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

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