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.

Ill-see-you-in-my-dreams

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

Why Did The Robot in Ex Machina Look Like a Beautiful Woman?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ex Machina is a 2015 British science fiction film about artificial intelligence (AI) written and directed by Alex Garland. The story is about a billionaire  who connives to have a brilliant programmer come to a secret location to Turing Test a robot prototype. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan Bateman, the billionaire, Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb Smith, the programmer, and Alicia Vikander plays Ava, the AI robot.  The film has little action but is quite thrilling. And I’m overjoyed to have a science fiction movie without silly macho weapons, fantasy feats of martial arts, and cartoonish battles to save the world.

Ex Machina asks, like computer scientists have been asking for the last sixty years, and philosophers for the last 2,500 years, what makes us human? Once we understood how evolution shaped life, we knew that whatever qualities that make us different from animals should explain our humanity. Artificial intelligence seeks to reproduce those qualities in a machine. We have yet to define and understand what makes us human, and robot engineers are far from making machines that demonstrate humanness in robots.

Although I’m going to be asking a lot of questions about Ex Machina, my questions aren’t meant to be criticisms. Ex Machina entices its audience to think very hard about the nature of artificial intelligence. I hope it makes people think of even more about the movie, like I’m doing here.

ex_machina-wide

The main idea I want to explore is why the robot had a female form. The obvious answer is movie goers find sexy females appealing. But is looking human the same as being human? AI scientists has always wondered if they could build a machine that average people couldn’t distinguished from a human, but they always planned to make the tests so Turing testers couldn’t see the humans and machines. However, in movies and books, we get to see the machine beings. Adding looks to the equations make them more complicated.

Because so many robot engineers and storytellers make their robots look like human females, we have to ask:

Would Ex Machina have the same impact if the robot had a human male shape or non-human shape?

Is the female body the ultimate human form in our mind? In a movie that explores if a machine can have a self-aware conscious mind isn’t it cheating to make it look just like a human? Since we judge books by their covers, wouldn’t most people think a mechanical being that looks and acts exactly like beautiful woman be human? By the way, I can’t wait to see how feminists analyze this film. Imagine see this movie a different way. Instead of asking if robots have souls, if the film was asking if women had souls. In the theater, we could also see two extremely intelligent men testing to see if a beautiful woman is their equal.

By making the robots female, the filmmakers both confuse the machine intelligence issue, and add a layer of gender issues. It also shoves us into the Philip K. Dick headspace of wondering about our own nature. Is everyone you know equal to you? Do they think just like you? Do they feel just like you? Could some people we know be machines? What makes us different from a machine or animal? In the book Blade Runner was based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick was comparing soulless humans to machines with his androids. Machines are his metaphor for people without empathy.

If the two scientists had been played by actresses, and the robot was a sexy actor, how would we have interpreted the movie differently? A bookshelf of dissertations could be written on that question. What are the Freudian implications of us wanting the robots to look like beautiful young women? How would society react if scientists really could build artificial mind and bodies, manufacturing millions of beautiful women sexbots that have to integrate into our society? Of course, many humans will immediate try to fuck them. But if AI machines looked like people, why should they act like people? Guys will screw blowup dolls now – is a vaguely womanly shaped piece of plastic all it takes to fool those men into replacing real woman?

How would audiences have reacted if the robots of Ex Machina looked like giant mechanical insects?

Ex Machina explores many of the questions AI scientists are still puzzling over. Personally, I think it confuses the issue for us to build intelligent machines to look like us. Yes, our minds are the gold standard by which we measure artificial intelligence, but do they need bodies that match ours?

If the robot in Ex Machina had looked like a giant metal insect would the audience ever believed it was equal to a human? We think Ava is a person right from the first time we see her. Even though it’s obvious she has a machine body, her face is so human we never think of her as a machine. This is the main flaw of the film. I understand it’s cheaper to have humans play android robots than build real robots, and people powered robots look too fake, but in the end, anything that looks human will always feel human to the audience.  Can we ever have a fair Turing Test with a creature that looks like us?

We don’t want to believe that computers can be self-aware conscious beings. Actually, I think this film would have been many magnitudes more powerful if its robot had looked a like giant mechanical insect, had a non gender specific name, and convinced us to feel it was intelligent, willful, self-aware, feeling, and growing. Which is what happened in Short Circuit (1986) with its robot Johnny Five.

The trouble is we equate true artificial intelligence with being equal to humans. Artificial Intelligence is turning out to be a bad label for the concept. Computers that play chess exhibit artificial intelligence. Computers that recognize faces exhibit artificial intelligence. Computers that drive cars exhibit artificial intelligence. We’ll eventually be able to build machines that can do everything we can, but will they be equal to us?

What we were shown is artificial people, and what the film was really asking:

Is it possible to create artificial souls?

Creating an artificial human body is a different goal than creating an artificial soul. We have too many humans on this planet now, so why find another way of manufacturing them? What we really want to do is create artificial beings that have souls and are better than us. That’s the real goal, even though most people are terrified at the idea.

Alan Turning invented the Imitation Game that we now call the Turing Test, but the original Turing Test might not be sufficient to identify artificial souls. We’re not even sure all people have souls of equal scope. Are the men of ISIS equal in compassion to the people who win a Nobel for Peace? We can probably create robots that kill other humans by distinguishing sectarian affiliations, but it’s doubtful we could create a robot that works to solve the Earth’s problems with compassion. If we did, wouldn’t you think it had a soul? What if we created an expert system that solved climate change, would it only be very intelligent, or would it have to have a soul?

In the end, I believe we can invent machines that can do anything we can. Eventually they will do things better, and do things we can’t. But will they have what we have, that sense of being alive? What would a machine have to do to reveal it had an artificial soul?

Can a machine have a soul?

In the course of the movie, we’re asked to believe if a robot likes a human that might mean they are human like. Eventually, we’re also led to ask if a robot hates a human, does that make them human too? Is love and hate our definition of having souls? Is it compassion? Empathy? We’ll eventually create a computer that can derive all the laws of physics. But if a machine can recreate the work of Einstein, does it make it equal to Einstein?

Ex Machina is sophisticated enough to make its audience ask some very discerning questions about AI minds. Why did Alex Garland make Ava female? Across the globe robot engineers and sex toy manufacturers are working to build life-like robots that look like sexy women. The idea of a sexbot has been around for decades. Are super-Nerds building fembots to replace the real women they can’t find through Match.com? If men could buy or rent artificial women to make their sexual fantasies come true, will they ever bother getting to know real women? Why does Nathan really build Ava?

Caleb falls for Ava. We all fall for Ava. But is that all we’re interested in – looks? If Caleb thinks Ava is a machine, especially one with no conscious mind, he will not care for her. But how much do Ava’s looks fool Caleb? How much are we fooled by other people’s looks anyway? If you fall in love with a beautiful woman just because of looks, does that justify thinking you’re in love with her?

We’re all programmed at a deeply genetic level to be social, to seek out at least one other person to bond with and develop a deeper communication. What Ex Machina explores is what features beyond the body do we need to make a connection. A new version of the Turing Test could be one in which we offer people the friendship of humans or the friendship of machines. If a majority of people start preferring to hang out with AI beings that might indicate we’ve succeeded – but again it might not. Many people find pets as suitable substitutes for human companionship. I’m worried if we gave most young men the option to marry sexbots, they might. I also picture them keeping their artificial women in a closet and only getting them out to play with for very short periods of time. Would male friends and female robots fulfill all their social needs?

Ex Machina is supposed to make us ask about what is human, but I’m worried how many males left the theater wishing they could trade in their girlfriend or wife for Ava? So is Ex Machina also asking if society will accept sexbots? Is that way Ava had a human female body?

Table of Contents

Consensual, Prostitution and Rape

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 12, 2015

I saw a silly movie this weekend that had two disturbing scenes that I can’t stop thinking about. The film, Kingsman, is a comedy-action spoof on spy films. I’m sure the screenwriters and the audiences considered everything in good fun, but two scenes troubled me. The first was a mass killing at a church, which I will write about in the future, and the second, is when Princess Tilde tells our young hero, Eggsy, she’ll give him anal sex if he will free her from her dungeon prison. It bothers me that this modern fairy tale has the Princess bargaining for her freedom with Prince Charming. Is the hero’s reward consensual, prostitution or rape?

Princess-Tilde

Matthew Vaughn, the director, considers this scene just another bit of comedy, but I think fiction has a moral language, a philosophical point of view, that we should always take seriously, no matter how stupid the story. Most people want to believe that fiction has a neutral impact on people’s minds, and is entertainment, merely a pastime. That’s why conventional wisdom wants us to believe that video game and movie violence don’t cause actual violence. To me, believing fiction has no power to influence is bullshit.

We all live by fictional beliefs. Unless a concept has been proven by science, most of the beliefs we live by are fictions. To say that fiction has no impact is silly. There are thousands of religions on this planet, and only one or zero of them can be true, so if you look at what religion causes people to do, then I think that’s logic enough to prove my point. Movies do influence people, even light-hearted comedies like Kingsman. Hollywood now has more influence than religion. The scene where the damsel in distress offers the hero sex in exchange for her freedom sends two messages. The first, is to promote the acceptance of anal sex in society. Hollywood has always promoted sex, but that’s not the issue I want to deal with. The second, is that’s it’s okay to barter sex for freedom – that’s loaded with moral issues that need to be examine.

Sex as a form of currency goes back to the animal kingdom. For example, male bowerbirds create elaborate nests in exchange for getting lucky with lady bowerbirds. Evolution uses traits for one gender of a species to set a high price for reproductive access. At one level we can say Princess Tilde has judged Eggsy worthy in a naturalistic way. Even among species were sex is recreational, prostitution sometimes reveals itself. But humans also have free will, and we’ve invented fine shades of laws, ethics and morality about dating. Essentially we divide sexual encounters into three domains of agreement between the two parties: consensual, prostitution and rape.

Ethically, when it comes to sex, our society has intellectually decided we want it to be consensual. Ethically, we quibble over the morality of sex for payment, and we consider sex by force to be one of the worst of crimes. We value everyone’s right to control their body as the highest forms of freedom and one of the greatest human rights. This hasn’t always been so, and it isn’t so everywhere, even today, but it’s inherent in modern liberal societies. We’re still moving towards the goal of perfect equality among the genders, but unfortunately, we’re not there yet, not even close. This incident with the hero and princess in this movie is a good case study why.

There are two sex-for-freedom cases in Kingsman. The hero’s mother in trapped in a relationship with a violent thug, and we’re led to assume it’s because the hero’s desperate mother aligned herself with this man to provide for her children. The hero hates this arrangement, so it’s rather startling that Eggsy would take the same bargain with the Princess Tilde – using his strength to get sex. Why do the moviegoers hate the thug but not the hero? We want to believe that the Princess Tilde is having consensual sex with the hero – but is she? Is any kidnapped woman, captured for what may be years, terrified of dying,  capable of making a free choice? Is the hero’s mom making a free choice when she has sex with the thug to provide for her kids?

Libertarians would like us to believe that prostitution is consensual and maybe it is in some cases, but if a woman is selling sex to survive is that really consensual?  If a wife tells her husband that she will give him a blowjob if he’ll watch the kids Saturday afternoon while she goes shopping might be an example of consensual prostitution. But even then it could be ethically iffy. What if the wife truly hates giving oral sex, but does it out of a sense of obligation, isn’t that still against her will?

When is consensual prostitution? When is prostitution rape? As a society we don’t fully realize the extent of rape in our culture. Few people understand the extent of the feminist message. It’s important for everyone to learn these distinctions, and spot them, even in supposedly harmless comedies. Anyone who has studied humor will understand comedy often has a subtext of hate.

The decision when to have sex is always changing. The generation before mine believed people should wait until after marriage to have sex. My generation, women embraced a variety of culturally supported decision tools, some even coming up with schemes about putting out after a specific number of dates. In modern times, women often go by their own internal desires and reading of their chemistry, which is naturalistic and biology driven. However, biology imposes a tyranny on both men and women. Our bodies push us to have sex, but we often don’t know why.  Nowadays some people prefer hookups without dating. It’s more egalitarian and consensual. Both parties want sex, and getting down to business avoids all the complicated other issues. Most people want sex. There are a percentage of people that don’t, but most do. If two people find each other and scratch each other’s sexual itches by mutual consent with no consequences, we can remove them from our ethical discussion.

Where things get difficult morally is when one person is coerced for whatever reason. We know biology forces us, but how is culture a coercive factor? If you study television and movies with the right insight, you can see how culture imprisons us all in gender stereotypes. As long as women are seen as rewards for male success we won’t have a truly egalitarian society. The trouble is many woman still buy into this belief too.

Ultimately, I want to explore the ethical issue brought up in Kingsman, and most other movies today, that sex is the reward men expect from females, and whether or not this expectation is egalitarian. Are young women programmed by culture to be sexual rewards? In the old days, the hero saves the Princess, and they get married to live happily ever after. In Kingsman, the Princess says, “Oh thanks for saving my life, as a reward I’ll let you fuck me in the ass.” What messages does that send to young women? Pop culture often supports the idea sex is proper payment for the weak to pay the strong? It bothers me Tilde was at the beginning of the show a political powerhouse and stood up to Valentine, but turned airhead weak for Eggsy in the end. Of course some feminists will broil me for linking female sexual desire with female willpower. I’m perfectly fine with Tilde wanting to have sex with Eggsy, but I’m unhappy how she’s portrayed as a joke. We don’t laugh at her when she’s strong, but we do when she’s weak.

Most people are going to say I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but isn’t that because they already accept Kingsman’s messages as true? Can we have an egalitarian society if women are seen as rewards for success? Sure, that’s the way nature works, but nature is not egalitarian. Nature doesn’t give a shit about what happens to anyone. Nature is not ethical. We are evolving beyond nature, into a humanistic state of being. We can reject nature. Maybe we’re evolving our souls, and I’m saying Kingsman isn’t helping.

We’re in new territory here. It’s only within the last century that we’ve started considering women to be equal to men, and most people still don’t. Take the Catholic Church. If we all have equal souls why can’t women become priests and even Pope? Is there something different about their souls? I’m an atheist, so I don’t believe in heaven, but for you people that do, answer me this: Does heaven have gender issues? Does not having a dick make you a second class soul? Do souls have genitals in heaven?

Now that we’re inventing gender equality, we have to assume that all humans are truly equal. Even though I’m an atheist, I like the concept of the soul because souls don’t have physical attributes – they’re pure consciousness. If we’re egalitarian souls, then we can’t discriminate by genitals or chromosomes, and isn’t that what movies are doing? From now on, whenever you watch a movie, or television show or read a book, think about how culture assigns different roles to males and females. Is that consensual? Is what the Princess did truly consensual? Even if she sounded more than willing? I don’t believe so.

As a guy, we always want to believe women want to have sex with us, but just how true is it? If the decision was measured against a scale, with a green zone for consensual, a yellow zone for prostitution, and a red zone for rape, how often when we get laid would the meter swing into the yellow or red?

We are so programmed by pop culture that we fail to see its evil. Princess Tilde was a strong independent woman when she resisted Valentine’s evil plan, but in the end her character is used for laughs, and she’s turned into a batty-eyed sex object. Roxy and Gazelle are never fully realized characters, and neither is Princess Tilde.  Women only represent sexual pawns in this story. Roxy is the token female Kingsman, and Gazelle, the novelty henchmen. Of course, all the characters are cartoonish comic book characters – but the male characters make the decisions. The story is a fairy tale for adults and not meant to be serious, but unfortunately, like all fairy tales, they come with a subtext, and when decoded, we see the darker side of being human.

JWH

Making Sense of a Zillion Pieces of Advice

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 17, 2014

Have you ever notice how much advice the Internet offers?  The web probably has more advice articles than the complete history of women’s magazines.  From how to organize your life, to the most healthy foods to eat, to the best cities to live in, the quickest meals to fix, to how to fight memory loss, or meet the love of your life,  or which smartphones to buy, and so on, and so on. Some of the advice is based on scientific studies, but most of it is from personal experience, and probably a good deal is just some blogger making shit up.

What if we could consolidate all that advice into meta-lists so we could discover what the most common tips reveal? If one dietician says eating broccoli is great for your health, would you start eating it three times a week?  What if 2,000 different scientific studies proclaimed the virtues of broccoli? What if they said broccoli increases your sexual stamina, reduces cavities, clears your skin and conquers constipation?  At what point are we willing to take notice and act on advice? We’re all failures at keeping New Year’s resolutions, so is all this advice wasted on the undisciplined? Or are we all slowly evolving and improving from all these studies?  It’s taken about fifty years for most people to stop smoking.  And even with a Mt. Everest pile of evidence, many people still light up. When and how does advice become overwhelmingly convincing?

memory-loss

Memory Loss

The 800-pound gorilla squatting in my generation’s living room is memory loss. I don’t know how scary dementia is to people under 55, but for us folks over 55, it’s scarier than a serial killer with an idling chain saw. “Memory Loss From Alzheimer’s Disease Reversed For the First Time With Lifestyle Changes” is one article that grabbed my attention.  It’s based on this press report from the Buck Institute on a very small trial of ten patients.  Nine patients with varying degrees of dementia improved after 3-6 months following a specific 36-point  lifestyle guideline.  The tenth person with late stage Alzheimer’s didn’t improve.  The full report in PDF was published in AGING, September 2014, Vol. 6 No. 9.  Scroll down to Table 1. Therapeutic System 1.0.  The entire system is not easy to describe, but here’s a summary.  How many of these pieces of advice are you willing to follow to save your mind?

  • Give up all simple carbohydrates and gluten
  • Give up processed food
  • Eat more vegetables and fruits
  • Eat wild-caught fish
  • Meditate twice a day
  • Do yoga
  • Sleep at least 7-8 hours a night
  • Take CoQ-10, fish oil, melatonin, methylcobaliamin and vitamin D3 supplements?
  • Use electric toothbrush and flossing tool
  • Take hormone replacement therapies
  • Fast at last 12 hours between dinner and breakfast
  • Don’t eat 3 hours before bedtime
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week

How many articles have you read in your life that recommended some of these lifestyle changes?  Over the years I’ve seen some of these recommendations hundreds of times. Why didn’t I start following them in my twenties, thirties or forties?  Why did I wait until my sixties to get down to business? Even though this report in AGING came out in September, 2014, its advice is quite common.  Just read these other articles.

This is just a half dozen articles out of whole libraries devoted to the subject. Yet, if you take the time to read them, you’ll see consistent pieces of advice show up time and again, and even interesting contrasting advice.  Such as sleep at least 7-8 hours, but it’s bad to sleep more than 9 hours.

It’s key in evaluating articles on the Internet to understand where the knowledge comes from. First check if it’s based on a scientific study, and see if you can track down the original study. Popular articles summarize scientific studies, and sometimes they slant their summaries.  See if there are other articles from other sites that take a different slant. Great essays will cover multiple studies, and even explain conflicting studies.

Most articles aren’t based on scientific studies. In those cases you have to evaluate the expertise of the person giving the advice. If you’re reading dating advice, what experience does the romance guru have? Is it just personal, or do they have a relevant degree, or work for Match.com? Plain old personal advice can be valuable, especially if that person’s insights are savvy and practical, and they fit your own observations and experience.

My point here is not to write specifically about memory loss prevention, but to show that there’s a tremendous amount of knowledge, and maybe even wisdom to found on any subject.  How do we evaluate the wealth of information?  Most people find it confusing that on so many topics there’s lots of contradictory advice.  So, how do we decide which recommendations are valid? Wisdom doesn’t come easy.

That’s what I’m wishing for here, a web site that collects and contrasts all the studies and averages them out for every issue we want to consider. I want a Meta-Advice site, a one-stop-shop for evaluating advice, organized like Wikipedia, that has an army of specialists hammering out summaries and comparisons of all the research for any specific subject people want advice on. Google is great, but if you use Wikipedia a lot, you’ll understand why it’s structural approach is better for organizing advice information.

Imagine going to this Meta-Advice site and looking up memory loss and CoQ-10.  Let’s say it evaluates 57 different research studies. The summary might not be conclusive – science rarely is – but it would give us the best current answer, even if it’s only a statistic like in 63% of cases using 23,204 subjects, memory retention was improved when CoQ-10 was used in trials varying between 6 months and three years.  I’m making up these numbers, but you should get what I mean.

When research scientists or PhD candidates want to explore new territory they do a literature review of all the previous studies. They need to find the boundaries of what’s known and not known. This Meta-Advice site should do the same thing, and make it understandable to the layman where the boundary of knowledge is, and what they can learn from it.

It is possible for an individual to go to Google Scholar and do a search on “Alzheimer’s and Dementia Prevention.”  But the results are overwhelming. Only the truly dedicated will wade through the massive number of articles available. That’s why a site like Wikipedia, where knowledgeable editors can predigest the information for the average reader would be a huge help. The Internet is coming up with all kinds of new ways of doing things. We have no idea what cognitive tools will be invented soon. If you think of the effective nature of what Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, IMDB, Flickr, etc., they all make managing information easier. I believe advice management is in need of an Internet makeover.  

JWH