Saturday, January 25, 2014

How Humans Are Losing Their Inner Life

As a result of artificial intelligence, complex modern machines – computers and robots – will start doing more and more human mental tasks, and in many cases, doing them better than humans can do.  This is particularly predicated on a task being based on defined discrete instructions and being susceptible to being broken down into defined discrete steps.  Yes, I know that scientists and engineers would like to create machines that can handle ambiguity, but this work has to be based on the translation of ambiguous blendable continual stimuli into defined discrete stimuli – something that can only be done with great conceptual distortion.  Ambiguous human thoughts and statements are based on multiple levels of symbolic meaning – some personal, some group-based – that are not going to be easily replicated by the software in computers and robots, no matter how complex it may be.  Computers and robots can’t deal with blendable continual stimuli.  And the notion that a computer psychotherapist can be created that focuses on specific discrete behavior problems free from the ambiguous influences of the total personality with its ambiguous thoughts and blendable continual feelings just won’t work.   However, with its digital foundation, it is possible that a machine can have complex levels of discrete digital instructions and capabilities that can give the appearance of a capacity for ambiguity. 

All this means that modern machines can give the illusion of ambiguity, and of an organic complexity that suggests human mental responses.  And although it is still not the same as being human, the increasing approximation of machines to humans makes machines, on some levels, less and less distinguishable from humans in their external presentation, and more compelling of a model for humans.  Being like humans on some levels makes machines more accessible as a model for humans, who unconsciously as well as consciously aspire to become like machines in the non-human aspects that the latter demonstrate.  It is not only trying to become like machines in areas where they have superior skill sets in terms of doing very complex defined discrete tasks.  When a machine beats a human at chess, it can inspire the human to try to outlast the machine in their next match.  But the human is also trying to imitate what appears to be superior fortitude in surviving effectively the growing sensory distortion that is a part of the field of experience of modern technological society.

Although many modern complex machines have sensors, it is precisely because they are not organic sentient beings that can truly experience pain and discomfort and numbness subjectively, that they become such appealing models for modern humans.  And not being able to experience pain, discomfort and numbness, machines are not vulnerable to making the associations that humans make of highly negative mental states with vulnerability to death.  Pain, discomfort, and numbness are warning signs to humans.  Get rid of the source of these experiences or one can be subject to significant injury or even death.  By not experiencing these psychological states, a person in the posture of a robot, can maintain the illusion of physical immortality here in this primary experience world.

Once a person assumes a robot pose, many different kinds of behavior manifest themselves.  I have talked about modern random violence as a growing defense against numbness.  However, I am beginning to think that another set of causal factors could be at play with random violence.  In particular, among adolescent and young adult men, random violence may carry the message: “You are vulnerable to injury and death, but I, as a robot, am impervious to the aggression that I am inflicting on you.  It is you who is being hurt and/or threatened with death, not I.”  Much of the aggression being inflicted in modern society is not that of excited animals but rather that of detached robots.  There is a particular game being played out in the streets of many cities in the United States.  It is called the “knockout game” and the object is to knock out an unsuspecting person with one blow.  To keep the victim unsuspecting, the attacker is totally calm and detached until the moment when he strikes.  After all, the attacker is not actually angry at the victim.  The victim is a random unknown person.  By demonstrating the vulnerability of the victim, the attacker experiences a rush of positive feelings based on his own sense of robotic indestructability.

On a more fundamental level, a robot does not have a coherent subjective sense of self.  It is not a creator or receiver of the organic blendable continual stimuli that are crucial to the sense of self of a human being.  So when a youth acts robotic in an activity like the knockout game, he is giving up something fundamental to his human essence.  He becomes a series of defined actions with a weak organic core, with a weak subjective unity.  To act like a robot means to deny his larger human consciousness.  So when a youth knocks his victim into unconsciousness in the knockout game, he is knocking out his own consciousness as well.

So young people today need strong human models to counteract the effects of these strong machine models.  It used to be that parents were needed as strong models, so that their children wouldn’t degenerate into animals.  Now parents are needed so that children don’t descend into becoming robots.  Which means that parents have to start emphasizing moral principles and life experiences that are distinctly non-machine-like.  Parents have to be able to explain that humans are the entities with intrinsic value, even if there are machines that can beat humans at chess.  Machines will never be able to have the depth of subjective experience that humans can have as complex primates.  I would be highly skeptical that machines will be able to write a Shakespearean play, compose a symphony like Beethoven or paint a picture like Picasso.  The humanities are distinctly non-robotic.

Unfortunately, the principal way that stories are displayed to people today is through the electronic media of movies and television.  With rare exceptions, stories in these media are presented as objective narratives, without delving directly into the subjective experiences of the participants in the story.  In some plays, there are monologues that reveal the subjective inner life of principal characters.  In novels, there are detailed descriptions of the thoughts and inner lives of many of the characters.  These plays and novels model a subjective inner life for a person.  They help to stimulate the subjective inner lives of the people experiencing them.  And a strong subjective inner life is crucial to making a person distinct from a machine.  It is this strong subjective inner life, built on the organic blendable continual stimuli of the mind,  that is not going to be truly replicated by artificial intelligence, no matter how much complexity is built into the response patterns of the machine.
© 2014 Laurence Mesirow

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Diminishing Value Of Human Beings In Modern Society

            As the world in which we live becomes increasingly transformed by technology, it becomes increasingly important for us to try and identify and then preserve that which is essentially human in us.  But this can only happen if we truly value our human essence.  One might say that, of course, we value our human essence, and that, in truth, our technological civilization is simply a tribute to the powers of our human essence to transcend above nature and to conquer nature so that we can preserve our imprints and carry on the flow of the human essence over many, many generations.   This answer ignores the loss of organic surfaces for making imprints, the effects of sensory distortion from technology and technological products and the increasing influence of robotization from the use of computers and robots as mirrors and models for our human existence.  In fact, our human essence is threatened, and this is due, in part, to the manner in which we value ourselves now as well as to our technology.

            First, I would like to distinguish two fundamental categories of value that appear in value theory.  Intrinsic value is the value that occurs in something as an end in itself.  In other words, something is valuable because of its irreducible synthesis of elements.  Instrumental value is the value that something has for protecting and enhancing intrinsic value.  In other words, instrumental value leads to intrinsic value.  The tools we use like hammers and knives have instrumental value, because they enhance the lives of the workers who use them. And this protects the intrinsic value of these humans.  Because humans can do more through the instrumental value of tools, their own intrinsic value is augmented.  In addition, the products and services created by tools enhance the lives of the humans who receive these products and services. 

            I want to tie these ideas in with theories I have previously discussed.  Humans are organic figures with strong components of grounding that allow them to make, preserve, and receive organic imprints.  Tools and machines are pure figures.  As the technology of tools has evolved into the development of machines, these machines are able to do more and more without the careful guided imprints of the workers who operate them.  Machine operators in modern factories perform increasingly repetitive tasks.  It is almost as if the human workers enhance the instrumental value of the machines, rather than the machines enhancing the intrinsic value of the worker in his identity as a worker.  To the extent that this happens, the real intrinsic value increasingly gets transferred to the machine.  To the extent this happens, the machine is increasingly perceived mentally as the grounding in which the worker as pure figure is rooted, even though the machine is not capable of providing real grounding.

            Because of the transfer of intrinsic value, keeping the machine operating effectively with minimum human participation becomes an end in itself.  However the products and services created by the machine are still there to enhance and protect the intrinsic value of human life among the general population in modern technological society.  So for people who don’t use these machines, these machines are still seen in terms of their instrumental value.  For these non-users, their attitude still remains that the complex machines are appended to their grounded lives, and not vice versa.

            But we have gotten to the point where increasing numbers of workers aren’t needed, and more and more people will be thrown into a vocational vacuum.  What is going on here?  Increasingly, intrinsic value resides in this modern technology, and more and more humans don’t even have the instrumental value of servicing the machine processes of which they have little or no understanding.  To the extent that the technology is ostensively still there to enhance and protect humans as the consumers of technological benefits, the technology still has the instrumental value that is there to serve the intrinsic value of our human essence.

            But as machines, computers and robots increasingly displace humans in the work force, more and more humans will be unable to pay for the benefits created by modern technology.  So they will no longer be the intrinsic value entities receiving the services and products generated by complex modern technology.  And yet the technology will continue to operate no matter what.  Computers and robots will create computers and robots.   These preserved imprints of humans will be able to reproduce themselves with minimal human involvement.  Eventually there will come a time when this technology could be totally self-sustaining.  And the intrinsic value will reside in the machines, the computers and the robots.  

            Is this what we humans want? Is this what we have had in mind as we have increasingly developed this technology?  I don’t think so.  But this technological change is happening so very, very quickly.  And it represents a real threat to the survival of the human race.  We have got to start putting intrinsic value back where it belongs.  Back with humans and our human essence.

            In traditional societies, people with great instrumental skills are certainly valued.  But, in most cases, these people are always reminded of the fact that they are human beings rather than human doings as a result of their strong organic bonds to their family, their clan, their tribe, their community, their village, their town.  These bonds remind these skilled workers of their strong mammalian human essence and remind them that their instrumental skills are there to serve and enhance the intrinsic value of the people with whom they are bonded.  And strong bonds between people exist in traditional societies with or without special skills.

            In modern societies, people are appreciated according to the quality of their instrumental skills and are abandoned by companies and even by loved ones when these skills diminish or never develop well to begin with.  What is going to happen to the valuation of people when robots take over their jobs and there is no longer any meaningful way to ascribe instrumental value to them?

            We have got to start thinking both within governments and private organizations about technoethics.  No longer can we allow technological innovation to be in total control of the modern marketplace.  We have to start thinking not just in terms of short-term benefits, but also in terms of long-term consequences.

            And, in particular, we need the participation of people who don’t have a vested interest in the development of technology for their livelihood.  We need people in the humanities.  Science and technology are important for the functioning of modern society, but we need the more nuanced blendable continual thinking skills of people in the humanities to start making meaningful ethical judgments about what technologies should be introduced into the larger society, and what technologies should not be introduced.  And there should be thinking about how technologies can be introduced in forms modified so as not to displace humans.

            Technology was meant to provide instrumental value for humans.  It was never meant to be a source of intrinsic value that would displace humans.

(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow