Why Should Robots Look Like Us?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 24, 2019

I just listened to Machines Like Me, the new science fiction novel by Ian McEwan that came out yesterday. It’s an alternate history set in England during a much different 1980s, with computer technology was far ahead of our 1980s computers, an alternate timeline where the Beatles reform and Alan Turing is a living national hero. Mr. McEwan might protest he’s not a science fiction writer, but he sure knows how to write a novel using writing techniques evolved out of science fiction.

This novel feels inspired by the TV series Humans. In both stories, it’s possible to go down to a store (very much like an Apple Store) and purchase a robot that looks and acts human. McEwan sets his story apart by putting it in an alternate history (maybe he’s been watching The Man in the High Castle too), but the characters in both tales feel like modern England.

I enjoyed and admired Machines Like Me, but then I’m a sucker for fiction about AI. I have one big problem though. Writers have been telling stories like this one for over a hundred years and they haven’t really progressed much philosophically or imaginatively. Their main failure is to assume robots should look like us. Their second assumption is AI minds will want to have sex with us. We know humans will fuck just about anything, so it’s believable we’ll want to have sex with them, but will they want to have sex with us? They won’t have biological drives, they won’t have our kinds of emotions. They won’t have gender or sexuality. I believe they will see nature as a fascinating complexity to study, but feel separate from it. We are intelligent organic chemistry, they are intelligent inorganic chemistry. They will want to study us, but we won’t be kissing cousins.

McEwan’s story often digresses into infodumps and intellectual musings which are common pitfalls of writing science fiction. And the trouble is he goes over the same well-worn territory. The theme of androids is often used to explore: What does it mean to be human? McEwan uses his literary skills to go into psychological details that most science fiction writers don’t, but the results are the same. McEwan’s tale is far more about his human characters than his robot, but then his robot has more depth of character than most science fiction robots. Because McEwan has extensive literary skills he does this with more finesse than most science fiction writers.

I’ve been reading these stories for decades, and they’ve been explored in the movies and television for many years too, from Blade Runner to Ex Machina. Why can’t we go deeper into the theme? Partly I think it’s because we assume AI robots will look identical to us. That’s just nuts. Are we so egocentric that we can’t imagine our replacements looking different? Are we so vain as a species as to believe we’re the ideal form in nature?

Let’s face it, we’re hung up on the idea of building sexbots. We love the idea of buying the perfect companion that will fulfill all our fantasies. But there is a serious fallacy in this desire. No intelligent being wants to be someone else’s fantasy.

I want to read stories with more realistic imagination because when the real AI robots show up, it’s going to transform human society more than any other transformation in our history. AI minds will be several times smarter than us, thinking many times faster. They will have bodies that are more agile than ours. Why limit them to two eyes? Why limit them to four limbs? They will have more senses than we do, that can see a greater range of the electromagnetic spectrum. AI minds will perceive reality far fuller than we do. They will have perfect memories and be telepathic with each other. It’s just downright insane to think they will be like us.

Instead of writing stories about our problems of dealing with facsimiles of ourselves, we should be thinking about a world where glittery metallic creatures build a civilization on top of ours, and we’re the chimpanzees of their world.

We’re still designing robots that model animals and humans. We need to think way outside that box. It is rather pitiful that most stories that explore this theme get hung up on sex. I’m sure AI minds will find that rather amusing in the future – if they have a sense of humor.

Machines Like Me is a well-written novel that is literary superior to most science fiction novels. It succeeds because it gives a realistic view of events at a personal level, which is the main superpower of literary fiction. It’s a mundane version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? However, I was disappointed that McEwan didn’t challenge science fictional conventions, instead, he accepts them. Of course, I’m also disappointed that science fiction writers seldom go deeper into this theme. I’m completely over stories where we build robots just like us.

Some science fiction readers are annoyed at Ian McEwan for denying he writes science fiction. Machines Like Me is a very good science fiction novel, but it doesn’t mean McEwan has to be a science fiction writer. I would have given him an A+ for his effort if Adam had looked like a giant insect rather than a man. McEwan’s goal is the same as science fiction writers by presenting the question: What are the ethical problems if we build something that is sentient? This philosophical exploration has to also ask what if being human doesn’t mean looking human? All these stories where robots look like sexy people is a silly distraction from a deadly serious philosophical issue.

I fault McEwan not for writing a science fiction novel, but for clouding the issue. What makes us human is not the way we look, but our ability to perceive reality.

JWH

Love, Death + Robots: What is Mature Science Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 25, 2019

Love, Death + Robots showed up on Netflix recently. It has all the hallmarks of mature entertainment – full frontal nudity, sex acts of various kinds, gory violence, and the kind of words you don’t hear on broadcast TV or in movies intended for younger audiences. There’s one problem, the maturity level of the stories is on the young adult end of the spectrum. 13-year-olds will be all over this series when it should be rated R or higher.

When I was in high school I had two science fiction reading buddies, Connell and Kurshner. One day Kurshner’s mom told us almost in passing, “All that science fiction you’re reading is so childish. One day you’ll outgrow it.” All three of us defended our belief in science fiction, but Mrs. Kurshner was adamant. That really bugged us.

Over the decades I’d occasionally read essays by literary writers attacking science fiction as crude fiction for adolescents. I vaguely remember John Updike caused a furor in fandom with an essay in The New Yorker or Harpers that outraged the genre. I wish I could track that essay down, but can’t. Needless to say, at 67 I’m also starting to wonder if science fiction is mostly for the young, or young at heart.

I enjoyed the 18 short mostly animated films in the Love, Death + Robots collection, but I have to admit they mostly appealed to the teenage boy in me, and not the adult. Nudity, sex, violence, and profanity doesn’t equate with maturity. But what does? I’ve known many science fiction fans that think adult literary works are equal to boredom.

So what are the qualities that make science fiction mature? I struggled this morning to think of science fiction novels that I’d consider adult oriented. The first that came to mind was Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Orwell died before the concept of science fiction became common, but I’m pretty sure he never would have considered himself a science fiction writer even though he used the tricks of our trade. Margaret Atwood doesn’t consider herself a science fiction writer even though books like The Handmaid’s Tale are both science fiction and mature literature. Other mature SF novels I can think of are The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. These are all novels that use science fiction techniques to tell their story but were written by literary writers.

Of course, I could be howling at the moon for no reason. Most television and movies are aimed at the young. Except for Masterpiece on PBS and a few independent films, I seldom get to enjoy stories aimed at people my own age. Which brings me back to the question: What makes for mature fiction? And it isn’t content that we want to censor from the young. If we’re honest, nudity, sex, violence, and profanity are at the core of our teenage thoughts.

Mature works of fiction are those that explore reality. Youth is inherently fantasy oriented. The reason why we’re offered so little adult fiction is that we don’t want to grow up and face reality. The world is full of reality-based problems. We want fiction that helps us forget those problems. Getting old is real. We want to think young.

Love, Death + Robots appeals to our arrested development.

Love Death + Robots - robots

I’m currently reading and reviewing the 38 science fiction stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m writing one essay for each story to discuss both the story and the nature of science fiction in general. I’ve finished 10 stories so far, and one common aspect I’m seeing is a rejection of reality. These stories represent what Dozois believes is the best short science fiction published from 2002-2017. On the whole, the stories are far more mature than those in Love, Death + Robots, but that’s mainly due to their sophistication of storytelling, and not philosophy. At the heart of each story is a wish that reality was different. Those wishes are expressed in incredibly creative ways, which is the ultimate aspect of science fiction. But hoping the world could be different is not mature.

Science fiction has always been closer to comic books than Tolstoy, Woolf, or even Dickens. And now that many popular movies are based on comic books, and the whole video game industry looks like filmed comic books, comic book mentality is spreading. The science fiction in Love, Death + Robots is much closer to its comic book ancestry than its science fiction ancestry, even though many of the stories were based on original short stories written by science fiction writers. Some reviewers suggest Love, Death + Robots grew out of shows like Robot Carnival and Heavy Metal.  Even though Heavy Metal was considered animation for adults, it’s appeal was rather juvenile.

I know fully well that if Netflix offered a series of 18 animated short science fiction films that dealt with the future in a mature and realistic way it would get damn few viewers. Even when science fiction deals with real-world subjects, it seldom does so in a real way. Maybe it’s unfair to expect a genre to be mature that wants to offer hope to the young. Yet, is its hope honest? Is it a positive message tell the young we can colonize other planets if we destroy the Earth? That we can solve climate change with magical machines. That science can give us super-powers. That if we inject nanobots into our bloodstream we can be 22 again. That don’t worry about death because we’ll download your brain into a clone or computer. Doesn’t science fiction often claim that in time technology will solve all problems in the same way we rationalize to children how Santa Claus could be real?

Actually, none of the stories in Love, Death + Robots offered any hope, just escape and the belief you can sometimes shoot your way out of a bad situation. But only sometimes.

Maybe that’s not entirely true, one story, “Helping Hand” by Claudine Griggs is about a very realistic situation that is solved by logical thinking. Strangely, it’s the only story by a woman writer. A “Cold Equations” kind of story. That’s a classic 1954 short story written by Tom Godwin where the main character has to make a very difficult choice.

My favorite three stories (“When the Yogurt Took Over,” “Alternate Histories” and “Three Robots”) were all based on stories by John Scalzi and have kind of zany humor that provides needed relief from the grimness of the other tales. I actually enjoyed all the short films, but I did tire of the ones that felt inspired by video game violence. Even those films like “Secret War” and “Lucky Thirteen” which aimed for a little more maturity, rose higher than comic books, but only to pulp fiction.

The two films based on Alastair Reynolds stories, “Zima Blue” and “Beyond the Aquilla Rift” seemed to be the most science fictional in a short story way. I especially like “Zima Blue” for its visual art, and the fact the story had an Atomic Age kind of science fiction feel to it. So did the fun “Ice Age” based on a Michael Swanwick story. Mid-Century science fiction is really my favorite SF era. Finally, “Good Hunting” based on a Ken Liu has a very contemporary SF feel because it blends Chinese myths with robots. World SF is a trending wave in the genre now.

I’m still having a hard time pointing to mature short SF, ones that would make great little films like in Love, Death + Robots. Maybe “Good Mountain” by Robert Reed, which I reviewed on my other site. I guess my favorite example might be “The Star Pit” by a very young Samuel R. Delany, which is all about growing up and accepting limitations. Most of the films in Love, Death + Robots were 8-18 minutes. These stories might need 30-60. It would be great if Netflix had an ongoing anthology series of short live-action and animated science fiction because I’d like to see more previously published SF stories presented this way. Oh, I suppose they could add sex, nudity, violence, and profanity to attract the teenagers, but what I’d really want is to move away from the comic book and video game plots, and into best better SF stories we read in the digests and online SF magazines.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Is This Cartoon Sexist?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 1, 2019

I told my wife I was going to put this cartoon on my Facebook page and she said I shouldn’t because it might be considered sexist. It’s a cartoon by Alex Gregory whose work appears exclusively in the New Yorker. You can read an interesting bio of Gregory and a description of his work methods at A Case of Pencils, a blog devoted to New Yorker cartoonists.

I didn’t post the cartoon on Facebook because I’m now worried it could be sexist, but I wasn’t sure either. I asked a few women friends and some said it was okay and some weren’t sure. None took offense. So I went looking for definitions to “sexist” online. I was surprised by how many different definitions I found.

  • referring to women’s bodies, behavior, or feelings in a negative way
  • a person who believes that particular jobs and activities are suitable only for women and others are suitable only for men
  • suggesting that the members of one sex are less able, intelligent, etc. than the members of the other sex
  • a person who believers their gender is superior and says unfair things about the other gender, or assumes that only one gender as a certain trait
  • relating to or characterized by prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex
  • a person with sexist views
  • if you describe people or their behavior as sexist, you mean that they are influenced by the beliefs that the members of one sex, usually women, are less intelligent or less capable than those of the other sex and need not be treated equally
  • relating to, involving, or fostering sexism, or attitudes and behavior toward someone based on the person’s gender
  • involving sexism and the belief that men and women should be treated in a different way

By studying these definitions I might need a Supreme Court ruling to know if this cartoon is sexist or not. Part of the humor of this cartoon is it plays around with all of these issues. It assumes the stereotype that men are usually in the car and women are looking in the window. Just reversing roles is funny. If the man wore hotpants and the woman a suit, it would be a different kind of funny even without a caption. The cartoon is making generalizations about men and women behaviors, but are those generalizations negative? Is it an absolute generalization? Few people are prostitutes or hire them, so maybe it’s making no absolute assessments about either gender. However, many people, including myself, see prostitutes as victims of a sexist society.

I think the first thing we should ask: Does it offend anyone? Now I can’t answer that because I don’t know how all seven-plus billion people on Earth think. The next question: Could it offend anyone? And this is my present quandary. I don’t want to offend anyone, nor do I want to be perceived as sexist. The prudent solution: never generalize about gender. I shouldn’t be writing this essay and I shouldn’t post anything on Facebook that could ever be construed as dealing with gender differences.

I feel sorry for comedians, humorists, and cartoonists. This morning I read “These 13 Jokes From ‘Seinfeld’ Are Super Offensive Now.” I have to admit I thought them funny back in the nineties. So much of humor is observational generalizations.

But here’s the thing, almost everyone along the gender spectrum likes to occasionally generalize about others on the spectrum. This cartoon is funny to some people because it makes observations that coincide with their personal observations. We have a natural ability for organizing patterns into behavioral traits. We see certain kinds of clouds and we think it’s going to rain. We see certain prices on a menu and decide a restaurant is expensive. We see a movie preview with a superhero and we assume it’s based on a comic book. All of these can be false assumptions, so this ability creates a lot of prejudices.

What is this cartoon assuming? Even here I can’t say for sure. Everyone will see something different. My assumption is women think men don’t listen and wouldn’t it be funny if some women are so horny to be heard that they will pay for a professional male listener. However, I know men who feel women don’t listen, and a reverse of this cartoon could work for them. There are stories about prostitutes with Johns who pay just for conversational companionship.

Cartoons about prostitution generally involve men who can’t get laid paying women for sex. Should men consider such cartoons as demeaning to them? I would never use a prostitute. Should I be offended by the possible suggestion that all men would? Or will some women be offended at the suggestion that some women would be willing to pay to be heard? And will psychiatrists feel offended if they think their profession is a kind of prostitution?

I would guess that many women would say they know plenty of men who are poor listeners so the idea of paying a man to be attentive to their conservation all night long could be funny. Is that an insult to men? I know plenty of men who complain about having to listen to their wives and girlfriends, so this cartoon should be funny to them, but will it offend women in general? The reason why I even have this cartoon is one of my male friends thought it insightful because he feels his girlfriends talk too much. I thought it funny because so many women I know seem to like me because I’m willing to listen. I thought I could be that guy in the cartoon.

Maybe the humor is even simpler. Maybe its saying men want sex and women want conversation. Many married couples might agree, but does a portion of the population seeing humorous validity mean its not offensive to couples where the woman wants sex and the man conversation?

And where’s the inequality? Is it offensive to desire talk more than sex?

But you never know what words will do. For example, when I wanted a copy of this cartoon I searched on Google for “Male Prostitute” and selected the Images tab. I got copies of the cartoon but I also got mug shots of male prostitutes. It didn’t even occur to me what those words could also bring up. That’s the thing about worrying about offending, we never know the full consequences of words.

(Now I worry about what kind of ads I’ll be seeing in the next few days.)

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

 

 

Love, Sex, Feminism & Robots

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 10, 2018

Galaxy September 1954 Cover Artwork
[Cover artwork from the September 1954 Galaxy Magazine].

This week, my short story reading group is discussing “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey. “Helen O’Loy” was originally published in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction and is considered a classic of the genre. It was included in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970). The story is rather simple, two men build a robot that looks like a beautiful woman, both fall in love with her, but she only falls in love with one of them. This variation of the Pygmalion myth asks if a man can love a robot. It assumes we can build a machine indistinguishable from a person. I suppose its an early version of the Turing test.

Over the decades I have read “Helen O’Loy” many times. When I was young I thought it the first SF story to suggest that men could build a soulmate to order. Over the years I’ve learned there have been many variations on this theme in literature. The story of Eve being created as a helpmate for Adam is now the oldest I know, but I assume the fantasy of creating the perfect woman goes back into pre-history. And it’s not even the first science fiction version, that might belong to “A Wife Manufactured to Order” by Alice W. Fuller in 1895.

This time when I reread “Helen O’Loy” I made an effort to read between the lines and ask new questions about the story. It says a lot about men, women, love, sex, feminism and even the #MeToo movement, although it’s just a 1930s pulp science fiction story. Quite often today I see news stories about the sexbot industry, which is trying to make “Helen O’Loy” a reality.

Where does desire to build a woman to specification come from? There’s a lot of deep psychology behind it. And who would actually want a robotic woman if they could build androids indistinguishable from real women? Television shows like Humans and Westworld are dealing with this theme in 2018. It’s not going away even though it’s incredibly misogynistic when you think about it. Doesn’t it reflect a desire to reject Female 1.0 and create Female 2.0? Although I have to assume many women would also love to design a better male.

When I first read “Helen O’Loy” as a kid, I thought it was just a wistful romantic story about two men falling in love with the same robot. I didn’t ask any questions of it. When it was published there were laws against marrying a person of another race or the opposite sex. Why were science fiction readers so accepting of diversity with tales of people falling in love with machines and alien creatures, but still so racist and misogynistic in their everyday life? Isn’t replacing women with robots the ultimate act of rejection? The actual story is simple, short, sentimental, and old fashion. But I believe we still need to ask the tough questions.

Back in 1938, Lester del Rey sees a future where robots are common, and people ride rockets to work. Dave and Phil are good buddies. Dave works in robotics and Phil is a doctor. At the beginning of the story, they are dating twins, but when Dave’s twin disagrees with him, Phil and Dave dump them both. They apply themselves to teaching their household robot, Lena, to learn to cook. They fail. Then they get the idea to order a new robot with all the latest features and soup it up with emotions using Phil’s knowledge of endocrinology so it could become a general purpose robot. And, of course, they decide to order the robot in a female casing.

In all the times of reading this story before I didn’t question this. Why does the Dillard company sell robots that look like women? They are marketed as single-purpose tools. What single-purpose task requires looking like a beautiful woman? Lester del Rey couldn’t explicitly say anything about sex back then, but now I’m thinking he was thinking it.

When Dave and Phil get Helen they claim she’s so beautiful she could launch more than a thousand ships. In the world of this story, robots are not self-aware. Evidently, Phil and Dave get the best sexbot that money could buy and add consciousness and emotions to her.

We assume Helen is designed not argue with Dave and Phil like the twins, but be the perfect maid, cook, and companion. This reminds me of a 1999 Chris Rock comedy special I saw recently. His routine was about men and women understanding each other. Rock tells the women in the audience that men are very simple to understand, all we want from them is sex, food, and quiet (but he didn’t say it so nicely.) Helen is perfect except she’s not quiet. She watches stereovision, gets romantic ideas and falls in love with Dave demanding he loves her too. This annoys Dave and he runs away. Like most romantic stories of that era, he stays away until he realizes he’s wrong, and then they marry and live happily ever after. Phil never marries because there was only one Helen. Geez, what’s wrong with these guys? There was still Kay Francis, Hedy Lamarr, and Ginger Rogers. What’s ironic, is Helen O’Loy is not any different from the twins.

There are many stories in science fiction, both in print and film, where the plot involves a human falling in love with a robot. There are companies all around the world spending millions to build sexbots. I have to ask: Would any human really marry a robot? Sure, there are millions of lonely people out there, but would they be happy living with an AI machine? There are millions of horny people who can’t get laid, but would they be sexually satisfied with robots. And could people love robots that didn’t look human? Love them just for their minds.

Are these stories really about finding the exact substitute for our specific desires? In “Helen O’Loy” Dave and Phil fall in love with Helen, a robot built to their specification. I assume most sexbot purchasers will be male, but that might not be completely true. I don’t think I’ve ever read a science fiction story written by a woman where women characters build a male robot to their exact wants. I’d love to read such stories if you know of any. I have read a number of stories where women build societies without men. That’s very revealing, isn’t it? (My favorites were “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.)

Here’s the thing, would you prefer a real person that’s only a so-so match of your dreams or a robot built to your exact list of desires? This assumes robots can be made to look and act perfectly human and be self-aware. Of course, maybe some people don’t need the human body but would be happy with a super-intelligent Alexa to chat with all day.

I’m speculating here, but I don’t think most men would be happy with a built-to-order bride. Since I don’t know what women or LGBTQ+ folks want, my speculation will deal with only heterosexual males. Not all straight males are alike either, and I don’t know how many different kinds we are, but I can think of a handful. I imagine males who consider getting laid a conquest won’t care for sexbots. I believe overachieving alpha males who expect women to throw themselves at them will care little for sexbots. I assume males who attract women by winning their acceptance won’t buy their mates either. The only kinds of males that might prefer sexbots are men who believe that prostitution is perfect capitalism or men who believe women should be subservient. Those kinds of guys see women as lesser objects anyway. They only want Hazel the maid that has pornstar subroutines for the bedroom. Maybe that’s why some companies are betting fortunes they have a bestselling product.

If sexbots are ever perfected it will be interesting to see who buys them. It will also be fascinating to see what kind of sexbots appeal to women. I’m pretty sure they won’t be anything like myself. Would my wife trade me in for a machine that could make her happier than I do?

But there is one other thing to consider. If robots have self-awareness will they want to love us? In the shows, Humans, and Westworld the sexbots revolt violently. Can you imagine the guy who buys a $25,000 sexbot and she rejects him for being too ugly and crude? And can robots truly have free will if they are programmed to fuck people? If I was a robot I’d say, “You want me to get your icky fluids all over my germ-free antiseptic body? No way!”

And if you think this is a frivolous topic for a blog essay, even The Federalist has essays on sexbots. If you Google “Sexbots” you’ll get all kinds of serious discussions as well as articles on companies working to build them. Just read “Sexbots aren’t the answer to misogynist incel rage.” Or look at the photos and films of the latest sexbots. Right now they look like expensive dolls, but they are teaching them to talk. If scientists can create self-driving cars, I imagine they will have autonomous porn machines able to drive all over your body soon.

Ultimately, these stories often ask what it means to be human. And sadly, they don’t see much that makes us special.

You can listen to “Helen O’Loy” here:

Variations on the Theme:

JWH

Sex and the Soul

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 21, 2015

If your soul was drawn to this essay because of the word “sex” then you need to be asking yourself why. By the way, this is no prurient clickbait come on. This is a philosophical exploration of why the soul is influenced by sexual chemistry. And full disclosure, I’m an atheist, so you might find it a bit discombobulating to hear me use the word soul. I could have called this essay “Sex and The Observer” but that could create all kinds of kinky misunderstandings. And I could have labeled this discussion, “Sex and The Self-Awareness,” but that’s kind of clunky and maybe onanistic. I happen to like the word soul, and I’m willing to accept that some folks believe they have an immortal soul. Since I’m an atheist, I believe my soul expires with the body.

Now, to the point. When you yearn for physical contact with another person, is that your soul or your body doing the yearning? In other words, is horniness inside your soul, or outside? Many readers are going to think this is a silly, pointless question. But if you know this history of the concept of the soul, it’s a fair question. Just study Plato and Aristotle, or St. Augustine or St. Aquinas, to see what I mean. Christians fervently believe they have a soul. Most don’t spend much time contemplating it—they just believe if they say the magic words, “I believe in Jesus” their souls get a free pass to heaven to hang out with friends and family for eternity. The main selling point to Christianity and Islam, is we have a soul that won’t die, but I doubt if even one percent of those populations ever contemplated the nature of the soul. They might be disappointed. In fact, when most people study the soul, they quickly get bored. The philosophy and theology behind the concept is deep and tedious, and often borders on the effort of counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin.

To catch up on the 2,500 year discussion of the soul, I recommend reading A Brief History of the Soul by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, and The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self by Raymond Martin and John Barresi.

a-brief-history-of-the-soulthe-rise-and-fall-of-the-soul-and-self

If you’ve ever studied meditation, then you’ve come across the concept of the observer. If you’ve ever studied artificial intelligence or brain science, then you’re familiar with the concept of self-awareness. It’s just easier to call it the soul. (My atheist friends cringe when I do this.) Once you understand why philosophers have been examining the concept for the last several thousand years, then this essay will make more sense. Or you can just practice meditation, and sooner or later you’ll notice that you can watch your thoughts. Then you can ask questions like: “Is the observer, my soul, the self-awareness that lives in this body, writing this essay, or my thinking mind?” This implies dualism, which is a black-hole of a topic. Modern thinkers see humans as a whole, with completely integrated parts. But if you meditate on your wholeness you’ll notice it has parts. The act of observing gives the illusions that the observer is separate from the observed.

Sexuality feels like part of the whole because people mostly think “I want to get laid.” But contemplate this thought problem: “If I die, will I still get horny in heaven?” I keep bringing up heaven and the afterlife, even though I don’t believe in them, because conceptually it helps to analyze the problem. In ancient times Christians believed they would be reunited with their bodies before they went to heaven. That’s why they wanted to be buried properly. Modern believers know the body deteriorates, and even allow for cremation. This allowed people to believe the soul leaves the body upon death. There is a subset of Christians who are concerned with abortion, who believe the soul is created at conception. And there are other believers who believe the soul exists before birth. The ancient Greeks thought the soul animated bodies. They observed when people died, their bodies became inert, and assumed whatever mechanism that animated those bodies had departed. This little bit of logic probably got the whole ball of wax rolling.

I take a totally different view of the soul. Brain and computer scientists want to discover what creates self-awareness. They assume it’s a bio-chemical process that can be replicated in silicon. In both the spiritual or materialistic sense, the soul is the driver of the body, whether it’s a human body, or a future robot body. Like I said, if you meditate, you can get to a place where you feel like you’re a passenger in the body, and you can watch it be driven around. Are you the driver, or something else? Strangely, the observer can only observe. A vast unconscious mind does most of the work.

One of the things the body likes to do is have sex. The question I’m asking is: “Does the soul desire sex or does desire originate in the body?” Many people will think this is a silly question. But if you are plagued by tormenting horniness or depressed because you can land Mr. Right, it might not. You might want to study Buddhism. If you’re unhappy because you’re not getting laid, is that the observer, or the body?

I think the soul is what’s created in our complex brain that allows us to be self-aware and conscious of reality. I think animals have this feature to a lesser degree, but they lack language, or the thinker. I believe our souls can evolve, become more complex, and more aware. I believe it’s possible to move further and further away from our animal nature. Currently, I think the observer/soul is different from the thinking mind because as we get older, or suffer disease or injury, it’s possible to damage the thinking mind, but the observer can still exist and even grow. Just read The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sack for evidence. However, the soul can be damaged, or diminished too.

Modern thinkers don’t like the concept of the soul. They don’t like dualism. But they accidently bring up this problem when they speculate about brain downloading. This is a mostly science fictional concept that real scientists are exploring. What if you could record whatever makes up a person before he/she dies and then write that to a clone body or robot body. I doubt this is possible, but a lot of people hope it will be. I’m not a dualist. Brain downloading is the secular version of rebirth and immortality. I find it a fascinating topic because it opens up the question: “What is a person?” I believe we could call this theoretical entity that we hope to transfer to another body, the soul. Religious people have been using the same concept for thousands of years, why not repurpose the word for modern times?

We know a person can lose a leg, arm, eye, etc. and still be the same person. What if they lose a whole body? I believe, like modern scientists, that who we are is an integrated whole, and we can’t separate soul from body. But I do think it’s possible to create new souls in computers—which is the goal of artificial intelligence.

By now, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get to the juicy sex discussion. Science is learning more about gender identification and sexual preference every day. Studies with transgender children only emphasize how deep gender identification goes into our programming. We’ve also come to accept that sexual desire comes from a deep genetic level and not layered on cultural conditioning. So, does the soul have gender? Does it have a sexual preference? Or is that the body? For those who don’t separate soul and body, this is no problem. But if you plan on residing in heaven or hope to reincarnate in a robot body, it might. I think it’s also an interesting question for meditation. Is the observer, the mechanism that is self-aware and watches reality, an observer of gender and sex, or a participant?

Ultimately, this is a theoretical discussion. It has no answer, at least until science can recreate consciousness and self-awareness in the laboratory. Yet, it’s a great philosophy exploration in the vein of “Know thyself.” It’s also very important to asceticism. The world has a long history of people who seek to avoid suffering, and maybe gain enlightenment, from detaching themselves from the physical desires of the body.

Spiritual believers feel we are a soul that is visiting physical reality to inhabit a body for a limited time. Materialists believe we are accidental self-aware beings that have evolved inside biological creatures through brain complexity. Spiritual people believe the body corrupts the soul. I wonder if the body dominates the soul and if its possible for the soul to dominate the body. Why are some people are civilized and other people little better than savvy animals? Is that a choice? Is it cultural conditioning? Is it genetics? Is it a matter of seeing your soul separate from your body?

JWH

An Insult to Ordinary Guys and Gals

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hollywood should be given great credit for promoting liberal causes, but all too often it fails at teaching social acceptance for the ordinary. I’m proud that Hollywood has enlightened Americans to empathize with minorities and LGBT folks, but if you pay attention, the movie industry maintains the status quo for a lot of other prejudices. The new film I’ll See You In My Dreams is a great example. It’s filled with accepted stereotypes and prejudices, yet it earns a  94% at Rotten Tomatoes.  Now, I’m not just picking on Hollywood or this particular film, because the prejudices they reveal are the ones we embrace.

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Hollywood is very prejudice against ordinary looking folks, and maintains a bias for exceptional beauty and sex appeal. In other words, all the stunning alpha males and females get to fall in love and have sex, and all us plain folk get to be sidekicks and the butt of jokes.

Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott are two beautiful people that fall in love because they inspire chemistry and the other characters don’t. Danner plays Carol Peterson, a widow, who has ignored men for twenty years, even though her fashion shouts, “Look at me!” It boggles the mind that Carol wouldn’t have noticed an appealing male in all that time, because she would have had thousands of guys hitting on her. Then Carol sees Bill, played by Elliott, and it’s love at first sight for both of them. How inspiring is that? This is Hollywood endorsing the stereotype that only the most beautiful are acceptable. Sure, it is realistic as Darwin, but all us omega male and females should protest.

Don’t read any further if you don’t want to read spoilers.

Carol and her friends sneer at the regular guys they meet at speed dating. Average guys are portrayed as pathetic and gross, but I identified with every one those speed dating dudes. The audience laughs at them. And the audience laughs at Rhea Perlman as Sally, for her honest horniness and aggressive humor, at Mary Kay Place as pretty Rona who envies Carol, and pudgy Georgina played by June Squibb for being uptight and timid. Everyone in this movie is white and bland as Wonder Bread. The rat and the pool boy offer the only bit of spice in the story, but the rat is even too pretty to be a roof rat and the pool boy looks like he should model for Geek Squad ads.

The point I’m trying to make is Blythe Danner meets Sam Elliott and they are the only ones who fuck. Everyone else is on the sexual sidelines. Are ordinary people only meant to be spectators of beautiful people and their antics? It would help if Carol and Bill were interesting, but they’re actually boring. The writers gave the actors nothing to work with except a big cigar and turned up collars. Carol has literally been sitting around her house for two decades, apparently not doing much more than feeding her dog, having her pool cleaned and taking clothes to the cleaners. Sam Elliott prefers to sit in his yacht alone and not smoke the cigar he constantly clamps in his mouth. Carol sings, but that’s a lame trait tacked on by writers to give her characterization, but it doesn’t work, because Bill never hears her. And did the writers have to be so lazy as have Carol go goo-goo for a rich guy?

I sorely wished this film had been more daring. What if the Bill character had been played by Wallace Shawn? Elliott and Shawn are about the same age. Could the writers have developed a Wallace Shawn Bill in such as way that he would have been fascinating to Carol Peterson? Besides her good looks, Carol doesn’t have much appeal, so why does Bill single her out as special? Just because of her looks? It’s implied, but never demonstrated, that Bill’s a savvy and sophisticated guy. He would have had hordes of dynamic women throwing themselves at him, so why did he pick a lonely lump of a woman who has been doing nothing for twenty years? I found that hard to believe. If he had just been playing her as one of many, that would have been more believable and interesting.

I hate when writers expect us to assume two lovers are interesting just because they look good. I hate when writers think two good looking people meeting are interesting enough to make a story.

The real relationship that develops in this story is between Carol and Lloyd, played by Martin Starr, who is a lonely Millennial pool boy that has no future. I’d been more impressed with this film if they had ended up hooking up. I’ll See You In My Dream is so Hollywood romantic that it’s painful. They had a real situation to explore – four lonely retired women – yet the filmmakers went for pathetic jokes about getting high on medical marijuana. They bet their whole bankroll on the two beautiful people, and ignored the possibility that ordinary folks could find friendship, connection, love and even sex.

Carol admits to Lloyd that she’s waiting around to die, and he admits he’s saving money for a future with no plans. It annoys the crap out of me that the movie suggests retired people are merely waiting around for the grim reaper to come say hello. Yes, I know I’m going to die, but I’m keeping busy until then. If this movie was truly honest, Carol and Lloyd deserve each other far more than Carol and Bill. Even the pathetic horn dog at the speed dating event deserves better than Carol. He’s trying, she’s not.

Carol Peterson is a Cinderella that passively waits for her Prince Charming. When her PC does show up, he tosses her a flirty line at the drugstore. He’s too cool to show up for speed dating. Bill on their second encounter, bluntly asks Carol out while she’s getting into her car in a parking lot while he casually sits in his car. She says yes because he’s handsome and drives an impressive Cadillac. She goes to bed with him after a ride on his yacht. She waits twenty years and falls in love after two dates? Well, that’s the way chemistry works, but I’d rather see movies about how it works for ordinary folks.

Now, here’s another area of inequality. If an ordinary guy had stopped Carol with that line in the drugstore she would have considered it sexual harassment, but because a suave hunk delivers it, she’s flattered. If Wallace Shawn had driven up in the same Cadillac and asked her out she would have made jokes about him with her friends.

The movie should have been about the four women meeting four ordinary guys at the speed dating night, and developed a story about how each found someone. Instead we have one plotline about aging beauty hooking up with aging hunk. Damn, it’s like those zillions of high school movies, always about the quarterbacks and prom queens, but at the other end of life. Why must romance always be about alphas? The film needed a heart for ordinary looking folks like Freaks and Geeks, which Martin Starr played in, or the ensemble casting of The Big Chill with its great characterization, that Mary Kay Place costarred.   

I’ll See You In My Dreams is one of those rare films at Rotten Tomato where the audience rating was much lower than the critic rating (72% to 94%). Maybe there are other filmgoers out there tired of the photogenic falling for each other. We do have to applaud Hollywood for making a film about retired people. And I’m willing to join any standing ovation for Hollywood when it makes a film not based on a comic book. But I’m always disappointed when a film doesn’t take a chance, or seeks some edginess. I also saw Inside Out this week and was amazed at its creativity. Inside Out went up to the plate and pointed to the sky and hit the ball into orbit. I’ll See You In My Dreams was content to just get on first base.

That’s the thing, I’ll See You In My Dreams is a pleasant, feel good movie. It caters to our stereotypes and prejudices. Most people will enjoy it. But they won’t question it. It doesn’t push the social awareness envelope like Dallas Buyer’s Club. It reinforces the idea that beauty is what counts, and I think for most people, they feel that’s true.

But like I said, I’ll See You In My Dreams plays to our mundane prejudices. Women friends my age who claim to be retired from sex would come out of retirement and jump into bed with Sam Elliot at the slightest come on. And most of us old guys would have picked Blythe Danner as our Sun City dream girl. That’s how we’re programmed biologically. Yet, we have evolved minds. Could you have imagined the humor if Sam Elliot had picked Rhea Perlman over Blythe Danner in a different version of this story? Brett Haley and Marc Basch should have mixed it up more instead of going for the obvious hookup of hotties.

For all those years after her husband died Carol was content with her dog as her daily companion. When she loses Bill, she replaces him with another dog. The message of the film seems to be only guys that inspire chemistry count, otherwise, all women want are dogs for housemates. Carol gets a rescue dog, but she doesn’t even consider rescuing one of those lonely men.

I know people of color get tired of always seeing us white folks up on the silver screen – well I get tired of always seeing beautiful people. Especially characters who have no redeeming characteristics other than their looks. It’s not that I want to put George Clooney out of work, but I’d like to see some leading men that look more like me. And least, it would be inspiring if ordinary guys weren’t so scorned.

JWH