Thursday, August 16, 2018

How Robots Can Help Us To Not Be Ourselves

            Given the fact that robots are taking over so many of our human work activities, I was trying the other day to gain some perspective on some of the reasons that we have decided to use them.  First of all, there are the work activities that humans normally can do perfectly well.  This includes those activities for which employers find it cost effective to use robots instead of humans.  On the most basic level, robots are used in warehouses to move boxes around and to find merchandise.  Robots are also now being developed to do caretaking for both children and seniors, an activity that modern professionals increasingly find interferes with their satisfying lucrative careers.  And plainly, for some very mentally active people, the activity of caretaking seems to be boring.  Robots are also being developed to replace people in the truly dirty work of construction.  Many modern people are getting lazy and prefer to work in offices.  Finding qualified construction workers is getting more difficult.

            On the other extreme, there are those activities that are too dangerous for humans.  Robots were used in Fukushima, Japan, to find and photograph the radioactive fuel that had gone missing as a result of the earthquake and tsunami that had destroyed the nuclear plant there.  Another robot is being developed by Stanford University to go deep-sea diving for sunken treasure in places that are too dangerous for human divers.

            Then there are those robotic activities that add a unique dimension to things that humans already do.  In other words, the robots work alongside of humans in these situations.  A good example is a robot cockroach.  Being made of soft polymers, these robot cockroaches would be able to squeeze through very narrow pathways and spaces like real cockroaches and could be used to help human rescuers to find survivors in buildings that collapsed as a result of natural disasters like earthquakes.  These robot cockroaches could be let loose in swarms in the rubble of buildings to find survivors that humans are having difficulty finding.  Once found, then humans could dig them up. The robot cockroaches could bring an added dimension to the search-and-rescue being carried out by humans.

            Although there is little doubt that these robot cockroaches could be very beneficial in helping rescuers find survivors, it is precisely in situations like these of human-robot partnership that I feel my greatest concern in terms of preserving the human sense of self.  Actually, there are other search and rescue robots of many different shapes and sizes including a humanoid robot and even one shaped like a snake.  The reason I focus on the robot cockroach is that it seems so counterintuitive that a robot cockroach could somehow indirectly influence human behavior.  One might ask, how can a human psychologically feel a merger with a robot that resembles a cockroach.  But the point is that simply interacting with robots of any kind on a regular basis leads to ongoing mirroring and modeling on the part of humans.  Even when constructed of soft pliable material like polymers, robots are complex behavioral entities that are made to be impermeable.  When one is constantly juxtaposed next to impermeable complex behavioral entities – entities that present a strong detached figure definition – some of that sense of impermeability begins to rub off.

            As more and more impermeable robots begin to displace natural organisms as the dominant complex behavioral entities in our fields of experience, we become increasingly more robotic as a result of the constant contact.  Robots become sources of both mirroring and modeling, not necessarily through direct constant conscious imitation, but just by creating modalities of behavior that are ever present at the edges of our fields of experience.  As we use robot cockroaches to help us in search and rescue missions, we would probably not want to consciously model ourselves after a machine that is a copy of a very lowly organism.  But unconsciously, if we are around them enough, they will influence our behavior with their behavior.  In particular, the cockroach robot, like all robots, engages in defined discrete movements rather than the more flowing blendable continual movements of an organic cockroach.  And as one of many different kinds of robots that increasing will surround us in our daily lives, it will contribute to our gradual shift to the more defined discrete movements of a robot.  Particularly, because cockroach robots don’t totally replace humans and don’t perform a task that will preclude humans engaging in other strategies for search and rescue missions.

            And yet perhaps, on one level, cockroach robots become like the equivalent of tamed trained real-life cockroaches.  After working on search and rescue for a while, maybe cockroach robots will return to circuses, where they can be programmed to perform tricks for their human patrons.  And humans will be enthralled with their abilities, even though, when all is said and done, they are only programmed machines.  And this enthrallment will occur because not only will humans become more robotic themselves from all of this interaction, but they will increasingly begin to ascribe more organic qualities to these robots and even very primitive senses of self, the way some people do with the fleas in flea circuses.

            The problem is that people can’t simply use complex behavioral entities like robots as if they were simple implements.  Supposedly with simple implements, we are totally in control, because they can’t move or go into action without the agency of humans.  Granted that in traditional societies, a particular implement would be so associated with a particular member of the society that a nickname could be ascribed to the person like “the hammer”.  But basically simple implements help us, as humans, to make and preserve our organic imprints.

            But robots are not extensions of humans the way that simple implements can be.  Once created, robots leave their own customized markings on the world.  They do not help us to make organic imprints, but rather they draw us into increasingly standardized procedures for everything, and we use robots to mediate for us in many different activities.  The more the actions or processes involve intense interactions between humans and robots, the more the robots begin to influence the humans and to affect their capacity to live life with meaning.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow 

Watching People Watch Screens

            In a recent article, I discussed a form of technological expression that involved layers of mediated experience.  With virtual robots, there is the mediation of having robots to do jobs or tasks that would otherwise fall into the realm of primary experience for humans.  And there is the mediation that comes from these robots being in a reality without mass, matter and substance and, therefore, where there are no meaningful primary experience consequences from the tasks which these virtual robots are trying out.  The point is that because of the combination of these layers of mediated experience, the combined effect of separating humans from the external world of primary experience is much greater than the effect of each of these layers separately.

            There are other combinations of layers of mediated experiences that are separating humans from the primary experience external world.  One of these is being sports spectators of a sport where the bulk of the action occurs within the mediated experience world of screen reality.  Welcome to the world of e-sports.  Professional video game competitions are broadcast live all over the world to millions of viewers for prize money.  So you have the mediation of spectators watching a sporting activity outside of themselves.  And you have a sporting activity where the players are themselves immersed in a mediated experience activity.  There is a double layer of mediation separating the spectator from the activity.  And this a doubly mediated experience that millions of spectators all over the world participate in.

            But there is something that makes some people’s experience of watching e-sports different from that of working with virtual robots.  With virtual robots, a person is dealing with two technological realities: robots and virtual reality.  For those spectators watching the tournament on a television screen, there is also a double layer of technological mediation involved.  But then there are those people who are watching the tournament live as it is happening, and for these people, it is a different kind of an experience.  Granted that like at rock concerts, the players are magnified on large screen to make seeing them easier.  But even so, the players are still visible live.  For these spectators, there is a distinctly special flavor to their experience of the video game tournaments.  And it is these spectators of the live video tournament that I am going to focus on here.  A spectator of the live event is dealing with one layer of primary experience external world reality and one layer of video game screen reality.  To the extent that the arena spectator is watching the video game player play his video game, just the act of watching the player involves the player in his external world reality.  To the extent that the player is engaged in playing a video game, that is a layer that involves screen reality, pure mediated experience.  Because the player is in the external world performing an action, just watching the player is a mediated experience with primary experience components.

            Watching e-sports live is dangerous for humans in a different way than working with virtual robots.  With virtual robots, there is a threat to the person working with them of becoming so immersed in the experience, that psychologically it becomes very difficult to pull oneself totally back into the primary experience of the external world.  Immersing oneself in two levels of technologically based reality that reinforce each other in terms of their capacity to suck people away from external world reality, will lead in the long run to an increasing incapacity of these humans to easily return to external world reality and to the incapacity to absorb again the gamut of stimuli that is found in such a reality.

            With live e-sports events, the problem is not so much that of immersing in technological realities, but rather with blurring the distinction between external world reality and this technologically-based screen reality.  And this comes through combining the partially mediated experiences of watching someone performing actions in the external world with the somewhat more pure mediated experience of watching the efforts of these external world actions within the screen reality of video games.  In the first case, there is normally no neat divider separating the spectator from the player, while in the second case, the screen normally acts as such a divider.  And yet here, the external world actions of the player’s movement and the screen movements of what happens inside the video game become one seamless flow of experience.  This blurring is very pronounced for the spectator.  For the player, who doesn’t focus on looking at himself playing, the only meaningful movement he observes is what is going on within the video game.

            The blurring has a two-fold effort.  It tends to instill for the spectator a sense of external world reality into the video game that is being played.  Somehow, it seems to have the same hard edgy sense of reality as a basketball game or an ice hockey game.  It seems to have the immediacy and the urgency of a primary experience external world competition.  And it allows the game to suck the spectator into the digital reality world, as if it could provide the spectator a real sense of mass, matter and substance.

            By the same token, the spectator is imbued with the atmosphere provided by the screen reality of the video game and develops a lighter presence like that of an avatar.  A lightness of being that contributes to disconnecting the spectator from the mass, matter, and substance of his own physical body.  Actually, it makes sense.  This is a screen reality world seen like an external world reality to a person who has become like an avatar.

            The spectator of the live event, who becomes so addicted to watching a player play a video game, wastes so much time.  Not only is he not making organic imprints on the surface of his field of experience, but he is not even watching an external world athlete make a meaningful imprint by beating a flesh-and-blood human opponent in a primary experience game.  Rather, he is sucked over the bridge that is created between external world reality and screen reality, a bridge generated by this experience.  At least when a person immerses himself with virtual reality, there is no pretense that the person is still dwelling at that moment in external world reality.

            And it is almost worse watching a video game tournament at a stadium or arena than it is to watch a basketball game on television.  With the latter, there is no illusion that one is participating in a mediated experience, and that mediated experience is juxtaposed next to the primary experience in external world reality of being in one’s living room or in a bar watching the game.  One knows when one’s focus is leaving the external world reality to go into the screen reality and vice versa.  But in a video game tournament, the live spectator is living in external world reality and screen reality simultaneously.  Mentally, the boundaries between the two are broken, so that one loses his capacity to easily retreat back into external world reality from screen reality.  Which means the live spectator, after watching these tournaments a certain number of times, will have difficulty being able to live fully in external world reality again.  Mentally, he remains subtly numb and detached even after a tournament is over, and he physically leaves it.  And this affects his capacity to be able to fully function in primary experience in external world reality, having rich vibrant experience, making, receiving and preserving organic imprints, developing a meaningful life narrative and preparing for death with a surrogate immortality.  Complicated layered experiences like video game tournaments represent a greater danger to humans and their lives as mammalian entities than the simple mediated experiences that immerse people in screen reality and virtual reality.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow 

Diving Into The Depths Of Unreality

            Now that we have so many different expressions of modern technology in our world, one of the next steps seems to be the combination of different expressions in order to have them reinforce each other, in order to improve the potency and efficiency of each one.  An excellent example of this is virtual robots.  When I first heard about them, I thought that it sounded a little like avatars.  But avatars are computer representations of us, the human users.  Virtual robots serve a very different purpose.  First of all, they exist in virtual reality, not the screen reality of avatars.  Secondly, they are created in order to maximize the development of new practical applications for robots.  Supposedly, it costs less and takes less time to develop an application using virtual robots, than it does with real robots in the real world.  The application is developed through programming the virtual robot.  To the extent that this robotic simulation accelerates the development of new applications, it expands the pervasiveness of robots in more and more areas of our lives.  To the extent that this development of new robotic applications requires humans spending more time in virtual reality, it reinforces the reality of virtual reality in our daily lives.

            These two expressions of modern technology, in being combined for the purposes of robotic simulation, provide for a double layer of experiential immersion in mediated experience for the person involved.  A double layer of separating the person involved in this technological research from the real external world of primary experience.  The manipulation of mediated figures, namely robots, within the mediated pretend grounding, which is really a vacuum based in virtual reality, provides for a compelling immersive life experience that distances a person more by far than the involvement in any simpler technological expression.  Together, these layers of mediated experience block out participation in any layer of primary experience in external world reality.

            Developing robotic applications in the real world, where the force and the motion of the robot would be experienced as a kind of external world friction, a person could be recovering at least some kind of friction that would keep him somewhat connected to the external world.  This is because a real robot is a phenomenon that performs actions that separate people from direct performance in the real world, but whose physical presence is sensorily received as a primary experience.

            So on a subjective level, what is it that happens to these people who get involved in robotic simulation in virtual reality?  In getting swallowed up by these two distinct layers of mediated experience, they become much more separated from the primary experience external world than if they were separated from the external world by just one of these layers. And the separation also extends to the primary experience of one’s internal mental world.  So much sensory mediation ultimately leads to becoming numb to oneself.  And we start to experience ourselves as a mediated experience.  Not that the external mediated experiences connected to virtual robots are the only external mediated experiences today that can transform our experience of ourselves into that of a more distant mediated experience.  Look at the metaphors we use for our minds today.  We think of our minds as computers that are wired for this or wired for that.  Granted that some scientists are moving aware from this notion, but it is still a very common metaphor.  And layered mediated experiences can only reinforce this metaphor which ultimately becomes conducive to our thinking of ourselves as machines, as robots.

            Because if we are to continue functioning in our daily lives as a numb entity in a layered mediated living environment, we have to become a complex behavioral entity that is capable of functioning in an experiential vacuum.  And the one kind of complex behavioral entity that thrives in such an environment is that of a machine or, in particular, a robot.  But it is functioning in a very special sense that we are talking about here.  It doesn’t mean functioning in the sense of feeling fully alive, having rich vibrant experiences.  It doesn’t mean functioning in terms of making, receiving and preserving organic imprints.  It doesn’t mean creating a personal surrogate immortality through bundling together preserved organic imprints.  It doesn’t mean building a flowing blendable continual life narrative.  In other words, people pay a price for immersing themselves in the experiential vacuum of virtual reality trying to manipulate virtual robots in order to create applications for robots in the world of primary experience, robots that are being created to drop into the narratives of ordinary humans and replace chunks of these narratives.  And more and more people are getting involved in robotic simulation, to create apps for the robots that are ultimately going to push humans out of different aspects of the flow of human life.  Such people are going to have increasingly truncated empty lives.

            The notion of having layers of mediation ultimately threatens to lift people permanently out of a traditional primary experience life, both physically and mentally.  Will there come a time when virtual reality and the mediated figures of robots become our constant companions?  Will there come a time when we can no longer distinguish virtual reality from primary experience external world reality and we live our lives in our minds without really touching anything directly in the external world.  This might sound like a crazy idea, but many people are finding ways to limit their contact with the external world.  Think of all the people who order practically all of their consumer goods on line, so that they don’t have to continue a primary experience narrative of shopping at stores.  More and more people do much of their library work on their computers.  Many people, rather than thinking of something interesting to do themselves, spend their time watching other people’s life narratives – real or imagined – on a movie screen, on television, on a computer, on a smartphone, or on a tablet.  So people are already starting to fill up their lives with many individual layers of mediated experiences.  It’s just that now we are finding ways of deepening the disconnections from primary experience through increasing immersion in layered mediated experiences.

            In this article, we talked about the combination of two layers of mediated experience to create a deep immersive living environment.  But soon we may be able to find ways to combine three or more layers.  At that point, we may decide to stay permanently in mediated experience – probably something that utilizes virtual reality.  Then the only reason we may absolutely have to return to primary experience will be to eat, drink, go to the bathroom and sleep.  And sleep is not a time when we are actually conscious of our connection to the primary experience world.  And I almost forgot that many video game players wear diapers so that they don’t have to temporarily break away from their game playing.  So for many people involved in machine-based mediated experience, the only sure outlet for primary experience in the external world will be consumption either of solids or liquids.  Perhaps someday, if a way is found to keep the human mind, spirit or soul alive after the body decays and dies, even eating and drinking won’t be around to tie people to primary experience and the external world.  And then life will be entirely a mediated experience.  We will be like ghosts living in a dream world.  A human living in a permanent living death.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow 

Trying To Fly Over Obstacles

            As more and more cars hit the roads, and there is an ever increasing amount of urban congestion, people are trying to think of new ways to deal effectively with the problem.  One way is to literally rise above the problem by developing flying taxis.  There was a cartoon series in my childhood about a futuristic family called the Jetsons who flew around in such vehicles, but it is only now that such vehicles are being turned into a reality.  Two kinds of vehicles are being considered: helicopters and passenger drones.  Supposedly the country of Dubai is going to start to use passenger drones in July of this year.  By the way, these vehicles are self-driving.

            They will supposedly supply a way for people accustomed to bumper-to-bumper traffic and bottlenecks to rise above them and go quickly from point a to point b.  Not only does a person not waste so much time in his travels, but he no longer has to experience the abrasively overstimulating tension-pocket that comes from being stuck in mounds of cars that are barely moving.  Instead, he gets to rise above the tension-pocket into the vast emptiness, the experiential vacuum that is the sky.  One goes from overstimulation into numbing understimulation, flying free from gravity, free from the full effect of one’s weight.  One goes from one kind of sensory distortion to another kind, each of which has harmful effects on the way a person experiences the world.  The bottlenecks and heavy traffic lead to burn-out and jadedness.  Flying in the sky leads to numbness.  Modern technology, as it has increasingly superimposed its own environments over more traditional organic environments, has increasingly moved people away from the spectrum of stimuli of natural environments that they are most capable of absorbing.  And alternately experiencing understimulation and overstimulation, numbness and burn-out, leads to the pathological behaviors that are exhibited in modern technological society.  In my more recent articles, I have focused more on the understimulation, because it is so much less focused on by most modern social scientists.  Everyone talks about the overstimulation of crowding from overpopulation, noise pollution, air pollution, etc.

            At any rate, once spaces have lost their organic grounding, they are susceptible to moving between the two extremes of sensory distortion.  Take shopping centers that at one point were very popular and had parking lots that were clogged with cars.  Their popularity leads them to become enormously overstimulating tension-pockets.  Lately, because of online shopping, more and more people no longer want to go to brick and mortar stores.  And these shopping centers that were incredibly congested, become ghost towns, enormous empty vacuum spaces.  Customers stop coming, store owners lose their leases.  And the tension-pocket turns into a vacuum.  Empty buildings and open empty asphalt and concrete parking lots.  Until some new use is found for the facility or the center is torn down and a whole new structure is built.  In either case, the new use of the property becomes popular and it becomes a tension-pocket again.

             I discuss this in relation to the notion of the flying taxis, because the people who have come up with this idea for transportation assume that by raising people above the tension-pockets of bumper-to-bumper traffic, traffic jams and bottlenecks into the relative vacuum of the sky, that they will solve the traffic problem for a long time.  Perhaps at first, flying taxis will be relatively expensive, so that the market will tend to be limited to more financially comfortable people.  But then, just like with commercial air flights, some companies will find ways of cutting costs and making flying taxi service available to a lot more people.  And as demand goes up, so will the number of flying taxis.  And the number of flying taxis will be far greater than the number of commercial air planes.  And this will turn the sky into another enormous noisy crowded tension-pocket.  And although the sky occupies a more three-dimensional area than the surface of the earth, it can still become an uncomfortable space with all the flying taxis and delivery drones that could be present in the not-so-distant future.

            And the experience of a tension-pocket sky will apply not only to the taxi passenger, who will find his trip slowed down by all the other small flying transport vehicles that will increasingly fill the air spaces surrounding his flying taxi.  It will also apply to people on the ground.  People looking up into the sky will no longer be able to use it as an experiential refuge against the crowds and the traffic jams that surround them on the ground.  They will no longer be able to get the balance of understimulation from the relative emptiness above them.  They will no longer have a place to rest themselves experientially from all the abrasive cacophonous stimuli that surround them.  Urban, suburban, even exurban areas will be filled with the stimuli of objects taking off and objects landing, not just in airports, but almost everywhere.  This will create a tension-pocket unlike any that people have experienced before.  Stress levels will rise.  People will search for experiential balance with more yoga, meditation, and drugs – anything that can effectively numb them in the face of the onslaught of abrasive stimuli.  Even at night, the sky, the moon and the stars will no longer be a source of romantic tranquility.

            Yes, even now, the sky is populated with commercial airlines and satellites.  But, unless one lives near an airport, one is not usually very aware of them.  Satellites don’t often come down to earth.  When they do make it to the surface, it is usually over the ocean.  And commercial airlines fly too high to be experienced directly by people on the ground, and when they land, they cluster near airports.  But passenger drones and helicopters aren’t going to fly so high for short excursions.  We will become inundated with all the commotion and noise they create.

            It is bad enough that we have skyscrapers blocking the sky in cities like New York and Chicago.  Now we will have a lot of flying objects disturbing the sky even in many areas away from the skyscrapers.  The real answer to urban crowding and traffic jams is to encourage people to move away from them as well as to have smaller families.  Fewer and more dispersed people is a healthier answer than flying taxis.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow

Losing The Story Behind Our Melodies

            Artificial Intelligence music (AIM) is based on the random combination and modification of pre-existing note patterns to create new larger note patterns that form a piece of music.  Sometimes, when humans themselves try to create atmospheric music for purposes of making an advertisement with a particular focus, certain kinds of music patterns will be specifically selected in order to work with these purposes.  But the key idea when working with AIM is more randomness.  Although a general music category can be selected as the basis for AIM, the specific music patterns that are the foundation for AIM are not selected by humans based on previously existing psychological grounding in meaning.  Meaning for humans is created by memories from a flowing blendable continual life narrative.  These memories are not simply isolated points on a mind scape, but overlap with one another in the same way that events in human life overlap with one another and are held together by the flow of subjective life experience.  A piece of music created by a human is done to evoke a memory, a series of memories, a flow of memories in a non-verbal way.  The connection of a piece of music to flows or fragments of a composer’s life experience is not always something the composer is conscious of when he is creating it.  But in most cases, in retrospective reflection, the connection can be made.  And it is this connection to the meaning derived from the composer’s life narrative that allows the composer to make and even preserve an important organic imprint on the minds of the members of his audience.  So from a different perspective, a composer has synthesized many different imprints made on his life within the flow of his life narrative and then comes up with his own unique organic imprint.  The notes that he puts together are not just a patterned series of audio markings.  Instead, they are a coherent organic imprint.

            Artificial Intelligence music can’t make an organic imprint, because it is not being created by an organic coherent sense of self.  The soul element is missing.  The flowing blendable continual passion is missing.  The flowing blendable continual stream of imagination is missing.  But people involved in producing different entertainment projects like using AIM, because it can be created more quickly and it costs less to produce.  In other words, expediency rules the day.  But what of the price paid for such expediency?  Not financial, but psychological.  What does it mean to have much of our modern music based on randomized patterns of notes that nevertheless imitate certain established styles?  And something parallel is being done with lyrics. There are songwriters who have really gotten into AIM, because it makes it easier for them to compose.  Notice how we are back again with the notion of making life easier, by making our tasks more frictionless and more mediated.  The key seems to be to avoid the irritation that comes with direct involvement in life through primary experience.  And yet if music is supposed to touch us through our senses and through our emotions, aspects of ourselves that are involved with immediate connection to both the external world and to ourselves, don’t we want to create our music on a foundation of primary experience rather than algorithms?

            Furthermore, what does creating much of our music through AI do to our perception and appreciation of the process of music creation?  First of all, if the boundaries of creation are blurred with regard to machines and humans, doesn’t that somehow diminish the special value of the music created in this way?  The magic involved in the process of creation is lost.  The creation occurs through the random combination of notes all within an experiential void.  It is devoid of organic symbolic connections, devoid of human meaning.  Without symbols and meaning, not only is the process of creating the magic trivialized, but the content is as well.

            Maybe this goes hand and hand with the growing attempt by some research scientists to control and dominate the process of artistic creation, by trying to understand it.  Perhaps by understanding it, they can control and tinker with it almost as if it were a machine process that needed to be fine-tuned and calibrated.  Perhaps they feel if they understand the components of creativity, they can turn everyone into a creative genius.  Perhaps it is simply that some people feel uncomfortable around something that doesn’t lend itself easily to understanding through measurement, through statistical analysis and through logical analysis.  Creativity is the ultimate psychological process that depends on flowing blendable continual stimuli and flowing blendable continual responses.

            It is difficult for people to control and dominate creative expression in other people.  It becomes much easier to control and dominate creative expression coming from machines, coming from AI.  The fact that so much gets lost in the translation of creative expression from human intelligence to Artificial Intelligence doesn’t seem to bother them.  Perhaps the computer scientists feel that the product from Artificial Intelligence is every bit as good as the product from human intelligence.

            The effects of this growing interchangeability of human and machine creativity in musical compositions are subtle, but, in the long run, are going to be very destructive.  If AI creativity can be, relatively speaking, manipulated both by composers as well as non-creative people, then the process of human creativity becomes devalued.  And to the extent that it becomes devalued, it becomes increasingly difficult for people in the music world to make a decent living at it.  AI strips music of its magic, and with the magic gone, the specially valued magic of the musician disappears as well.

            And as composers start interacting more and more with AI to produce music, the influences of the music will go in both directions.  Not only will AIM be based on musical styles created by humans, but humans will start to unconsciously model their compositions on music created by AI that in turn imitated human music.  Human composers will model their work on the work of AI composers which will, in turn, be modeled on the work of human composers.  But the layer of AI composition as a musical influence will break up the symbolic connections, the meaning derived from human narrative, and the organic grounding found in real human creativity.  The influence of AI will create a new shallowness, a new blandness, a new timidity in human music.  Not exactly the kind of thing needed to create rich vibrant audio experience.  The predictability of much of this new music will contribute to more human numbness.  More of a sense of being in a living death.  More of a sense of becoming robotic.  Music, which is supposed to be a source of our transcendent uniquely human sensations, becomes a vehicle to make us numb and insensate like a machine.  The blurring of the human and the machine in so many areas of our lives in today’s world is truly a very destructive phenomenon that is diminishing and diluting our humanity.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow 

Blurring The Lines Between Humans And Others

            A lot of controversy has developed, as scientists have pushed forward research involving the injection of animal embryos with human genes, in order to develop human organs that can be harvested for use by humans in need of them.  There are long waiting lists of humans who need organs like kidneys, hearts and livers, and using organs created through these animal embryos would shorten the wait significantly.  However, it involves blurring the lines between humans and other animals in ways that make many ethicists as well as ordinary citizens feel extremely uncomfortable.  The name for any combination of two or more animals is chimera.  It comes from a creature in Greek mythology that was part lion, part goat and part snake.

            To me, the real problem is how these people may experience what the growing human cells will encounter in these combinations.  It is as if the human cells are grounded in a biological living environment where they don’t belong and can never truly feel grounded.  It would be as if the higher consciousness that could be attributed to the human cells is constantly being dragged down by the animal embryo.  That the animal embryo is constantly trying to undifferentiate, to make more primitive, the higher consciousness in the human cells in order to make it fit more easily in the animal embryo.  And, of course, the human side of the chimera would be constantly trying to rise above, to transcend, the animal embryo in order to maintain its integrity, its coherence.  In other words, there really is no perceived merger on the mind level, and creating a laboratory chimera would be seen as leading to the creation of a creature with two warring natures where the human nature is constantly threatened with being swallowed up and destroyed.

              So there are two perceived threats to the human side of a chimera: that of being trapped in an alien biological grounding and that of being dominated by an alien more primitive biological will.  Actually, there may be a third threat.  The threat of the more primitive animal side somehow exploiting the higher consciousness of the human side in order to give greater power to the chimera as a whole.  The point is that with the animal side, although it’s built from an organic entity that has an inferior state of consciousness to the human side of the chimera, it nevertheless could invariably have some power to exploit, almost enslave, the human side for its own purposes.  At least, these are the kinds of thoughts that could bother those people who are concerned about the blurring of the lines between species in a human-animal chimera.  And although there are those who accept and approve the creation of chimeras in order to promote the medical possibilities of creating donor organs, there are many who are really concerned about the crossing of the lines between species in the creation of hybrid organisms.

            In addition, we have the situation that there has been work done on the implantation of pig organs in people who need an organ transplant but can’t find the appropriate organ from a human.  This implanting of animal parts in humans is called xenoimplantation.  This has a similarity to the situation of the animals growing human organs but sort of in reverse.  Instead of human parts growing in animals, we are dealing with animal parts placed in humans.  It also is raising a lot of concerns about blurring the lines between animals and humans.  Could some organic consciousness in the pig organ influence or ever take over the consciousness of the human?  Pig heart valves are already used successfully in heart transplants.

            With all these concerns about human-animal hybrids, there seems to be far less concern about a different kind of hybrid: the hybrid of humans and machines.  This is definitely not the kind of hybrid that one would have found in Greek mythology.  This is a hybrid that has been brought to the forefront in today’s world as a result of modern technology.  Initially, it has been a matter of adding or replacing small components of humans.  Things like knee or hip replacements and pacemakers.  But now we are implanting chips for all kinds of purposes.  And some people fantasize about becoming part machine, so that physically they can become more durable and perhaps even immortal.  This is the foundation of thinking for becoming a cyborg – a part human, part machine that supposedly would be immortal and indestructible.  The most famous fantasy cyborg in modern times is probably the Terminator as portrayed by Arnold Schwartzenegger.

            The reason there seems to be less concern with human-machine combinations as opposed to human-animal combinations is that there is the assumption that the machine component in a cyborg will always somehow be the servant of the human component’s needs and will never invade the integrity of the human component’s sense of self and try to control, manipulate or take over the human component.  This, of course, is very different from the expectation of many people with regard to chimeras or people with implanted animal organs where the complex behavioral entity thus created is composed of two distinct organic entities that potentially can be at odds with one another, and where the animal component is perceived as being capable of and disposed to somehow exert some control over the human component.  Somehow the feeling is that the machine is always the servant of the human even when they are merged together in a cyborg. 

            But what if this vision of the machine component isn’t always correct.  As machines become more and more complex due to technological advances, they become increasingly capable, as a result of human directives, of developing behavior relatively independent of the commands and controls of their human creators and managers.  This pattern can be seen in Artificial Intelligence (AI).  This pattern could also be present in cyborgs.  What if some advanced cyborgs are created in the future, where the machine component emerges from relative complacency to become a domineering controlling entity?  Just as with the chimeras, where the animal component could become a controlling model for the human component,  gradually undifferentiating the human component into a more primitive version of itself, the machine or robot component could become a controlling model for the human component in a cyborg and make the human component more robotized.

            So we would have to say that creating cyborgs can be seen to be every bit as threatening to the idea of human integrity as creating chimeras.  In both cases, there is a perceived undifferentiation of the human component by the non-human component to a more limited version of what it means to be human.  The balance between figure aspects and ground aspects in the human hybrid is thrown off.  In the case of the chimera, a human component immerses itself into a more primitive overly grounded environment (the animal embryo), where it tends to lose its transcendent well-defined sense of self.  In becoming more primitive, the human component becomes more enveloped by natural forces which blur its boundaries.  And the human with a transplanted animal organ could become undifferentiated by more primitive internal natural forces.  On the other hand, in merging with a machine, the human component in a cyborg develops a rigid external self-definition, but tends to lose its flowing blendable continual coherence because of a void of organic grounding.  The sense of self becomes a simpler almost digital version of itself, with a more delimited infinity of possible stimuli it can receive and a more delimited infinity of possible responses.

            Up until recently, the history of humanity has consisted of expanding our consciousness, expanding our reflexive awareness and our sense of self in order to be able to dominate and control the phenomena that surround us, in order to be able to make and preserve our organic imprints, so we can prepare for death with a strong surrogate immortality.  But by creating human-animal chimeras, humans with implanted animal organs and human-machine cyborgs, we are creating complex behavioral entities that have human components, but that potentially have diminished human consciousness and a diminished human sense of self.  Right now chimeras are only used for specific situations.  The implantation of animal organs in humans is still in its very early stages of development.  Humans that have metal and plastic parts are becoming more common, but true cyborgs, where much of the body and brain have been mechanized by the addition of machine components are still themes for science fiction.  But what happens if the chimeras somehow get into the general population?  What happens if implantation of whole animal organs becomes more successful?  What happens if we succeed in creating true cyborgs?  In these cases, the more common presence of these hybrid complex behavioral entities could possibly, in the long run, represent a diminishing of the special place of human beings in the animal kingdom.  And to be in the presence of these human hybrids could lead to unconscious mirroring for what we would have to call pure non-hybrid humans.  These hybrids could be like bridges for behavior that would be a step down for the unique behavior of humans.  And ultimately, there could be a subtle transformation of the human sense of self.  This would not bode well for the future of humanity.

(c) 2018 Laurence Mesirow

Taking Our Lives To Feel Alive

            There have been a number of articles recently in my column about a form of aggression that I have called crimes of numbness.  People become so numb as a result of the frictionlessness and excessive mediation of experience created by modern technology that they find the only way to pull out of it is to explode out of it through random explosive acts of physical aggression.  In particular, acts of random murder.

            Something that is less discussed is the growing amount of aggressions turned inwards towards oneself in the United States.  It is astonishing.  Methods vary but two frequent ones are overdosing on pills and cutting one’s wrists.  Then there are the more incremental methods of self-destruction like eating disorders and drug and alcohol addiction.  But the latter are not necessarily engaged in with the conscious purpose of suicide.  People just sometimes find that their self-destruction is so impelling, that they are drawn towards death.

            On the other hand, many of the people who formally plan to commit suicide, find a way to sabotage their plans.  Just the planning and preparing the suicide can be so abrasively stimulating that the actual suicide is no long necessary.  I have noticed that there are many patients in psychiatric hospitals who have attempted suicide many times.  The ongoing attempts are explosively stimulating and are enough to pull a person out of his technologically-based numbness.

            So what kinds of experiences are conducive to this kind of extreme desperate self-destructive behavior.  I would like to start by saying that I truly believe there are multiple layers of causation involved in this pathological numbness.  And yet an extremely important layer that is mostly overlooked is that of getting involved in all the different manifestations of screen reality: movies, television, video games, computers, smartphones, and tablets.  These are all vacuumized worlds where the immediate impact senses of touch, smell and taste all have a minimal or no impact.  Granted there are the explosive high-impact forms of content connected to such themes as violence, hate literature and pornography.  But in spite of the high impact they create on the surface, because they are mediated screen reality forms of content, they are shallow and don’t have a sustained enduring impact by themselves.  It is the fact that all these different forms of content occur behind a numbing screen that separates people from the kinds of organic stimuli that help them feel alive.  People are attract to violence, hate and pornography on the internet, because these forms of content do temporarily shock people out of the numbness created by experiencing the external world through a screen.  But in the long run, it is the screen that is the new controlling factor.  It is the screen that has the largest influence in putting people into numbness.  The screen that appears to be opening us up to all sorts of exciting new worlds and content is blocking us from a world and content essential to our identity as human beings.  Many people react to being blocked on the outside by trying to set up extreme forms of stimulation within.

            And again there is a desire on the part of many potential suicide victims to plan and prepare a suicide, experience the full extent of the inner pain, the inner tension-pocket, that comes from knowing that one is about to terminate one’s life and then find a way to step away from the termination.  Either there can be a mistake in execution, or the potential victim can perform his act in such a way that other people accidentally discover it before it’s too late, or the victim can actually tell the people around him after he has performed an action before it kills him.  Interestingly the involvement of the people around him in preventing his suicide becomes a vehicle by which the potential victim cannot make a fully destructive impact in his action, and yet he preserves an imprint through the unforgettable memory it leaves in the people around him.  A memory that becomes permanently connected to his life narrative and becomes a part of the collective memory of the people around him.  This memory of the potential victim’s failed suicide attempt becomes a part of the potential victim’s personal surrogate immortality in preparation for his real natural death in the future.  It is a negative memory, not one connected with a positive achievement.  But when a person is too numb for a positive constructive achievement, then for many such people an extremely negative achievement attached to one’s ongoing memory is better than no achievement at all.

            We have been talking about 3 different ways of hovering around death: people who plan and prepare for suicide and then commit it; people who plan and prepare for suicide knowing that they have built into their plan an escape hatch that prevents them from going through with it and people whose habits or life style are of such a high risk (e.g. drugs, alcohol, anorexia, and racing cars) that they can eventually lead to death.  There is actually a fourth way.  Sometimes people who suffer from depression can experience an event that is so emotionally painful, so disappointing, so demoralizing that it acts as a sudden trigger to killing oneself.  The immediate figure cause is the trigger.  But the ground cause is the depression.  It is a depression in which a person is already experiencing his life as a living death.

            In the modern world, all these suicide and self-destructive situations have one thing in common: they are all attempts to pull out of a numbness generated by the extreme frictionlessness and mediation created by modern technology and, in particular, modern consumer technology.  This is all in contrast to suicide in more traditional organic societies, which is based on an excess of organic stimulation, an excess of emotion.  Here suicide is more like an introjected version of a crime of passion.  A person becomes filled with anger, with rage founded in a disappointment, a demoralizing situation, an embarrassment or a betrayal.  And if the person feels blocked by scruples, by lack of fighting ability, or by lack of an appropriate opportunity, then he turns his aggression inward.

            Today we are very focused on the violence demonstrated in mass shootings, police shootings, and gang shootings. But go to a psychiatric hospital, and see if you are able to get to a cafeteria there at lunch time and see the lines of adolescents who are there for outpatient programs to deal with their self-destructive behavior and, in particular, for attempted suicide.  The numbers are astounding.  But there is much less focus on them than the people involved in mass shootings, police shootings and gang shootings.  Granted that there is a common layer of causation involved in all of them: the sensory distortion from modern technology, and in particular, the numbness that comes from the experiential vacuum created by the immersion in the screen reality of modern consumer technology.  Mass shootings, police shootings and gang shootings are crimes that occur today that are caused by numbness or more precisely by people who find the only way to pull out of their numbness is through explosive destructive actions.  People who attempt to commit suicide today are also looking for an explosive action, but rather than feeling alive through hurting others, they do it by turning their aggressive energies inward and hurting themselves.  Perhaps they are so numb that they are not alive enough to expel their aggressive energies towards external targets.  Because what is being dealt with is self-inflicted violence, it can be kept in the family and isn’t necessarily made known to the general population.  Which is why we hear so much more about mass shootings, police shootings, and gang shootings than suicides.  But suicides are so much of a danger, if not more so, to the fabric of human society than externalized killings.  Most of us are far more likely to know someone who has committed suicide or attempted to commit suicide than people involved in externalized killings.  Suicide is definitely a serious problem with which we have to deal, and will need to do so for a long time to come.  To bring potential suicides out of their numbness, we have to find a way to wean people from the addiction to modern technology.  This is the starting point.

(c) 2018 Laurence Mesirow

The Endurance That Comes With Being Part-Robot

            In my last article, I discussed the creation of a robot athlete whose skills within certain athletic processes in a game were superior to those of humans.  I am talking about the basketbot named CUE that has almost a 100% success rate in shooting baskets.  We as humans are tempted to identify with a complex behavioral entity that demonstrates such superior skill in an activity that we value.  A concern was expressed here that such identification with the robot basketball player, particularly as it becomes fully mobile and becomes a complete basketball player, will lead to psychologically blurring together with the robot, which can be very dangerous to a person maintaining a coherent sense of self and strong organic bonds with other people.

            But one thing saves the person from complete robotization.  This is that the person never becomes the complex behavioral entity, the basketbot, with which he identifies.  He never becomes a basketball playing robot.  He remains distinctly human. 

            There is a new robotic invention with roots in two other sports that tends to blur away this separation between robot and human.  It is still in a prototype stage, but it threatens to totally transform the worlds of skiing and snowboarding.  Basically, it consists of two braces, one for each leg, that together act as a kind of partial exoskeleton, a kind of smart shock absorber that anticipates the moves of the skier or the snowboarder with its sensors and adjusts itself accordingly.  These braces are attached to both the person’s thighs and to his boots.  The power source is carried in a light backpack.

            The purpose of this exoskeleton is to help a person to be able to last longer in the actual performance of his sport and also to be able to decrease pain.  The legs get support in their movements so that the activity is not so strenuous.  It sounds, on one level, like a reasonable idea.  But I believe there are ramifications in the use of such an exoskeleton that go beyond helping a person extend his skiing or snowboarding experience.  The question is do we want a person to use for recreational purposes a robotic exoskeleton where, in effect, he will merge with the exoskeleton he is using in his mind and become part-robot.  Notice that I added the phrase for recreational purposes.  Exoskeletons are being used to help paralyzed people to move and walk again.  As much as I am against using robot technology in the lives of average people, morally I would have great difficulty not making it available to people experiencing paralysis, now that the technology is available.  It is the lesser of several evils for paralyzed people to become part-robot in order to at least partly escape their paralysis.  The problem is that exoskeleton uses are going to multiply into all sorts of recreational applications for people who aren’t paralyzed.  Skiing and snowboarding are just a beginning.

            Is this going to be one of the first robotic inroads that allow people to experience themselves as cyborgs?  A complex behavioral entity that is part human and part robot.  Granted that a person is only strapped to the robots by leg braces and not truly blended together with them.  But the physical advantages of keeping these leg braces strapped on are going to seem so seductively desirable.  A skier will be able to avoid painful skiing and will have greater endurance.  Within certain parameters, he will seem almost superhuman, impervious to mortality.

            Of course, on the other hand, whatever he is able to achieve as a skier using these robotic leg braces will be tainted by the notion that what he is accomplishing is not done solely by his own efforts and his own skills.  It can sort of be compared to a cyclist who normally rides a bicycle but decides to expend less energy by riding a tricycle instead.  It is easier to ride a tricycle than a bicycle.  It also doesn’t challenge a person to make a meaningful organic imprint through the skill of good bike-riding.

            The same kind of thing can be said to be true with using robotic braces for skiing.  A person will be able to ski longer and with less pain, but also with less of a challenge.  The experience will be more bland, more vacuumized.  It will not contribute in any meaningful way to his life narrative.  It will be less of a rich vibrant experience.  We need a little discomfort, even a little pain, mixed in with our enjoyable experiences, in order to challenge us to turn them into memorable imprints.

            And then, of course, there is the matter of what using robotic braces does to our heads.  Blurring our sense of self with robotic parts does give us a strong sense of physical boundaries, a strong physical sense of self-definition, which contributes to a false sense of immortality.  And such a false sense of immortality eases the internal pressure on a person to try to make and preserve meaningful organic imprints that can contribute to his surrogate immortality in preparation for death.

            Although robotic braces can create greater external self-definition, internally it contributes to fragmenting the sense of self.  A person is no longer an organic whole.  He has an organic part and a robotic part.  And this affects the sense of self.  He no longer has a fully coherent sense of self.  And, by extension, he no longer has a fully coherent consciousness.  Which means that, on a certain level, he no longer feels coherently alive.

            Too much help of the robotic kind ends up numbing people and subtly crippling the human narrative.  This is something we should keep in mind as we become increasingly bombarded by new opportunities for robotic extensions of our being.  Particularly, when these robotic extensions are not being used for basic survival as with paralyzed people and are being used for recreation and to increase the opportunity for a kind of immortality, we should be very careful about embracing this technology, literally and figuratively – a technology which has so many unforeseen side effects for people.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow

Trying To Enjoy Sports More Through Robotics

            As has been discussed previously in this column, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become quite successful in defeating human players in games like chess and Go as well as in video games.  Now seventeen members of the Toyota Engineering society have built an athletic robot from scratch.  None of these engineers had any experience building robots, and they all learned from materials they got off the Internet.  Their robot is named CUE and after 200,000 repetitions, it can now shoot free throws with nearly 100% accuracy.  It’s six feet three inches and can make shots up to twelve feet from the basket.  Its skills are definitely better than those of the Japanese team Arvalq Tokyo, a team that is in the best basketball league in Japan.  And the robot’s free-throw average is better than the best free-throw shooter in the NBA: Stephen Curry.  The one drawback is that CUE is presently bolted to a platform and can’t move around the court.  But we can be sure that with the right resolve, that obstacle can be overcome.  And then CUE will be playing a normal game with all the humans.  Or more accurately, a supernormal game, because a mobile CUE will put human players to shame.  The real question is why would people be motivated to psychologically undermine the human race through robots like these.  In physical games, humans would no longer be the winning complex behavioral entities.

            Robot basketball players don’t fall into the traditional categories of purposes for modern technology.  They don’t make our practical life tasks more frictionless or more efficient.  And they are so much better than human basketball players in shooting short-range baskets that they don’t even create a situation with meaningful friction where players can find meaningful competition.  The superiority of these basketbots is crushingly obvious.  There is no surprise when the basketbot makes a free-throw.  We know what will happen.  It will make the shot.  And in the process of doing this, it trivializes the capacities of really good human free-throw shooters.  It takes away a lot of the meaning of creating records through extraordinary human performances.  People won’t pay as much attention to what humans can do, if and when robots can do it much better.  As a result human basketball players lose the opportunity to make and preserve meaningful imprints and thus to use their profession to create records that are remembered and that contribute to a personal surrogate immortality for the good players.

            It also takes away the excitement for the fans who identify with the really good players and mentally participate in the imprints that these players make and preserve.  Many fans live ordinary lives and have little opportunity to make and preserve organic meaningful imprints in their own daily lives.  So they compensate for this lack by vicariously participating with the players.  The fans participate in the rich vibrant experiences of the players making imprints.  And they participate in the collective surrogate immortality to which the player contributes when he makes an unusual play and/or sets a new record.

            And the idea of a basketbot has the potential to totally disrupt the significance placed in great play by human basketball players.  Another disruption of the human narrative as a whole.  So again why do certain engineers feel it necessary to work on a project like this that has such potentially negative consequences?  Perhaps it relates to the experiential effects of all the sensory distortion they have lived with growing up in a modern technological society.  We have talked about the harmful effects of the understimulation from the experiential vacuum humans have tried to create and the overstimulation from the waste products such as overcrowding, acceleration of life including speeding vehicles, noise pollution, air pollution, and light pollution from flashing lights.  In more recent articles, I have focused more on the understimulation of the experiential vacuum, because the overstimulation is so much more apparent and so much has been written about it.  The experiential vacuum has subtle but powerful effects, and it makes people numb.  There are some people who live more readily in their minds, who may be more affected by isolation from an organic living environment, because they don’t naturally produce as many organic stimuli themselves for their own whole physical beings.  I would submit that many people who become engineers would fall into this category, that they particularly would have difficulty making and preserving organic imprints in a living environment relatively bereft of external world organic stimuli.  And they would feel acutely important in their capacity to make imprints of some sort that could be preserved and be part of a personal surrogate immortality.

            Building a robot is a way of sidestepping this sense of importance by making an alternate complex behavioral entity that is not affected by numbness and that is capable of carrying on a surrogate narrative, making and preserving surrogate imprints, all of which contribute to an alternate surrogate immortality.  This is what particularly motivates engineers to build athlete robots.  But to a lesser extent, it is what motivates average citizens to watch them play.  There is so much technology that does tasks that people used to do with direct engagement with tools and materials and in direct communion with a more natural environment.  There is less and less that gives people a sense of control a dominance over the phenomena in their external world.  And because people are already predisposed to blurring together with the technology that surrounds them, as a result of the mirroring and modeling that consumer technology in particular provides, a basketbot that shoots baskets with superhuman excellence is a perfect object for identification.  In other words, on a certain level, the member of the audience becomes the super human robot, which becomes a form of compensation for the sense of numbing impotence in the general sweep of his daily life.

            All of us are affected to some extent by technology-based numbness, so it is nice for us to be able to use a technological device, like a basketbot, to at least mentally overcompensate and pull oneself into a temporary tension-pocket emotional rush, as we watch a basketbot perform certain basketball skills even better than the best human players.  Unfortunately, the basketbot is still another temptation to live vicariously.  There is a short rush from watching the basketbot, and then there is the down from relying that another technological entity has demonstrated still another prowess that represents an improvement on what humans can do.

            We try to blur together with the basketbot, to become the basketbot, or some other complex machine or robot that performs a recreational activity with superhuman ability.  But it proves to be only a temporary escape.  It does not address the central problem of a growing numbness and a growing sense of impotence; as modern technology takes over more and more not only of our daily practical tasks, but more and more of our daily recreational activities.  Less and less is left for us to do.  Will we be seeing basketbots on professional basketball teams?  Not yet because the basketbots are still on fixed bases.  But in the future, there is no reason to believe that mobile basketbots won’t appear.  And another area of human activity that makes a significant contribution to the human narrative will be diminished or eliminated as a result of modern technology.
© 2018 Laurence Mesirow