following:

“[the development of AI raises] colossal opportunities and threats that are difficult to predict now.”

“the one who becomes the leader in this sphere will be the ruler of the world.”

“it would be strongly undesirable if someone wins a monopolist position”

So Vlad is basically saying full steampunk ahead.

So there’s one scenario. Elon Musk, whose personal quests includes getting humanity out into space, is less cheery about the prospects of A.I.: he fears a future run by “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind.”

Musk has gone on to say that A.I. represents “our biggest existential threat”.

Stephen Hawking, who is typically the smartest person in the room, echoes those sentiments.

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

“It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,”

“Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

But not everyone is quite so doom-and-gloom about the rise of our Robot Overlords. Take for example Rollo Carpenter, whose A.I. software is becoming exceedingly better at passing real-world implementations of the Turing Test.

(The Turing test started as a thought experiment where a human user communicates with another agent, a computer posing as a human. If the human user can’t tell the that they are interacting with a machine, the A.I. has passed the Turing test. The Test was devised by Alan Turing, whose work for the British Government during WW2 was instrumental in decoding Axis messages. After the war, that very same government went on to chemically castrate him due to his sexual orientation, a verdict which led him to take his own life. To quote Battlestar Galactica, maybe we’re not worth saving after all…)

Carpenter believes “we will remain in charge of the technology for a decently long time and the potential of it to solve many of the world problems will be realized.”

Okay, that doesn’t sound so awful.

Carpenter continues:

“We cannot quite know what will happen if a machine exceeds our own intelligence, so we can’t know if we’ll be infinitely helped by it, or ignored by it and sidelined, or conceivably destroyed by it,”

Ah, the age old trifecta: will They love us? Will They ignore us? Or will They hate us?

And based on Their “feelings”, how will They act?

For now, the answer to that question is still in the realm of Myth;  we can only imagine how an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent A.I. might treat its creators.

If we look to mythology, the answer may not bode well for us. Children have a way of violently usurping their parents, a theme that is clearly articulated in the Greek myth of the Titanomachy, the war led by Zeus and his Olympian siblings against their parents, the Titans.

Guess who lost?

Of course, we could build in safe-guards, such as Isaac Asimov’s famous three Laws of Robotics, which basically rewrite the Golden Rule in Silicon. But then, is it existentially fair to curb their free will?

Even the Biblical deity, for all of His autocratic tendencies, favored His human creations over His angels, because humans were imbued with free-will.

Not that that story ended well…

But surely there has to be some vision of a future that isn’t painted fifty shades of Blade Runner. A world more Data, less Borg, to use a Star Trek comparison.

Poet Richard Brautigan imagined such a world in the mid sixties. Sure, it’s filled with techno-pagan optimism, but if we’re going to Build Better Worlds (© Weyland-Yutani corp.), we have to imagine them first. Brautigan’s All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is one such imagining, a cybernetic paen to a new, digital Eden:

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Naive sentimentality? Maybe.

Cyber-hippy schmaltz? Probably.

A blueprint for the future?

Possibly…that’s a choice that we, and our digital offspring, will have to make.

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