Will We Reach Herd Intelligence Before We Crash Our Civilization?

by James Wallace Harris, 4/19/21

  • Collapsed: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  • Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben
  • Seaspiracy – a documentary on Netflix

All indicators point to the collapse of civilization sometimes this century. Despite all the press about this perfect storm of self destruction, few people are willing to worry, and even fewer willing to do anything. Must the conclusion be that failure is our only option?

Most of humanity is either preoccupied with personal problems, or if they contemplate the future at all, assume our species will muddle through as it always has in the past. All the evidence suggests otherwise, that the biosphere cannot absorb the impacts of Homo sapiens without a significant destabilization of its system, which in turn will alter the course of civilization.

Civilizations have always come and gone, and so have species. Nothing lasts forever, not even the Earth or the Sun. It’s rather disheartening to consider what we could have become. We almost had the intelligence to create a global civilization that could have lasted thousands, if not millions of years. Theoretically, we still have a chance, but few people who think about such things give that chance much hope. It would have required everyone pulling together towards a common cause, and we’re just not that kind of species.

However, don’t worry, don’t get depressed or do anything irrational. No need to become a prepper assuming an Armageddon is just around every corner. The collapse of civilization will probably be so slow you might not even notice it. Humans are very adaptable to hard times and excellent at rationalizing things aren’t what they seem. Just take every day one day at a time and enjoy the passing parade of history.

As an individual who reads many books and watch many documentaries like the ones above, I keep thinking we should be doing something. But I realize there’s a problem with that assumption. First, we all need to be doing the same thing, and second, we should all stop what we’ve been doing our whole lives. Now is that going to happen? Is humanity a ship that can be steered or a bullet on a trajectory? It really comes down to the Serenity Prayer,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

It’s the last line that’s so hard to achieve. What can we change, and what can’t we change? Theoretically we could change everything in society if we could just change ourselves. Is it Pollyannaish to think we could, and fatalistic to think we can’t? I wonder if people have always believed in God just to redirect that burden of responsibility?

If you read the above books maybe you will also ask who is smart enough to understand and solve these problems? If we built giant AI minds that could think their way through these immense challenges, would we take their advice? Aren’t we too egotistical to listen? Or even if a God spoke directly to the world would we obey? I’m not sure that’s in our nature either.

Maybe the only path an individual can take and stay sane is learning to accept and endure. But that doesn’t seem to be the way either because too many people today are angry. Anger means still trying to control. If you watch the news pay attention to anger. Too many hate what’s happening to them. And it’s on both sides of the political spectrum. All the people who fight for freedom and all the people who want rules and regulations are motivated by anger. That’s what I dread about the collapse of civilization, living with all these angry people. And the only solution to that is find a place away from them, but that’s not really possible either, is it?

This is a strange book review. But I find it’s getting harder and harder to review books like these by talking about the issues they cover. I’m down to evaluating their emotional impact. The penultimate question is: Can we do anything? The answer is yes. The ultimate question is: Will we? I used to hope that was a yes too, but my faith is fading.

JWH

Another Literary Novel About Androids Passing for Human

James Wallace Harris, 3/13/21

Androids that can pass for humans have become very popular characters in books, movies, and television shows. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro is the second novel I’ve read by a literary writer to explore this theme, the first being Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. I reviewed it back in 2019. I have to admit that literary writer do a better job at characterization than science fiction writers. Klara is a fully realized being that we come to know from a first person perspective.

And I was impressed with Ishiguro’s science fictional speculation. He develops Klara with a distinctive speech pattern and we learn about Klara’s way of perceiving the world through Klara’s narration. Klara is designed to be a girl robot, an artificial friend, and androids like Klara are referred to as AFs in the book. Other than looks, Klara’s personality has little to identify as female. Klara is a being with growing awareness and Klara’s consciousness grows by observations. We never know exactly what Klara looks like, but since Klara is supposed to be a companion for a teenage girl we have to assume it looks like one.

However, one of my greatest objections to stories about androids passing as humans is giving them gender. For some reason creators of such stories believe AI minds will have gender and that’s illogical. AI minds, no matter what their outer casing looks like will not have gender because they will not be based on biology. Nor will they have human emotions. All of our emotions are tied to our biological subsystems. Writers of these stories seem to assume people will want to buy machines just like themselves. That might be true, but it won’t happen.

Klara starts out life in a store waiting to be bought. I imagined an upscale Apple Store. We slowly learn how Klara thinks about things from its observations. Klara’s vision is broken down into a grid system. Sometimes this appears to help Klara with perspective, sometimes with identifying objects, and sometimes with analysis of the details of specific aspects of what’s Klara sees. If you remember Deckard using the machine to analyze a photograph in Blade Runner, that’s how I envisioned Klara’s visual field. I thought this clever of Ishiguro.

Klara is eventually bought to be the companion for Josie, a young teenage girl around fourteen who suffers from an unnamed medical condition. Josie’s sister died from a similar condition. One of the mysteries of the novel is what they suffer from.

Ishiguro fleshes out this story with many other current science fictional speculations. Some kids, like Josie have been genetically altered (think Gattaca) while others haven’t. Josie’s closest childhood friend Rick hasn’t. The society of this world has also put many people out of work while elevated other humans with high status jobs. In this story, Josie’s mom has such a valuable job, but her divorced dad doesn’t.

Another fascinating theme introduced by Ishiguro is theology. Klara is a Sun worshipper, which is logical since Klara runs on solar power. However, Klara’s simple-minded beliefs are hard to accept. Ishiguro makes his AFs childlike in their thinking. If we ever create AI minds with general knowledge, including a chip with all of human knowledge would probably only add a buck to the cost. AI minds will know all human languages, all of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, all of history, literature, and the arts, all of philosophy, religion, and psychology.

But Klara and the Sun is a story, and for this story, Klara has an innocent faith in the Sun. Giving theology to robots is what made Battlestar Galactica great, and has the same effect here.

Klara and the Sun is really about human relationships, and all the plot complications deal with Josie and her family. Without spoiling the story, it’s what the humans want and fear from machines that make the novel philosophically interesting. Ultimately, I believe Ishiguro rejects our sillier desires for androids that pass for humans such as creating them to satisfy our sexual urges, but even the ones he does suggest seem tied to our basic instincts.

Overall, Klara and the Sun is an enjoyable story, but more and more I’m getting disappointed that writers can’t picture realistic AI beings, or imagine such realistic AI beings’ impact on our society. There are no real reasons to create robots that look like us. There’s no reason to think they will think or feel like we do. And they will certainly have immense intelligences that will dwarf ours. We will probably anthropomorphize them even when real AI beings with general intelligence emerge because that’s our hangup.

But how will AI minds see us? Our behaviors will be inscrutable to them. They won’t be able to imagine love, hate, pain, lust, anxiety, humor, greed, jealousy, pride, and all our other emotions. AI minds will understand us like biologists study all nonhuman living organisms. AI minds will see us through their statistical studies of our behavior and by theorizing on how our behavior coincides with our languages. But could you imagine love, hate, or pain if you’ve never felt them?

Klara believes Josie was helped by the theology Klara imagined, but there is no real reason to believe this is true. If you read this novel, pay attention to Klara’s usefulness throughout the story. Does Ishiguro ever suggest that an AF would be an actual useful companion for teenagers? Or is Klara no more than a sentimental toy?

How will humanity be helped or hurt by AI minds? I think such novels are waiting to be written. So far all the ones about computer overlords or humans passing for human are based on our most basic emotions. Writers need to think outside our brain box we can’t seem to escape.

I actually thoroughly enjoyed reading Klara and the Sun despite my nitpicking about how writers want us to believe we can create androids that will pass as humans.

JWH

Hopes, Dreams, and Bullshit

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/21

Rereading the 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy unearthed long suppressed feelings and ambitions that first emerged in my personality back in the 1960s and 1970s. When I first read Hackers in 1985 it rekindled those formative emotions and desires then as well. I’ll start my seventies this year and I have to wonder when do hopes that I formed in my teens finally fade away? When can I just give up and be here now? When do I stop trying to constantly be who I was? Why don’t hopes have expirations dates? Why are these books so exciting after all these years?

I remember four years ago triggering these same emotions and ambitions when I reread The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I tried to write about what I felt, but those words don’t capture what I’m trying to say now. One thing about growing older, at least for me, is seeking clarity about my time in reality. Before I die, or my mind fades away, I want eliminate all the bullshit barnacles that encrusts my soul.

My current theory is we acquire our personal dreams and desires from pop culture and subcultures. During my lifetime I’ve belonged to many subcultures, but the two I loved most are science fiction and computers. Both current forms of those subcultures have long past me by, but their initial seduction have left subprograms running within my mind that never stop. Why was I able to deprogram myself of childhood religious programming, but I’ve never been able to escape that cultural programming acquired from age 12-22?

You’d think we’d forget old beliefs as we acquired new insights. Of course, I’m generalizing, assuming all people are the same. Maybe other people do that, but I don’t. Why can’t we emotionally be like historians who rewrite history with new discovers. For example, after rereading Hackers I read A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018) by Joy Lisi Rankin. Basically, Rankin is saying, hold on there Steven Levy, your history of computer pioneers from MIT and Silicon Valley leave out a lot of middle America computer pioneers. Her book is reshaping my sense of computer history I got from Hackers. Why don’t I do the same things with my personal history?

This is not the book review I sat down to write. I might try again, but let’s go with the flow. These books hit the bullseye of my old computer ambitions. Over the past year I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos about 8-bit computers, especially those from The 8-Bit Guy. David Murray essentially has traveled back in time to work on computers at the point where Hackers ends in 1984. Many other YouTubers have done this too. I’ve wondered if the solution to my problem with all these old hopes and desires is to return to a past point in time and start over. I realize at this moment, that’s exactly what I’ve done with science fiction. I’m reading and collecting what I loved best from 1965-1975. That’s kind of weird when you think about it. But maybe it’s a natural aspect of aging too.

However, I also tell myself I should jettison my past like they were my first and second rocket stages and seek orbit for what I could be in 2021. But could that be me bullshitting myself that I’m not too old to learn new tricks. Of course, maybe one way not to stir up old emotions and desires is to stop consuming old pop culture. Does my library of old books, magazines, movies, and TV shows keep those old subprograms going? Actually, yes.

I have a friend, Anne, who lives so in the present that she hates the past, and even throws away old photographs and mementos when she finds them. I also live in the present by reading books published in 2020 and magazines that are February 2021 current. If I tossed out my old library and read only new books and magazines I would become a different person. I could become a fast nimble speedboat. But because I loved old pop culture, and can’t let go of old ambitions, magazines, and books, I feel the past I carry around has grown to the size of the Titanic. (I wish I had a photo of a guy in a rowboat towing the Titanic on a rope to put right here.)

The current nonfiction books and science fiction magazines I’m reading are about politics, climate change, and all the other dark clouds the horizon of this century. (No wonder I want to return to last century.) If I only read new books and magazines I’d completely reshape my present personality. Reading these three computer histories rekindles the futures I wanted back in the 1970s and 1980s, and they were tremendously more appealing than the futures I envision now. The people profiled in those books had such wonderful dreams about what computers would bring to the 21st century. And their dreams came true beyond anything they imagined or hoped. Yet, I wonder if they could see the downside of their creations, would they have done anything different? And isn’t that what I’m doing now by rereading these old books, second guessing my past decisions?

One of the reasons I can’t let the past go is it feels unfinished. I didn’t get to consume all the pop culture I wanted back then, satisfy all my wants, or achieve all my ambitions. But having lived in the future, it also feels like we took so many wrong turns. I can’t help but want to go back and finish what I started and even try different paths.

There is a whole lot more I want to say about Hackers, but this essay has already gotten too long for chiseling on this stone. Hopefully to be continued on another rock.

JWH

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 4, 2020

I have never been to San Francisco but over my lifetime I’ve read many books about social movements that city produced. They include the Beats (1950s), Rock (1960s), Gay Liberation (1970s), and Silicon Valley (1970s, 1980s). Anna Wiener’s 2020 book Uncanny Valley is about San Francisco of the 2010s, although I’d say mainly about from 2013 to 2016 when Trump is elected president with a bit of updating to 2018. Anna Wiener was on the peripheral of several interesting news events of the decade, so even though this is a personal memoir, she had a stadium seat to some significant social upheavals that affected more than just San Francisco. This is probably why The New York Times chose Uncanny Valley as one of the “Ten Best Books of 2020.” It was also on these best of the year lists from Esquire, NPR, and Parade. Bookmarks which tracks links to reviews found mostly rave reviews.

Describing what Uncanny Valley is about will be hard. Wiener, graduated from college in 2009 and went to work for publishers in New York, and then at age 25 moved to San Francisco to work at a succession of three internet startups, the most famous of which was GitHub. I’m a computer guy who loves books about the history of computers and computing. I was hoping Uncanny Valley would be another The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. It wasn’t. Anna Wiener wasn’t a programmer or computer engineer, and her memoir is not really about computers even though it focuses on people who passionately are.

Wiener’s role in her story was much like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, as a commentator on the main characters, or like Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wiener was an observer of a social revolution, not a revolutionary herself. Wiener gets to know the revolutionaries, their causes, their ambitions, their faults, their crimes, their successes and anguishes. Wiener tries to understand the philosophical implications of this revolution but it’s too complex.

The young millenials who become millionaires and billionaires creating tech startups in San Francisco have a lot of overlap with the counterculture revolutionaries of the 1960s. They imagine reshaping society with similar utopian ideals, justifying their hubris with similar sounding pop philosophies, they indulge in drugs, alternative lifestyles, leftover New Age faiths, wild conspiracy theories, and silly science fictional schemes that have echos in previous cultural revolutions. They even contemplate engineering cities from scratch like hippies use to dream about communes. But this time around they are capitalists and they all want to get mega rich.

Silicon Valley and San Francisco are not everyday America, but they impact it in a way we can’t escape. Most of us live at least part-time on the net, joining the hivemind subculture Silicon Valley created. Anna Wiener lived in the eye of the hurricane collecting data readings she hoped would reveal meaning. I’m not sure anyone can make sense of that era. She felt bad and blamed herself for failing, but that’s silly. What she has done is taken excellent notes about her experiences and impressions.

Uncanny Valley could be a textbook supplement for a graduate course on current issues in business and business ethics. It could also be a meditation guide for young people who contemplate their own participation in society. Like the Beats in the 1950s, and the Hippies in the 1960s, and the New Agers in the 1970s, the millenials are struggling to make sense of life and find a righteous path for living in a corrupt world of commerce. Like every generation, they’re looking for meaning in a meaningless reality. In some ways, Uncanny Valley reminds me of The Making of a Counter Culture by Theodore Roszaks – but who remembers that 1969 book?

Throughout this memoir I kept feeling the people Wiener described were going through many of the same psychological struggles I did in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a chronicle of typical youth angst. Of course, that left me wondering if we can ever solve the problems we all rail against early in life, but which we eventually forget when we co-opt ordinariness.

The only thing unique about Wiener’s generation is how some of them got so damn rich. Part of Uncanny Valley deals with the problems of chasing those billions, and soul changing of catching mountains of money, or the agony of failing to become wealthy.

Even though this is a short book, there’s a great deal to it, really too much to digest, including many ethical issues created by the business models of these new tech industries. Often Wiener would be working on software that got into the news for its evil side effects. Or that same software would empower legions of formerly powerless people to do evil. She often worried about the degree of guilt that belong to her.

Ultimately, Uncanny Valley becomes a must read book because Anna Wiener just happened to be in the right place at the right time to glimpse at generation changing events. Nearly everything she writes about has been well documented in news stories over the last decade. If you’ve been paying attention, a lot of it will be familiar. Weiner got closer than most reporters. However, she obscures the names of everything. I found this very annoying, but finally accepted it as a quirky writing affectation. In one review I read, it was suggested she Wiener had to sign so many non-disclosure agreements she’s become shy of using real names for anything. Of course, Wiener might have thought it funny to make us guess.

I don’t know how often I convince blog readers here to read what I review. Uncanny Valley could bore the crap out of most of my friends, or it could dazzle them. If you like nonfiction and memoirs, and interested in issues dealing with current events, profiles of younger generations, sexism, privilege, technological change, politics, economic equality, ecology, homelessness, gentrification, capitalism, and contemporary ethical issues, then this book might be for you. If reality overwhelms you, you should avoid it like the Covid.

Additional Reading:

JWH

Their Wonderful Lives

by James Wallace Harris

Do you look back over your life tallying a long list of regrets? Do you fantasize about taking roads not taken? Are there people you wished you had thanked, or expressed your love, or just gotten to know? Do you remember saying things you wished you hadn’t? Are there ambitions you regret not chasing? Are you the kind of person that wishes they had some do-overs? Well, I have a book for you – The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. It belongs to a group of books and movies that represent a tiny subgenre of fantasy about living life over:

The Midnight Library is a current bestseller that came out in August. It’s attracting bookworms like crazy for its feel-good inspirations. The Midnight Library offers the same kind of life lessons found in It’s A Wonderful Life, Replay, and Groundhog Day. Evidently, if we’re allowed to live our lives over, we would all learn similar insights. Could that be true? Can we learn just as much by consuming stories about characters with life do-overs?

In The Midnight Library Nora Seed is a 35-year-old woman full of regrets who commits suicide but finds herself not in heaven or hell, but a library. Nora lived in the small town of Bedford, England. Remember, George Bailey lived in the small New England town of Bedford Falls. Unlike George, Nora doesn’t get to see what Bedford would have been without her, instead, she gets to relive her life in countless ways based on taking different forks in her past. That’s somewhat like what Jeff Winston gets to do in the novel Replay who lives his whole life over and over trying different paths each time, and a little bit like Phil Connors experiences in Groundhog Day.

The creator of these stories teach us a kind of philosophy by showing us lives lived over, or even over and over. I do not want to spoil The Midnight Library for you, so I won’t go into its unique plot details or metaphysical conjectures. Let’s just say I found it a very compelling idea for a fantasy pick-me-up.

Have you ever pictured yourself dying and instead of being reborn into any of the traditional religious destinations, imagine yourself coming to in some higher dimension with the true meaning of existence coming back to you? Sort of the ultimate V-8 head slapping moment where you exclaim, “Oh, that’s what life was all about! Now I remember.” Something impossible to comprehend or predict in this life.

I have often wondered that. It’s not what Nora Seed experiences in The Midnight Library, but her story offers an interesting alternative like that. If I had to place a bet, I’d bet that death is oblivion. But it sure would be nice if after dying we found ourselves in some kind of logical reality where all of our existence on Earth made good sense.

Fantasies like The Midnight Library, Replay, Groundhog Day and It’s A Wonderful Life offer a kind of existential hope, a fairytale for adults. The Midnight Library was one of the few bright spots of 2020.

JWH