Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Will Machines Become Smarter Than Humans?

            With technological change occurring so rapidly today, there is a lot of speculation about what human life is going to be like in the future.  A major line of speculation revolves around something called the singularity, a moment in time when machine intelligence becomes superior to human intelligence.  There is considerable variation in the prediction of when this moment will actually happen, although many people say it will occur by 2045.  And although the idea is that the singularity will have a dramatic change on human life, no one can say for sure what that change will be.

            One very dramatic theory is that propounded by Louis Del Monte, a physicist and an author who has written a book called The Artificial Intelligence Revolution.  In an article written by Dylan Love for Business Insider on July 5, Del Monte paints a picture of a future world where machines become independent and self-sufficient and displace humans as the top species on the planet.  Meantime, most humans will become cyborgs – part-human and part-machine -  in order to attain what they experience as immortality.  Nevertheless, machines may turn on humans as “an unpredictable and dangerous species”.  Future machines, with their supposedly increased self-awareness, will find humans too violent and too disposed to developing computer viruses.

            There are two topics I want to discuss with regard to the singularity: the alternate future described by Del Monte, and a reiteration of why machines can never truly replace humans.  With regard to Del Monte’s vision, I would like to first start by reviewing some of my ideas regarding human change during the years of the modern technological revolution.  One of my major themes has been that humans have not been able to evolve as fast as their machines, and this has resulted in a situation where the human nervous system is not able to comfortably absorb the configurations of stimuli created by modern technological living environments.  People today are understimulated by the frictionless vacuum environments created, environments like high rise apartments that are lifted above the movement of life on earth, frictionless transit within cars on smooth streets, and isolated suburban homes.  People are overstimulated by static-filled tension-pocket environments like noisy crowded downtowns, all kinds of noisy speeding vehicles, the noise and dust of building and highway construction, air pollution, and soil pollution.  People today are never able to feel fully grounded in their living environment as a result of sensory distortion.  They experience sensory distortion as something that is damaging to their psychological health.

            People try to deal with this sensory distortion through two distinct postures.  One of them is conative acceleration where a person speeds up his life in order to create his own manageable static-filled, tension-pocket, friction-filled life experiences that can block out the sensory distortion of technology-based activities in the field of experience that surrounds him.  Blocking overstimulation or understimulation in the external sensory world with one’s own internal overstimulation.  The other posture is conative anesthesia, where a person slows down his life activity and withdraws from the external sensory world into a state of understimulation.  A lot of this posture is handled through activities like yoga and meditation and through drugs.  It can also be handled by falling into depression.  Conative anesthesia blocks sensory distortion by basically causing a person to numb himself.

            But still another posture to take in order to deal with sensory distortion would be to become part-machine, to become a cyborg.  A machine is built to be only receptive to defined discrete stimuli and does not suffer as a result of a lack of organic flowing blendable continual stimuli, the kind of stimuli that give a person the experience of grounding.  The latter kind of stimuli are only important for the life of an organism.  A machine does not consider a configuration of stimuli that is unusually high in defined discrete stimuli to be an experiential imbalance.

            So becoming part-machine means minimizing the sensory distortion that tends to make a person feel uncomfortable.  But as a side-effect, it also tends to lead to the fragmenting of the human sense of self.  The cyborg is composed of two very different components that do not really merge together.  The machine part of the cyborg is not susceptible to the organic perishability to which the animal part is susceptible.  So the cyborg can never really experience himself as a cohesive whole.  On the other hand, becoming a cyborg does mean that a person is making a serious attempt to reach a real immortality by becoming in effect a machine whose defective parts can always be replaced.

            But what would happen if a person eventually trying to replace his whole body, maybe including his brain, with machine parts?  To the extent that he no longer has any of the physical presence to which his sense of self had been previously attached, is there any way that we can say this person is still a human?  Even if the person was somehow able to transfer the content of his animal brain to his machine brain, can one also transfer the content of the human mind (assuming we continue to think in terms of the mind/body dichotomy)?

            Returning now to Del Monte’s vision of the future, perhaps, unlike what Del Monte proposes, humans will become so much like machines, that they will no longer represent a threat to them.  Humans will approach the machine essence by becoming increasingly machine-like cyborgs, and machines, particularly as robots, will approach the human essence by becoming increasingly human-like androids.  The increasingly complex interaction between humans and machines will lead to more and more mirroring and modeling among themselves, until they resemble one another to a great extent.

            To me, this is an even more frightening scenario than having machines neatly displacing humans.  At least, in the latter case, humans are still to some extent conscious of their nature as organisms and are capable of fighting back against a machine takeover.  However, if humans become increasingly immersed in their cyborg evolution, then they are giving up their human essence from within.  Then there is little left to save of their humanity, little left to fight for.

            It is important to remember that all the increasing complexity of machines can only imitate but never re-create the basic core of human nature.  Even androids will always be machines undergoing certain discrete defined mechanical processes that are triggered by discrete defined stimuli.  No matter how independent certain robotic machines may appear, they are not stimulated by the organic flowing blendable continual stimuli that are the foundation of being alive as an organism.  And these robotic machines are never stimulated to develop a cohesive organic sense of self capable of making, preserving and receiving organic imprints.  It is not necessary for these machines to create organic imprints as vehicles for surrogate immortalities.  And by continually replacing worn-out parts – both machine and animal – people who become cyborgs don’t need to think in terms of surrogate immortalities.

            Without a cohesive sense of self, machines can never develop the conscious awareness capable of sensing organic imprints in such a way that the imprints are converted into rich vibrant life experiences.  No matter how complex they get, the main focus of machines is going to be functionality, getting from point a to point b, rather than simply feeling alive.

            Machines are, of course, capable of understanding code connections (a representing b, etc.).  But they are not capable of more ambiguous symbolic connections, the connections between phenomena based on blurry flowing blendable continual overlapping resemblances. These connections provide deep resonating meaning and a deep mental grounding for people and their cohesive senses of self.  These symbolic connections provide the foundation for emotional bonding based on overlapping resemblances and deep connective meaning, with other people, with other organisms, with the world and with the cosmos.  They are the foundation for all kinds and all levels of creativity.  Without symbolic connections, life activity is simply going through the motions, which is basically what even the most complex machines do.

            These are thoughts to keep in mind when we are tempted by what seems to be immortality, as we very gradually move towards becoming cyborgs.  Again, I feel that the real danger to humanity may not be robots turning on human beings, but human beings turning against their own human nature.  We have to constantly remind ourselves that there are values in being organically human, a state of being that no machine, however sophisticated it may be, can ever replicate.
(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow


Creating A World Out Of Thin Air

            There’s no longer a need to touch many things these days.  With the Internet of Things, many daily processes in our lives are activated by remote control.  Some processes are activated by a timer.  Other processes like the lights, water faucets and toilets in many public washrooms are activated by our proximity to sensors.  Yet, in spite of the fact that so much goes on around us these days without our tactile participation, it is reassuring to know that some things in our everyday lives still require contact from our fingers.  For example, touch screens in our cell phones.  Touch screens are not organic surfaces and do not allow for physically making and receiving organic imprints.  But at least there is some touch involved, an experiential reminder that we still live in a physical world.  At least there are some physical anchors we can count on to cling to as floating figures in the experiential vacuum of modern technological society.  Right?

            Wrong.  Yasuaki Monnai, the head of a research group at the University of Tokyo has created a touch screen that one doesn’t actually touch.  It is a holographic touch screen.  Now actually this has been done before.  Others had been able to project a holographic touch screen onto any surface.  What makes Monnai’s invention so different is that, through the creation of ultrasonic vibrations, one can actually feel the touch screen.  In effect, one is given the tactile illusion that one is actually using a material touch screen.  This definitely makes the holographic touch screen more user-friendly.

            But what benefits, according to Monnai, can accrue from using a holographic touch screen in the first place?  One advantage is that it can be used even when a person’s hands are wet or greasy.  Furthermore, the user does not have to worry about coming into contact with germs.

            Now I have never seen anyone who had an urgent need to use his smartphone whose hands were wet and/or greasy.  If you get a call and your hands are wet or greasy, you can dry your hands or wash your hands and call the person right back.  As to germs, are we all going to end up living in a perfectly antiseptic world?  What Monnai seems to be implying is that the only surface that we can touch without getting infected is air.

            This Haptic holographic display, as it is called, is simply creating one more layer of vacuumization for modern human life.  Imagine if we found a way of transforming all the phenomena with which humans have to deal, so that they would exist just in thin air without any substance, without any material essence.  We would never again have to worry about what was on our hands.  We would never again have to worry about contagion from germs through touch.  And at the same time, through Monnai’s invention, we could create the sensation of touching, while we were making contact with thin air.  Would this constitute actually being alive in the external world?  Although we would experience the sensation of touching, it wouldn’t really be touching some phenomenon with mass and matter.  We wouldn’t be making, preserving or receiving organic imprints on the experiential surfaces that we were supposedly touching.  And sustained contact with air surfaces could lead us to becoming overstimulated by physical contact with material surfaces.  It could, by extension, contribute to overstimulation with regard to real social connections with the material entities  that we call other people.  We would be living in our own very private sensory bubble, our own very private world.

            So the question arises as to whether it is really necessary to create and deal with these interactive holograms.  For those who would make them a part of everyday life, there is a deeper reason for using them than concerns about wet hands, greasy hands or germs.  Interactive holograms allow humans one more degree of separation from and transcendence above the perishability of more natural material living environments.  The more we become separated by technology from the organic perishability of more natural material living environments, the more we become afraid of and intolerant of what little organic perishability remains in our modern technological living environments and of the organic perishability within ourselves.  And the more we feel a need to separate ourselves from these small remnants of natural material living environments and from our own organic selves.

            Of course, it is one thing to separate from the organic stimuli of nature through surrounding oneself with the modern technological environments we have had up until now.  Yes, we have had an experiential vacuum as the base of our typical field of experience in modern technological society, but we have also had clusters of free-floating material figures.  In the material world, this means solid substantive figures, phenomena which we can actually touch without having to artificially supply the sensation of touch.  What if we decide that to avoid catching illnesses through germs, we would be better off turning more and more of the phenomena with which we interact into holograms, into vacuumized figures, and then find a way of artificially supplying the sense of touch to our contact with these other holographic phenomena.  In such a field of experience, we would be making only the most tenuous contact with the external world.  To the extent that we were only artificially supplied with the experiences of sensation, we would really mostly be living from inside of ourselves.  Our inner world and our outer world would blur together, and after a while, we could never be sure if we were dreaming what we were living.  Life would become a living death which we could never escape.  In such a purified holographic world, where all the figure phenomena with which we came into contact would lack solidity and substance, not only would we have decreasing opportunities for making, preserving and receiving organic imprints, for having rich vibrant life experiences and for preparing for death with a surrogate immortality, but gradually we would lose our full human consciousness which gives us our awareness of the potential richness of life and our awareness of our mortality.  In a perpetual dream mentality, there are no firm boundaries of life.  It is a flowing mental grounding that doesn’t correspond to the realities of our finite limitations in the external world.  It doesn’t stimulate us to participate in those experiences and those events that act as highlights of a meaningful purposeful life.

            Yes, the need for a holographic touch screen represents something deeper than simply concerns about the condition of one’s hands or one’s hygiene.  Creating a purified vacuum state of experience puts us in an experiential state with no boundaries, an experiential state without beginning or end.  It is an experiential state that seduces us into thinking we are living free of organic perishability, free from rot, decay and death, in a state of immortality.  Except that like the hologram, it is a kind of illusion.  We may not be directly experiencing organic perishability around us, but it is still going on inside of us.  We are still organisms that are going to perish one day.  But by deluding ourselves into thinking we are living in a kind of eternity in a world filled with interactive holograms, we will not be motivated to create a surrogate immortality of preserved organic imprints that can help us to prepare for death in a more realistic way.

            Interactive holograms will only prevent humans from properly confronting their finite existential realities in life.  They will prevent people from having a rich vibrant life filled with organic imprints and a death that has been prepared for with preserved organic imprints.  Interactive holograms are a potentially dangerous aspect of the new technological realities of our time.
(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow


Take A Robot To Lunch This Week

            In today’s world, robots are being inserted in more and more different human activities.  They have been programmed to do many distinct kinds of work in factories and warehouses.  Robots perform surgeries and handle radioactive wastes.  Although sometimes robots do work that is difficult or impossible for humans to do, in many cases, robots replace humans in jobs that the latter need in order to survive.  However, the result of being put out of work is not only the loss of economic support for the worker.  The unemployed person goes into an experiential vacuum as a result of lack of interaction with a workplace and with other workers.  And in today’s world, a person who loses his job, frequently has an extended period of time being unemployed, of time being in an experiential vacuum.

            But robots are also being programmed to create positive experiences for humans.  Robots are going to increasingly become companions to humans in all kinds of situations.  A relatively popular form of robotic companion is the robotic pet.  These pets supposedly give you all the advantages of real pets without the annoyance of having to actually take care of them.  No need to feed them, take them for a walk, replace kitty litter, take them to the groomer or take them to the veterinarian.  These machines can walk around, respond to commands, and learn enough from their masters that they can develop an identity.

            Then there are robots that focus on interacting with children.  Some of these robots serve the purpose of pleasure for children through playing games and dancing.  Others that are being developed involve more serious functions – teaching children how to read as well as acting as a trainer for physical exercise.  Supposedly some of these robots will be able to help children with cognitive disabilities.

            There are robots being developed just to be human-like companions.  They can “read” speech inflection, facial expression and body gestures and can somehow provide affection for people who are lonely.

            One particular kind of isolation or loneliness that a person can experience is that related to sexual intimacy.  There are anatomically correct female robots.  I have not yet heard of any anatomically correct male robots on the market.

            There are robots that specialize in taking care of the elderly.  These robots perform tasks as diverse as laundry, cleaning and reminding elderly people to take their medicine at appropriate times.  This includes actually handing the medicine to the person.  Other possible tasks include serving the elderly beverages, assessing their general state of health and being able to contact emergency personnel, should a health crisis arise.  These robots also “socialize” with the elderly, so they won’t feel so lonely.

            There are even plans to include certain robots on long distance flights to other planets, to moons and to asteroids.  Supposedly, the robots can help space travelers to feel less lonely.

            We can see that robots can be built to satisfy a lot of different companionship needs.  The question is what is it that causes some people to enjoy relating to robots similar to the way they relate to humans and pets?

            One obvious reason relates to the whole issue of taking care of another organism.  In today’s modern technological world, which lacks a lot of organic grounding and is filled with sensory distortion, individual humans have to spend a lot of time and energy just taking care of themselves psychologically.  Most parents today lack the patience to spend long hours interacting with their children, playing with them and teaching them new things.  Without much organic grounding in the modern technological living environment, there is no template for creating the deep-bonded relationships that lead to sustained nurturance and care.  It used to be that children in modern society were placed down in front of the television to avoid allowing them to bother their parents or caregivers too much.  Then along came the video games, computers, smartphones, and tablets, and these became even more impelling ways to capture children’s attentions and occupy their minds.  It is now a logical progression to move from these forms of consumer technology to robots.  And robots can become involved not only in terms of playing with children, but also educating them and even giving them a kind of nurturance.

            This sloughing off of care responsibilities also explains the development of robots for taking care of the elderly.  As people live longer and sink into chronic health conditions that require ongoing care, there is seldom a strong large family unit available to divide up the tasks of care.  In small nuclear families, overwhelmed children of elderly parents will grab at robots to care for their parents.  Particularly because the children, with all of their own narcissistic needs, feel resentful having to spend so much time away from just being themselves.

            Robots are basically a perfect vehicle for deflecting any meaningful confrontation with the nurturance gap that is growing in modern technological society.  Robots are machines that, however complicated they may be, are not going to be able to provide organic nurturance to modern humans who, because of their lack of organic grounding, are incapable of really dealing with this most fundamental mammalian need.  The creators of these robots will say that the robots are not meant to replace human caretakers, but rather to complement them.  However, the borders for what is the appropriate use of such robots are rather blurry, and for busy adults with full professional and social lives, the temptation to slide into using caretaking robots in more and more situations is very great.  For the dependent children, it means less time spent in the presence of the organic flowing blendable continual stimuli from other humans and more time with the digital defined discrete stimuli from what are basically machines.  Do we really want our children to be molded into robots?  For elderly people, it means being in encounters with entities with bland behavior, robots that provide no meaningful organic friction, no meaningful interactions as those that would come from an organism that is truly distinct from oneself.  Is a relationship with a robot truly a living relationship?  The kind of relationship that would pull an elderly person out of passivity, out of depression, out of himself?

            Another reason that people are drawn to the use of robot companions is to overcome a basic sense of loneliness.  More and more people in modern technological society live alone.  This column has discussed that it is much more difficult to form or maintain deep-bonded relationships with other people in a living environment that does not provide a template for such a relationship.  Modern technological societies do not have the organic grounding to provide such a template.  In addition, as people interact more and more with complex behavioral entities like video games, computers, smartphones and tablets, it becomes more and more difficult to directly experience affection and love, to experience flowing blendable continual emotional stimuli and to exchange organic imprints with other people.

            Robots provide the opportunity for creating a kind of emotional connection, at least a connection flowing from the human to the robot.  Whether the robot is to provide general companionship or sexual intimacy, the human has at his disposal a complex behavioral entity that supposedly can pull him out of himself and give him the impression that he is not alone.  Because a robot is initially somewhat of a blank slate and has to be programmed, it can eventually be trained to have a kind of a personality that is similar to or that complements its owner.  In effect, the robot is an extension of its owner.  And to the extent that the robot is part of the owner, the owner never really does get pulled out of himself.  He is not drawn into the external world.  It is like the person is living in a dream rather than in real life.  In such a situation, a person is expending a lot of energy and not making, preserving or receiving organic imprints, not having rich vibrant life experiences, and not preparing for death with a surrogate immortality.  Interacting with a robot lacks the kind of organic friction that leads to organic imprints and rich vibrant life experiences.

            Is a robot truly the kind of companion a person would want on a long space flight, let’s say to Mars?  Can a robot ever be a substitute for another human or for a pet?  Only if the human has become primed for the encounter by becoming somewhat robotic himself.  A robot is never going to be a replacement for an animal when it comes to humans who still have a significant organic grounding in themselves.  For such people, robots are never going to be a true substitute for real humans or pets.  And that is a good thing for the human race.
(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow