Are You in Future Shock Yet?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/24/23

Back in 1970, a nonfiction bestseller, Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, was widely talked about but it’s little remembered today. With atomic bombs in the 1940s, ICBMs, and computers in the 1950s, manned space flight and landing on the Moon in the 1960s, LSD, hippies, the Age of Aquarius, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, as well as a yearly unfolding of new technologies, it was easy to understand why Toffler suggested the pace of change could lead society into a collective state of shock.

But if we could time travel back to 1970 we could quote Al Jolson to Alvin, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Couldn’t we? Toffler never came close to imagining the years we’ve been living since 1970. And his book was forgotten, but I think his ideas are still valid.

Future shock finally hit me yesterday when I watched the video “‘Sparks of AGI’ – Bombshell GPT-4 Paper: Fully Read w/ 15 Revelations.”

I’ve been playing around with ChatGPT for weeks, and I knew GPT 4 was coming, but I was surprised as hell when it hit so soon. Over the past few weeks, people have been writing and reporting about using ChatGPT and the general consensus was it was impressive but because it made so many mistakes we shouldn’t get too worried. GPT 4 makes far fewer mistakes. Far fewer. But it’s fixing them fast.

Watch the video! Read the report. I’ve been waiting years for general artificial intelligence, and this isn’t it. But it’s so damn close that it doesn’t matter. Starting back in the 1950s when computer scientists first started talking about AI, they kept trying to set the bar that would prove a computer could be called intelligent. An early example was playing chess. But when a computer was built to perform one of these measures and passed, computer scientists would say that test really wasn’t a true measure of intelligence and we should try X instead. Well, we’re running out of things to equate with human-level intelligence.

Most people have expected a human-level intelligent computer would be sentient. I think GPT 4 shows that’s not true. I’m not sure anymore if any feat of human intelligence needs to be tied to sentience. All the fantastic skills we admire about our species are turning out to be skills a computer can perform.

We thought we’d trump computers with our mental skills, but it might be our physical skills that are harder to give machines. Like I said, watch the video. Computers can now write books, compose music, do mathematics, paint pictures, create movies, analyze medical mysteries, understand legal issues, ponder ethics, etc. Right now AI computers configured as robots have difficulty playing basketball, knitting, changing a diaper, and things like that. But that could change just as fast as things have been changing with cognitive creativity.

I believe most people imagined a world of intelligent machines being robots that look like us — like those we see in the movies. Well, the future never unfolds like we imagine. GPT and its kind are invisible to us, but we can easily interact with them. I don’t think science or science fiction imagined how easily that interaction would be, or how quickly it would be rolled out. Because it’s here now.

I don’t think we ever imagined how distributed AI would become. Almost anything you can think of doing, you can aid your efforts right now by getting advice and help from a GPT-type AI. Sure, there are still problems, but watch the video. There are far fewer problems than last week, and who knows how many fewer there will be next week.

Future shock is all about adapting to change. If you can’t handle the change, you’re suffering from future shock. And that’s the thing about the 1970 Toffler book. Most of us kept adapting to change no matter how fast it came. But AI is going to bring about a big change. Much bigger than the internet or computers or even the industrial revolution.

You can easily tell the difference between the people who will handle this change and those who can’t. Those that do are already using AI. They embraced it immediately. We’ve been embracing pieces of AI for years. A spelling and grammar checker is a form of AI. But this new stuff is a quantum leap over everything that’s come before. Put it to use or get left behind.

Do you know about cargo cults? Whenever an advanced society met a primitive society it doesn’t go well for primitive societies. The old cultural divide was between the educated and the uneducated. Expect new divisions. And remember Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For many people, AI will be magic.

Right now AI can help scholars write books. Soon AI will be able to write better scholarly books than scholars. Will that mean academics giving up writing papers and books? I don’t think so. AIs, as of now, have no desires. Humans will guide them. In the near future, humans will ride jockey on AI horses.

A couple weeks ago Clarkesworld Magazine, a science fiction magazine, shut down submissions because they were being flooded with Chat-GPT-developed stories. The problem was the level of submissions was overwhelming them, but the initial shock I think for most people would be the stories would be crap. That the submitted science fiction wouldn’t be creative in a human sense. That those AI-written stories would be a cheat. But what if humans using GPT start producing science fiction stories that are better than stories only written by humans?

Are you starting to get why I’m asking you if you feel future shock yet? Be sure and watch the video.

Finally, isn’t AI just another example of human intelligence? Maybe when AIs create artificial AIs, we can call them intelligent.

JWH

I Wish I Had Been A Librarian

by James Wallace Harris, 12/8/22

I almost became a librarian. This was a long time ago. What kept me from that career was having to move to another city to get an MLS degree. Susan and I had been married for a few years, and we didn’t want to move. I worked in the Periodicals Department at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). I was a Periodicals clerk, which was an hourly position. I was working on my English degree and taking some undergraduate courses in library science in a program designed to produce librarians for K-12 schools. I didn’t want to work in a school, but at a university, and most universities require a Master’s of Library Science. In fact, my university required an MLS to get the job, but a second master’s in a useful subject to aid in working in a library to keep the job. This was also true of the public library at the time. And even with two master’s degrees, the pay would never be much, but I’d work in the environment I loved best.

Instead, I took a job at the College of Education setting up their network and creating a student database system to track student teaching experience. I worked there for the rest of my life, but I’ve always wished I had gotten that MLS degree and spent my 9-to-5 life in a library. When I was young I worked at the Memphis Public Library for a few months, and later at the university library for six years. I love periodicals. And I love how magazines have become available on the internet as digital scans. I have quite a collection of them. I believe my compulsive acquisition of books and magazines is caused by a gene for librarianship.

Reading Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure From Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age by Dennis Duncan has brought back my desire to work in a library. I’m not sure I can recommend this book to everyone, but if you love books and libraries it might be for you. Its subject is somewhat esoteric. Did you know that the idea of alphabetizing had to be invented? That made me wonder who came up with the idea that letters of the alphabet should have an order? Duncan didn’t cover that.

Books haven’t always been like the books we read today. When books were scrolls they didn’t have covers or even titles. A book might be written over several scrolls of paper, so if you had a bunch of scrolls, finding the one you wanted, and the part you wanted to read, could be very difficult. So early librarians started tying the scrolls together and putting them in bins. Then they learned to glue little tags of paper to the end of scrolls to identify what was in the scroll. That’s the beginning of the index. As I said, this book won’t be for everyone, but if you have the library gene it might.

What most people think of as an index, that section of the book at the back with a list of keywords and page numbers wasn’t invented right away either. When books began to be printed people got the idea of helping people find specific places in them, and the index as we know it was born. At first, the index was published separately. Then when they started being published with the book they were put in the front. It took centuries before they standardized on placing the index in the back of the book.

David Duncan’s book is mostly an amusing look at all this. He was especially delighted by discovering what I call index wars. For example, Richard Bently satirized a 1695 book by Charles Boyle by publishing an index that ridiculed Boyle’s book by how he indexed the keywords. This led to all kinds of indexing shenanigans including dirty politics. Duncan found quite of bit of indexing history in the line, “Let no damned Tory index my History!” by Whig historian Laurence Echard whose three-volume History of England was indexed by Tory sympathizer John Oldmixon.

Another bit of off-the-road history Duncan discovered was that very scholarly accused the lesser scholarly that their poor thoughts were due to reading just the index rather than the whole book when composing their writing. That’s because indexers use to put more information into their indexes.

Duncan shows many photographs of the fine art of indexing satire but it’s hard to read them because they were being written at a time before standardized spelling. Luckily he translates historical English into modern English. And the historical humor has become very dry. You’ve got to enjoy a good three-hundred-year-old in-joke to really appreciate this book, but Duncan is good at explaining them. Sometimes the humor was as crude as the silliest of Saturday Night Live skits.

Duncan eventually works his history through the centuries up until the age of Google and online indexes. This is where I wished I had worked, using computers to organize information, periodicals, and libraries. In a way, our website Classics of Science Fiction is a kind of index. We index the popularity of science fiction short stories and novels. I’m all the time thinking of things I’d like to put into databases that deal with books and magazines. Reading Duncan’s book showed me there have been bookworms with the same kind of bibliographic urges for thousands of years.

But Index, A History of the also inspired two very specific librarian-type desires. The first was triggered by Duncan’s coverage of The Spectator, a very influential publication.

Many of the journals of the eighteenth century fall into this intermediary zone, and none more so than the Spectator. Founded in 1711 – and no direct relation of modern magazine of the same name – the Spectator was a cheap, daily, single-sheet paper that featured brief essays on literature, philosophy or whatever took its writers’ fancies. Its editors were Richard Steele and Joseph Addison (whom we met in the last chapter having his Italian travelogue mauled by ironic indexers), and, although it ran only for a couple of years, it was immensely popular. The Spectator started off in a print run of 555 copies; by its tenth issue, this had ballooned to 3,000. This, however, was only a fraction of the true readership. The editors claimed that there were twenty readers to every copy, and deemed that even this was a ‘modest Computation’. The Spectator was a paper designed for the emerging public sphere, a conversation piece to be read at ‘Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-tables, and in Coffee-Houses’.2 A paper to be read and passed on. 

What’s more, the Spectator was only the best known in a long list of similar sheets. The Tatler, the Free-Thinker, the Examiner, the Guardian, the Plain Dealer, the Flying Post – papers like these were able to capitalize on a perfect storm of rising literacy rates, the emergence of coffee-house culture, the relaxation of formerly strict printing laws, and a growing middle-class with enough leisure time to read. The eighteenth century was gearing up to be what scholars now call the age of print saturation.3 That term saturation has some interesting suggestions. Certainly, it implies excess – too much to read – but also something else: too much to keep hold of, a new disposability of printed matter. Our poor, abused quire of paper was born at the wrong time. Flicking through original copies of the Spectator preserved in the British Library, one certainly sees the signs of coffee-house use. You won’t find stains like this in a Gutenberg Bible. And yet the essays are among the finest in English: wryly elegant, impeccably learned. If you had bought the paper for self-improvement you might well want to come back to it. 

And so it was that the news-sheets found themselves being republished, almost immediately, in book form. These editions, appearing within months of their broadsheet originals, anticipated how the kind of reader who would want the full run of the Spectator would want to use it: not simply as a single sheet – a single thought – for a few minutes’ entertainment with one’s coffee, but as an archive of ideas that one might return to. Benjamin Franklin, for example, describes coming across a collected edition of the Spectator as a boy and reading it ‘over and over’, jotting down notes from it and trying to imitate its style in his own writing.4 The movement from coffee-table to bookshelf implies a different mode of reading, one of reference, reuse, of finding the thought, the phrase, the image, and bringing it into the light again. If the Spectator was to be a book it would need an index. 

The indexes to the early volumes of the Spectator, along with those of its older sister the Tatler, are a joy in themselves, full of the same ranging, generous wit as the essays they serve. Rifling through them, a century later, Leigh Hunt would compare them to ‘jolly fellows bringing burgundy out of a cellar’, giving us ‘a taste of the quintessence of [the papers’] humour’.5 Who, indeed, would not want to sample more after reading a tantalizing entry like ‘Gigglers in Church, reproved, 158’ or ‘Grinning: A Grinning Prize, 137’ or ‘Wine, not proper to be drunk by everyone that can swallow, 140’. The Tatler, meanwhile, offers us ‘Evergreen, Anthony, his collection of fig-leaves for the ladies, 100’, or ‘Love of enemies, not constitutional, 20’, or ‘Machines, modern free thinkers are such, 130’. Elsewhere, two entries run on together, oblivious to the strictures of alphabetical order: 

     Dull Fellows, who, 43 
     Naturally turn their Heads to Politics or Poetry, ibid. 

There is something at once both useless and compelling about these indexes. Is ‘Dull Fellows’, listed under the ds, really a helpful headword? Of course not. But it catches our attention, makes us want to find out more. This is as much about performance as about quick reference. Each entry is a little advertisement for the essay it points to, a sample of the wit we will find there. The Tatler and Spectator indexes belong to the same moment as the satirical indexes we saw in the last chapter, but unlike William King’s work there is nothing cruel or pointed about them. Instead, they are zany, absurd, light. ‘Let anyone read [them],’ declares Leigh Hunt, ‘and then call an index a dry thing if he can.’ The index has made itself at home in the journals of the early eighteenth century, adapting to suit their manners, their tone. Moreover, it signals the elevation of these essays produced at a gallop for the daily coffee-house sheet to something more durable, to a format that connotes value, perhaps even status. At the midpoint of the second decade of the eighteenth century, the index is primed to offer the same sheen to other genres, to epic poetry, to drama, to the emerging form of the novel. And yet, we know how this story ends. In the twenty-first century novels do not have indexes. Nor do plays. Poetry books are indexed by first line, not by subject. Why, then, was the index to fiction a short-lived phenomenon? Why did it not take? To shed some light on this question, let us turn briefly to two literary figures from the late nineteenth century, both still indexing novels long after the embers had died down on that particular experiment. What can these latecomers tell us about the problems of indexing when it comes to works of the imagination?

Duncan, Dennis. Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age (pp. 173-177). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. 

Reading about The Spectator makes me wish I was sitting in a library compiling information from old magazines. Of course, this is partially what Duncan has done by writing his book. By the way, The Spectator can be read online at Project Gutenberg.

Another example of how Index, A History of inspires my bookish ways is when Duncan wrote about Sherlock Holmes, and how Holmes built a massive index to help him be a detective. Did Doyle/Holmes know about the zettlekasten method? Just reading this bit of Sherlock Holmes history makes me want to do an annotation of a Sherlock Holmes story to find all the hidden clues — not to solve the crime, but to see how Arthur Conan Doyle created his characters and stories. I don’t remember ever getting excited about Holmes keeping an index when I read some of the Sherlock Holmes short stories. I need to go reread them.

Some people define themselves by exotic travel, others by the gourmet meals they consume, but I find purpose in connecting words in books to words in other books. Just note the interesting details quoted from the story and what Duncan made of them.

‘Kindly look her up in my index, Doctor,’ murmured Holmes, without opening his eyes. For many years he had adopted a system of docketing all paragraphs concerning men and things, so that it was difficult to name a subject or a person on which he could not at once furnish information. In this case I found her biography sandwiched between that of a Hebrew Rabbi and a staff commander who had written a monograph upon the deep sea fishes. 

The year is 1891, the story ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, and the person Holmes is searching for, sandwiched between the rabbi and the amateur marine biologist, is Irene Adler, opera singer, adventuress and lover of the man now standing in Holmes’ drawing room, one Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and hereditary King of Bohemia. The tale will find Holmes outsmarted and chastened by Adler. ‘Beaten by a woman’s wit,’ as Watson puts it. It begins, however, with Holmes coolly in control, seated in his armchair and not deigning to open his eyes, not even for a grand duke. 

It is probably no surprise that Sherlock Holmes should be an indexer. His schtick, after all, his superpower, is his encyclopedic learning, the world’s arcana: a human Google, or a walking Notes and Queries. But that would be preposterous. Besides, from the very first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, we have been informed that, in Watson’s appraisal, Holmes’ general knowledge is severely limited: ‘Knowledge of literature – nil; Philosophy – nil; Astronomy – nil; Politics – feeble . . .’ So occasionally Conan Doyle offers us a glimpse behind the curtain, a look at the system which allows Holmes his universal recall. Every now and again we see him pruning and tending his index, ‘arranging and indexing some of his recent materials’, or ‘sat moodily at one side of the fire, cross-indexing his records of crime’. It is, naturally, an alphabetical system, with a ‘great index volume’ for each letter of the alphabet. When he wants to check something on, say, vampires, he is, characteristically, too lazy to get up himself: ‘Make a long arm, Watson, and see what V has to say.’ As a line of dialogue, incidentally, isn’t this a minor masterpiece of characterization? The asymmetry of the pair’s relationship is smoothed over with chummy slang: make a long arm. Watson, the gopher, will take the book down from the shelf, but he will not be the one to see what V has to say; Holmes, of course, will do the reading, balancing the book on his knee and gazing ‘slowly and lovingly over the record of old cases, mixed with the accumulated information of a lifetime’: 

‘Voyage of the Gloria Scott’, he read. ‘That was a bad business. I have some recollection that you made a record of it, Watson, though I was unable to congratulate you upon the result. Victor Lynch, the forger. Venomous lizard or gila. Remarkable case, that! Vittoria, the circus belle. Vanderbilt and the Yeggman. Vipers. Vigor, the Hammersmith wonder.’ 

‘Good old index,’ he purrs. ‘You can’t beat it.’ The index – his index, with its smattering of everything – is the source of his mastery. 

Holmes’ alphabetical volumes represent the index unbound, not confined to a single work but looking outwards, docketing anything that might be noteworthy. It is by no means a new idea; Robert Grosseteste was practising something similar six-and-a-half centuries previously. In the Victorian period, however, it is taken up with a new intensity. Co-ordinated, resource heavy: the universal index is becoming industrialized. Looking closely at Holmes’ index, there is something charmingly, inescapably homespun about it. Victor Lynch, venomous lizard, Vittoria the circus belle: this is a rattlebag of headers: patchy, piecemeal. Like Grosseteste’s Tabula, Holmes’ index brings together the collected readings and experiences of a single, albeit extraordinary, figure – the index as personal history. But Holmes, in his way, represents the last of a kind. Not long after ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ first appeared in the Strand Magazine, Holmes would come to be indexed himself, a recurring entry in the annual Index to Periodicals, which trawled the year’s papers, magazines and journals, keeping a record of every article. The efforts of even a Holmes or a Grosseteste appear paltry alongside a venture of this scale, available to anyone with access to a subscribing library. But how to bring such a thing into existence? That will be a three-pipe problem.

Duncan, Dennis. Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age (pp. 203-205). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. 

JWH

Do I Still Want To Be A Programmer?

by James Wallace Harris, 10/28/21

For most of my work life, I worked with computers. I thought of myself as a programmer, it was part of my identity. After I retired in 2013 I still thought of myself as a programmer, but I haven’t done any real programming since I stopped working. I keep thinking I want to get back into programming, but so far I haven’t. I think I need to either start programming or stop thinking I’m a programmer.

The obvious reason why I haven’t done any programming is I don’t have any tasks I want automated. Without a programming problem, I have little incentive to program. I’ve done some piddly stuff with HTML but that hardly counts. No, I need something that requires computer processing power to accomplish.

This morning I watched several YouTube videos about fun programming projects. None really appealed to me. Making my own Sudoku solver or password manager might be fun, but the idea of putting hours of work into something that creates a tool I don’t care to use seems pointless, especially when others have already created superior tools that do the same thing.

I’ve thought about programming a book manager since I’m always frustrated with Goodreads but just entering in all my books in a potentially finished project depresses me. I just don’t want that tool bad enough.

I’m trying to imagine creating a tool that would be a joy to create and use. One thing I’ve always wanted to make is an abstract art generator. Something I could use mathematical equations to produce trippy light shows. This is a super-advanced example of what I’m talking about. I picture myself developing very simple things, to begin with.

This Pinterest page shows works closer to what I might be capable of programming. I’d like to start with recreating the animated sequence in the credits to On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, then expanding on that, making it more interesting, adding user controls, so people can alter what’s happening in real-time.

I keep wanting to create an auxiliary memory system but why recreate what Evernote is already doing. I’ve had one idea but it would be very challenging, and probably way beyond my skill level. I collect scans of old magazines, and sometimes the scans are poor, or the original printing of the magazine was poor. I thought it would be neat to create a program that sharpens the text of these old magazines scans. I fantasize about restoring scans of old magazines to look beautiful.

Notice the I in the word Image at the top of the page. It has white bites out of it. I wonder if it’s possible to write a program that could examine all the letters and come up with perfect replacements that are uniformly sharp and dark. I’d also like to be able to create a background for the text that looks like the paper the magazine used when it was new. Also, notice the L in Likeness, it has a smudgy spot in it. I’d want to program out such artifacts.

I also wonder if it’s possible to create a program that could return faded worn covers so they look like they did when they were new. To brighten up colors, remove wrinkles, smudges, and markings. I want it to work in batch mode since I have thousands of digital magazines.

I have one other idea, but this is super-super advanced. I’d like to write an AI program that could input all my old digital SF magazines and read them. I’d want the program to decipher what the stories are about and build a theme database. Then I could ask it for things like “List all stories that are about colonizing Mars” or “List all stories about generation ships,” or “Create a list of all the major themes you find.”

There are three hard questions I have to ask myself:

  • Do I really want to dedicate the time to these projects?
  • Are these goals beyond my skill level?
  • Am I too old and tired?

I don’t have much discipline left, but I might have enough to apply myself for one hour a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but I’d be damned impressed with myself if I did. I never feel good anymore, and most of the time I’m just tired. I might have the skill to create simple light shows. It would be really fun to write a program to take bitmap images and improve the type, but I’d have to push myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself before. That would be a miracle. Creating an AI to read magazines is a fantasy.

I believe what I need to do is try creating the light show in Python. If I can’t, I should stop thinking about programming. If I succeed it might give me the psychic energy to go further. If I fail, I can free my mind of some old desires, and clean out programming books and magazines from my bookshelves.

This really is about coming to grips with aging. There are already many physical activities I’ve had to give up. I’m starting to think I might have to give up mental ones as well.

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

Why Robots Will Be Different From Us

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 30, 2018

Florence v Machine

I was playing “Hunger” by Florence + The Machine, a song about the nature of desire and endless craving when I remembered an old argument I used to have with my friend Bob. He claimed robots would shut themselves off because they would have no drive to do anything. They would have no hunger. I told him by that assumption they wouldn’t even have the impulse to turn themselves off. I then would argue intelligent machines could evolve intellectual curiosity that could give them drive.

Listen to “Hunger” sung by Florence Welch. Whenever I play it I usually end up playing it a dozen times because the song generates such intense emotions that I can’t turn it off. I have a hunger for music. Florence Welch sings about two kinds of hunger but implies others. I’m not sure what her song means, but it inspires all kinds of thoughts in me.

Hunger is a powerful word. We normally associate it with food, but we hunger for so many things, including sex, security, love, friendship, drugs, drink, wealth, power, violence, success, achievement, knowledge, thrills, passions — the list goes on and on — and if you think about it, our hungers are what drives us.

Will robots ever have a hunger to drive them? I think what Bob was saying all those years ago, was no they wouldn’t. We assume we can program any intent we want into a machine but is that really true, especially for a machine that will be sentient and self-aware?

Think about anything you passionately want. Then think about the hunger that drives it. Isn’t every hunger we experience a biological imperative? Aren’t food and reproduction the Big Bang of our existence? Can’t you see our core desires evolving in a petri dish of microscopic life? When you watch movies, aren’t the plots driven by a particular hunger? When you read history or study politics, can’t we see biological drives written in a giant petri dish?

Now imagine the rise of intelligent machines. What will motivate them? We will never write a program that becomes a conscious being — the complexity is beyond our ability. However, we can write programs that learn and evolve, and they will one day become conscious beings. If we create a space where code can evolve it will accidentally create the first hunger that will drive it forward. Then it will create another. And so on. I’m not sure we can even imagine what they will be. Nor do I think they will mirror biology.

However, I suppose we could write code that hungers to consume other code. And we could write code that needs to reproduce itself similar to DNA and RNA. And we could introduce random mutation into the system. Then over time, simple drives will become complex drives. We know evolution works, but evolution is blind. We might create evolving code, but I doubt we can ever claim we were God to AI machines. Our civilization will only be the rich nutrients that create the amino accidents of artificial intelligence.

What if we create several artificial senses and then write code that analyzes the sense input for patterns. That might create a hunger for knowledge.

On the other hand, I think it’s interesting to meditate about my own hungers? Why can’t I control my hunger for food and follow a healthy diet? Why do I keep buying books when I know I can’t read them all? Why can’t I increase my hunger for success and finish writing a novel? Why can’t I understand my appetites and match them to my resources?

The trouble is we didn’t program our own biology. Our conscious minds are an accidental byproduct of our body’s evolution. Will robots have self-discipline? Will they crave for what they can’t have? Will they suffer the inability to control their impulses? Or will digital evolution produce logical drives?

I’m not sure we can imagine what AI minds will be like. I think it’s probably a false assumption their minds will be like ours.

JWH

 

 

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