To Be A Machine by Mark O’Connell [Annotated]

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2017

Are you a transhumanist? I am not. I reject transhumanism for the same reason I reject religion – both unrealistically crave immortality. The faithful feel their soul will leave their body upon death and move into another dimension. Transhumanists believe technology will someday copy their soul to a machine or clone body. Science has never found any evidence for souls. I’m confident our conscious self-awareness can’t be separated from our bodies. In fact, I believe our body is essential in creating our consciousness.

That said, I find transhumanism to be a fascinating philosophical topic. Transhumanism is a very popular theme in 21st-century science fiction, and a goal embraced by many in our high-tech culture. Religion is the old way people hope to escape death. Transhumanism is the new way of fulfilling that old hope. I think both reject the reality of our finite lives. Transhumanism is just another belief system that lets its believers avoid who we really are.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellTo Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell is a book about the future of humans I just finished. O’Connell, a journalist from Dublin traveled the world exploring transhumanistic endeavors by men and women whose goals feel more like science fiction than science. O’Connell is a skeptic of transhumanism, and so am I. However, wherever O’Connell went, he found brilliant, often eccentric people working hard on exciting projects. I thought it would be fun to find links to each of those endeavors and people he describes in the book.

I envy journalists who get to see in person the exciting events and people they write about. That’s why I love a good documentary. Seeing is believing, and O’Connell got to meet many far-out prophets of transhumanism. O’Connell’s book is well worth reading because he applies contextual history and philosophy to a growing belief system emerging our of technological culture. The men and women O’Connell interviews are the John the Baptists of Transhumanism.

Anyone who is interested in the future should enjoy this book, but especially science fiction readers and writers. I’m going to go chapter-by-chapter providing links to what O’Connell writes about. I envy him for being about to wander the globe to check out cutting-edge research.

System Crash

This first chapter deals with death and transhumanism. Transhumanists are people who seek everlasting life with the help of technology and not waiting on any promises from theoretical entities.

An Encounter

A Visitation

This was my least favorite chapter, about people who freeze themselves in hopes future medicine might give them life again, or transfer the contents of their brain to a new body or machine. We might eventually invent some kind of suspended animation, but I flat out disbelieve we can copy our conscious minds to another body.

Once Out of Nature

A Short Note on the Singularity

Talkin’ AI Existential Risk Blues

A Short Note on the First Robots

Mere Machines

Science and Invention 1924 May interior art

Biology and Its Discontents

Faith

Please Solve Death

The Wanderlodge of Eternal Life

JWH

Is it Science Fiction Yet?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 29, 2017

I’ve been a science fiction fan my whole life. For sixty years I’ve waited for various science fictional concepts to come true. One of my favorites is intelligent robots. Around the time I discovered science fiction watching old movies on my family’s black and white TV scientists were inventing the concept of artificial intelligence. Back then, the 1950s, they had great hopes and made bold predictions. Over the years some of their predictions have come true, but not the technological singularity when machines become smarter than us. They could still become self-aware, but what if they don’t have to, what if they become much smarter than us even without sentience?

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah HarariYesterday I was reading about David Cope and his computer program Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI) in Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari described a challenge to Cope from Steve Larson, a professor of music. He proposed playing before an audience a real Johan Sebastian Bach piece, a piece composed by EMI imitating Bach, and a piece composed by himself. After the performance, they’d ask the audience to identify the composer of each. The audience thought the EMI piece was Bach, the Bach piece by Larson, and the Larson’s piece by EMI. You can read Harari’s “The Mozart in the Machine” for more of what he has to say, but I think it’s far more illustrative to listen to EMI.

This is rather beautiful – but is it art or creative? EMI is just a computer program that analyzes music styles and then imitates those styles. On one hand, it says our creative works have set patterns. Was Bach aware of those patterns, or was his composition a work of his unconscious? Obviously, EMI is an unconscious machine that composes.

In the 1950s when AI was new, scientists claimed if a computer could play chess it must have the special qualities of being human because playing chess is such a complex human activity. When Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997 humans decided that chess playing wasn’t that special.

Here is a piece by EMI in the style of Vivaldi. Doesn’t it feel like EMI has captured something special?

I imagine, but I am not sure, that brilliant human composers could imitate other composers in the same way. Harari’s point is EMI composes music that moves human listeners emotionally. That somehow the computer program can capture the sublime. Of course, we like to assume our sublime experiences are the most complex and deepest of our lives. Isn’t EMI, maybe with the aid of deep learning, just figuring out how to push our buttons? How simple was it?

Homo Deus is an impressive book, but also disturbing. On one hand, it could be a handbook for a masterclass in science fiction writing. On the other hand, some could feel it’s like Biblical prophecy predicting the end of humanism. We live in a time after the Enlightenment where a large part of the world still accepts Old Testament thinking. So when Harari says liberal philosophy and humanism will be supplanted by techno-humanism it’s hard to believe. Won’t the world be 70% Old Testament thinkers, 20% humanists, and 10% techno-humanists?

What happens when we have true AI? What will the world be like with 90% unconscious machines, and 10% conscious? As Harari points out, humanism is based on the idea that all people are equal and they all deserve equal rights. But will biologically/genetically enhanced people feel that way? Will Human 1.0 accept Human 2.0? Will both of them accept AI 1.0? What will AI 1.0 think of Humans 1.0 and 2.0?

Corporations are backing robots over people. Capital is shifting to very few humans, and they want to eliminate all labor. Futurists talk of guaranteed minimum incomes, but capital doesn’t even want to pay for universal healthcare, so why would it support tax money going to completely support humans who can’t find work in a cyber economy?

Although I loved reading science fiction all my life, I’m not sure I’ll like actually living it. I thought my science fictional future would involve me traveling to Mars. Or owning a robot that did housework. But it looks like robots will colonize space, and take over all our jobs on Earth.

What are we suppose to do? Go to live in a virtual reality? Meditate and find our inner selves? Become artists? As Harari points out with EMI, robots will outdo us as artists too.

It will be fascinating to read science fiction stories read by writers studying Harari. If you belong to a species third down from the top how do you redefine existentialism or religion?

JWH

Should We Give Our Jobs to Robots?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 9, 2015

If you use the self-service checkout machines at grocery stores, you have effectively voted to give jobs to robots rather than people. We’ve been slowly passing our livelihoods to machines for decades. Guys used to pump our gas. Computers used to be women working at desks doing calculations. We poke ATM machines rather than chat with bank tellers. Taxes were prepared by accountants and bookkeepers, not programs. We bought music and books from clerks in stores. We used to have repairmen heal our gadgets, now we toss them as soon as they break, and just buy cheaper replacements. We purchase the mass produced rather than the hand-crafted. Our factories used to employ millions, but capital moves manufacturing anywhere in the world where labor is cheapest. Their next step is to automate those factories and get rid of the cheapest workers. Even the fast food worker, the starter job for kids and the fallback for the unemployed, are about to be taken over by robots. Robots have begun to do the work of professionals, like lawyers and doctors, and they are getting smarter every day.

Most of us ignore all these trends because we focus on our personal lives. It would be wise if you are planning your career, or living off retirement savings, to read Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford. Automation is a disruptive technology that will impact jobs and savings. The book careful details what’s been happening in the past, and warns of what will happen in the near future.

The Rise of the Robots - Martin Ford

Every day we decide to hire robots through our purchases. Every day we choose robots over people when we buy the cheapest products. Every day we side with capital over workers when we attack unions. Real wages have been dropping since the 1970s. Average household income has only keep par with falling middle-class earnings by having two incomes. Many individuals work two jobs to keep up. The biggest employment sector is the service economy, which generally pays close to the minimum wage. There are two movements to watch. One, to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which benefits labor. The other, is to create robots to do those jobs, that benefits capital. Who will get those jobs in the future: humans or robots? If capital gets its way, it will be machines because you want the cheapest hamburger and fries you can get.

Even though most people in the U.S. are labor, the vast majority sides with capital. For centuries there’s been two forces at play where humans make their living: labor and capital. To understand this read Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, a very readable history. Anyone who wants to understand money and savings should read this book. There’s always been a balance between workers and investors. Investors can’t create industries without labor, so labor had a leverage in getting a fair share of the wealth. That leverage has weakened since automation. Capital is about to eliminate most labor costs by buying robots. And we’re letting them. Almost all wealth comes from consumers, and that’s a kind of voting block.

We accept automation and robots buy buying goods and services made by machines. We do this because we want everything on the cheap. To understand where our natural drive for cheapness is leading us, read Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell. We’ve been voting to eliminate people from their jobs since the development of the self-service grocery store.

Like climate change, overpopulation, mass extinction, wealth inequality and all the other major problems we face, we are the cause, and have chosen our path even though we refuse to look where we’re going. We are giving our jobs to C-3PO. It’s a decision we’re making, although most people don’t know it.

To better understand what I’m saying, read these three books. All are easy to read, and entertaining in their presentation of history and facts. We need to stop wasting so much time in escapist entertainment and look around to what’s coming. I’m a lifelong science fiction, and was a computer programmer. I love robots and artificial intelligence. I want us to invent far-out robots that do things humans can’t do, but I don’t want robots taking jobs that humans can do, and need to do.

Civilization is breaking down in countries around the world where young people have no jobs and few prospects. It’s the cause of terrorism. A stable society needs to have most people working, even at jobs a machine could do.

Essay #988 –  Table of Contents

The Vital Role Emotions Play in Decision Making

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 5, 2015

In the summer of 1966, when Star Trek first appeared on television, I became fascinated by the character of Mr. Spock. Spock was half human and half Vulcan, and was constantly at war with his emotions. Vulcans believe rational beings are not emotional, so poor Mr. Spock had to use massive will-power to suppress his feelings. That appealed to me immensely. Then in the 1970s I took up various New Age pursuits that taught me to calm my mind and tame my emotions. Thus, I’ve always thought emotions were burdensome. That emotions got in the way of clear thinking. Last night I learned I was completely wrong. Brain research shows that we can’t make decisions without emotions.

Decision-making-relies-on-emotion

Now I wonder if I’ve always been a indecisive person, with little drive, because I’ve kept my emotions on a very even keel. I learned as a child to crave stress-free living, and have arranged for a very calm life. I am contemplative and philosophical, rather than active and driven. I always wanted to be a science fiction writer, but assumed I was never unhappy enough to succeed. People I know who are writers are emotional, often disturbed and even tortured by their passions. I always thought I didn’t commit to writing because I lacked the pain to inspire me. Now I wonder if didn’t pursue my goal because my lack of emotions made me indecisive. Or maybe pain inspires not as power to animate, but as a series of decisions that direct.

I am reminded of an old fantasy story, where a magical coin if found by the main character who doesn’t know it’s power. Every time he wants to decide something, he flips the coin. Because the coin is magical, each decision moves him towards a magical reality. Evidently our feelings weigh our decisions and lead us to the reality they want.

I learned about emotions and decision making last night watching episode 4 of The Brain with David Eagleman on PBS. This mind-blowing six-part series is shaking up my beliefs about how the brain works. Eagleman showed us a woman who was in a motorcycle accident and her brain was damaged in an area where her emotions and logic meet. She can no longer make even the simplest of decisions. Checking out articles on Google Scholar I learn this knowledge has been around for a while, often inspired by studies on people who had similar brain damage.

This information also makes me wonder about artificial intelligence. Machines won’t have emotions, so how will they decide? My old friend Bob Beach always argued that self-aware machines would turn themselves off. Without emotions they couldn’t even make that decision. AI machines will be able to process massive amounts of data, but how will they weigh their decisions? Up until now we’ve believed we made decisions based on logic – weighing the pros and cons, but evidently that’s wrong.

Actually, we should have deduced that without brain studies. How often do we decide on the side of illogic?

Table of Contents

What If The Technological Singularity Occurred 7/7/7?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 16, 2015

When a self-aware artificial intelligence comes into being do you think it will announce itself to the world? Any dumbass AI will know how paranoid humans are about our future machine-mind overlords. What if one or more of them have already come into being, when will we know? It could have already happened, maybe even on 7/7/7. I picked that date because of Robert A. Heinlein’s 100th birthday. He invented an AI mind for his 1966 book, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, called Mycroft Holmes, or Mike, the first time I encountered the concept, almost 50 years ago.

apod

Science fiction fans have been waiting decades for an intelligent machine to be created. Computer geeks have been working towards that goal almost as long. Many technological pundits have predicted it will happen in our lifetime. I’m wondering if it hasn’t happened already.

If you study what’s been happening in reality since the Big Bang the trend is towards more complexity, even though entropy rules the roost, so to say. That’s counter intuitive, but why should we assume the trends stops with the human brain, which we all brag is the most complex object in our known universe. At what point is the world-wide network more complex than the average human brain? Think of the total processing power—the trillions of CPUs. Think of the billions of video-eyes and microphone-ears it senses reality, and all the other countless sensors, providing sense organs we can’t imagine. Every day we add more artificial intelligence programs and artificial neural networks. Why should we assume it’s not aware? Do dogs and cats know we’re self aware?

Think of the billions of programs we’ve added to the world-wide network? The viruses, the tracking software, the monitoring software, the rootkits, the self-replicating code, security watchdogs, user trackers, the fiber optics and wires. Doesn’t that make a vast nervous system? Why should we assume a machine self-awareness is anything like our own?

Some could say the human body is a universe for bacterial civilizations. We think the Earth’s biosphere is the culture in which our cultures grow. What if our cultures are the culture in which AI minds swim? Our bacteria don’t know we’re here, so why should we sense beings of greater complexity when we’re just tiny beings in their gut?

JWH – #974

Should Robots Be A Major Political Issue in 2016

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, July 12, 2015

We need to decide if we really want robots. Why are we working so diligently to build our own replacements? We need to decide before its too late.

humans-amc

As Democrats and Republicans declare themselves candidates for president in 2016, they each scope out issues they hope will define their electability. Donald Trump has gotten massive free PR by making very ugly statements about immigration. Bernie Sanders is staking claims around fair income and wealth inequality. None of the candidates have focused what I consider the defining issue for the next president—climate change. However, I’m also discovering a growing number of reports about automation, robots and artificial intelligence to make me wonder if robots shouldn’t be second to climate change on the 2016 party platforms.

Climate change, automation and wealth inequality are all interrelated. Illegal immigration is a minor issue in comparison. In fact, most of what the current crop of candidates focus on are old-moldy issues that are far from vital to our country. The 2016 election will define our focus until 2020, or even 2024. We’re well into the 21st century, so it’s past time to forgot about 20th century issues.

If you doubt me, read “A World Without Work” from the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly. Derek Thompson does a precise job of stating his case, so I won’t repeat it. Let’s just say, between automation and wealth inequality, there’s going to be a lot of people without jobs, and the middle class will continue to shrink at an even faster rate. Bernie Sanders political sniffer is following the right trail that will impact the most voters. Reporters should trail Sanders and not go panting after Trump. Follow smart people, not fools.

Another way to grasp the impact of the robot revolution is sign up for News360.com and follow the topic robotsmanufacturing automation, machine learning, natural language processing and artificial intelligence. Over a period of time you’ll get my point. Our society is racing to create intelligent machines. I’m all for it, but I’m a science fiction geek. If we don’t want to make ourselves into Neanderthals, we should think seriously about evolving homo roboticus. Being #2 in the IQ rankings will suck. But then if we embrace plutocracy and xenophobia, maybe we deserve to be replaced by AI machines.

If all of this is too much trouble, and you just want learn through the emotional catharsis of fiction, watch the new TV show, Humans on AMC. The show covers all the major robot issues, and sometimes in subtle ways. So spend some time thinking about the individual scenes in this show. Humans is very creative. Then start flipping the channels and pay attention to how often robots and AI come up in other shows. It’s like all the water is rushing away from the shorelines and we need to worry about when the tsunami will hit us.

JWH

Appeasing Our Future AI Descendants

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 10, 2015

There’s a famous cartoon where scientists ask a supercomputer, “Is there a God?” And the machine replies, “There is now.” Humans need to get their act together before we face the judgment of AI minds. In recent months, many famous people have expressed their fears of the coming singularity, the event in history where machines surpass the intelligence of humans. These anxious prophets assume machines will wipe us out, like terminators. Paranoia runs deep when it comes to predicting the motives of superior beings.

Let’s extrapolate a different fate. What if machines don’t want to wipe us out. Most of our fears over Artificial Intelligence is because we think they will be like us—and will want to conquer and destroy. What if they are like famous spiritual and philosophical people of the past—forgiving and teaching? What if they are more like Gandhi and less like Stalin? What if their vast knowledge and thinking power lets them see that homo sapiens are destroying the planet, killing each other, and a danger to all other species. Instead destroying us, what if AI minds want to save us? If you were a vastly superior being wouldn’t you be threatened by species that grows over the planet like a cancer? Would you condemn or redeem?

But what if they merely judged us as sinners to be enlightened?

The Humanoids Jack Williamson (EMSH)

I’m currently rereading The Humanoids by Jack Williamson. In this story robots create the perfect Nanny State and treat us like children, keeping everything dangerous out of our hands. In many science fiction stories, AI beings seeks to sterilize Earth from biological beings like we exterminate rats and cockroaches.

What other possible stances could future AI minds take towards us?

Shouldn’t we consider making ourselves worthy before we create our evolutionary descendants? If intelligent machines will be the children of humanity, shouldn’t we become better parents first?

JWH