One of the most common themes in Science Fiction movies, from Terminator flicks to the Cylons in Battlestar Galatica to the Matrix franchise, to the more thoughtful poetic philosophical Stanley Kubrickesque 2001, is the notion of the Earth being taken over by robots ( in the movie 2001, for a time the fate of the Earth hung in the Hands of Hal) The word ‘robot’ is Czech for slave, and its very existence implies forced labour. Robots are intelligent nonhuman slaves, in other words, machines able to perform complex tasks automatically. The takeover of the machines is a paranoid fantasy of loss of control similar to the ‘red’ scare in movies like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ or Zombie flicks where mindless forces take over our nature and threaten to destroy our humanity. But to move away from paranoid Hollywood movies and back to robots , what caught my eye was how seriously the AI (artificial intelligence) ‘threat’ it was being taken in certain quarters.
For instance in the rather restrained language in an open letter from the Future of Life Institute “Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence“. Artificial Intelligence research is steadily increasing and concern seems to be sufficient for the FLI to write this open letter so that we all could sign it. I did, so that the impact of the rise of AI/Robotics remain positive for life and for humanity.
I have long held a deep skepticism over what is happening in Robotics. It also seems that only technologists who aren’t bought and paid for, science fiction writers and Stephen Hawking (who signed the aforementioned document) seem to be really worried about the rise of the robots) This rather surprised me, but then I am used to being surprised. Once, according to Hawking, AI was developed it would take off and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate, and thus pose a mortal threat to any life form that would oppose it. for the full statement – see here
1. Robots are now clever, far cleverer than we imagine they are.
In some regards its absolutely fascinating what can be done now with robots. For instance Amazon, the massive corporation selling everything from shoes to silicone implants recently began testing online delivery drones for packages under 2.3 kg in a delivery time of 30 minutes or less in Canada, as it couldn’t get the license to test them in the USA. An extraordinarily clever use of airspace exactly below airline travel routes.
This is but one of the applications of robotics that are literally limitless, and most of them have already been written about in science fiction, technical manuals, and economic texts and are going into production from automobile production, to cleaning, to medical applications, to the health and service industries, military and agricultural, prisoner monitoring, policing, fast food industries, and road maintenance. I saw some footage today of a grape harvester that moves through the vines, and leaving them intact, harvests the grapes into giant vats. Don’t forget our every online keystroke is monitored by a vast AI system. We imagine robots as mobile. Many of them are stationary, squatting buddahesque in vast kilometer long underground supercooled rooms maintained by technicians, for instance as worked on by Google.
Few large corporations, given the size of the market and the potential revenue one can bring in via the Internet, have skimped on investing gargantuan sums in building better, faster, stronger, smarter machines. Soon your favourite piece of apple pie and coffee will be served not by a waitron, but a machine. Its not just production, what we want is creativity too from our artificial life. Robots write novels, poetry, paint portraits, and compose music. If you like the meal cooked by the local robot chef, soon you won’t have to leave a tip. AI write reports, poems, short pieces of journalism, and, as I mentioned, novels – probably a lot better than some of the fiction being written. But this is rather high brow. Think of the guy who pumps gas for you. He too will soon be made of metal. But by then you probably won’t have to pump gas. Your car will be a self-driving robot too, run on biofuel from hemp.
2. Humans are fragile: we break, die, and fall ill rather easily.
So what happens when most blue collar work is replaced by AI? What happens when the bank tellers are for instance replaced by sophisticated automated tellers and loan distributors? – Not that too many loans will be given out. There will fewer consumers. Why? Well, as we will mention, it’s expensive to raise humans. Its easier to have fewer humans and more machines running things. After all robots are robust, easier to replace and never get old. Humans require a share of the wealth. They need insurance, wages, holidays. Robots need good technicians to keep them going. For humans there is the issue of health care, housing, feeding, educating them. And humans are fragile despite their big brains. They have soft bodies that need constant maintenance. There are other health issues as humans get into adulthood in terms of the diseases that can fall prey to, new interesting diseases that one has to spend time and money developing cures for (yes drugs are a massive business, but not as massively profitable as robotics). Not to mention the panoply of psychological and psychiatric ailments that humans invariably acquire or inherit that need costly intervention.
Initially robots, for instance in the last few decades primary work among others, is to monitor humans and make sure they don’t step out of line. Again that sounds a bit reactionary and paranoid, but think of the number of cameras and screens and investment in listening to just what we are doing right now. This is because of the sheer numbers of humans and the diverse nature of the population. This is not a situation that will remain. In time because the the expense of maintaining and educating people, it will probably be necessary to enact laws to cut down on the number of humans. Overpopulation is a huge issue.
In future, because of the robots, those humans who are allowed to raise families will have to be intelligent and trained and maintained and brainwashed and compliant. We cannot have divergent thinkers in a world where so much expense and investment has gone into training a human to a specific supremely complex task. Genetics are an obvious human outlet here, but there are so many others. We could possibly forbid the robots to do any genetic work while we design the next evolutionary cycle of human being, perhaps to try to keep up with whats happening with the robots evolution.
So lets focus on the humans in this imaginary world. Allow for the fact that there will be fewer of them. Many of the non-robot workers will be working on higher wages maintaining the robotic software and machinery that generates wealth and capital for those who own the robots. As most of the highly sophisticated work, in other words the intellectual capital necessary to run most of the main pillars of the economy, will be bought and owned by those who provide the populace with most of the services needed to run the economy, including the universities, hospitals, prisons, heavy industries, military and governmental, only a small proportion of the population will physically be allowed to reproduce. If they do reproduce, it implies a further division of wealth, which is bad business practice and cannot be allowed. Thus they may do so at a loss of citizenship and the possibility to advance themselves within the technologized world. In other words those who do reproduce without permission will find themselves in a severely economically disadvantaged position. Robots and humans always remain at odds. They are two competing life forms and one or the other will inevitably gain absolute control, despite the fact that for a lengthy period of history, humans might the owners of Capital.
3. Karl Marx was a genius of historical proportions, which is partly why we don’t like him much, but he sure knew about human alienation.
Anyway the problem with all of this it does not have a kind of historical inevitability in the way I am describing the logic of robotization here. It’s probable, but not absolutely so. Moving on, to paraphrase Karl Marx’s theory of alienation and to extend it a little, if capital alienates humans from the product of their work, in other words if I work for a living wage, then the person who pays me owns my work. Anyone interested have a read of Marx’s Paris manuscript (1844). It runs to about fifty thousand words, about the size of a short novel.
You or I may not like the idea of alienation, but it’s how society works. People possess what they buy, including our time, our ideas and our creations. So I am undeniably alienated from my work through the process of my boss paying for it. My boss who paid for my time is the possessor of the capital necessary for me to get a job to earn a living wage. But what happens if I lose my job? What happens if a robot does my job, for instance the way an ATM does the job a bank teller used do? If this happens I am completely alienated. I am without any means of working in the way I was working before. Whether I am living in Greece and believe me in Greece where I write this there is serious alienation going on, or in the heart of Germany, it makes no difference. Whether the population of the Earth swells to fifteen or even twenty million, it makes no difference. This is because my skillset has been superseded by a robot and I am without an income. I can become all revolutionary and blow up all the robot factories I like, it also makes no difference. Robots are replaceable. More are being made as I blow them up. The word sabotage originates from the sabo, or shoe, weavers used to throw into the cotton mills to stop them depriving workers of a living during the first Industrial Revolution. The upshot of all of this is my company needs to hire fewer workers (human) and in the end I am turned back on myself, on my human nature. Either I upskill or I lose my income altogether. Reskilling is a short term solution unless I am on a lifelong upward learning curve. Realistically it becomes an increasingly limited option open to fewer and fewer the more robots are made, and better smarter more skilled robots, and even then we have to start assuming at a certain point an evolutionary curve in robotics. In other words some go obsolete and we build better robots to manufacture better robots.
4. Labour options.
So people have less labour options open to them. What can they do that cannot be done faster cheaper and more efficiently by AI? They might turn to crime or to black market operations, but even that has a limited lifespan. So at a certain point we enter into a period of massive population decline with huge supernormal profits being few into the coffers of multinationals and fewer and fewer being
born, or we ship off planet altogether. Let’s assume that happens and life on Earth settles down to a billion or two of us living with the robots, robots which have already in effect conquered the Earth for an elite group of industrial capitalists who own the corporations, the leaders of the ‘free’ world, and the raw materials left on the planet. Robots begin the process of rehabilitating the planet, its climate, its nuclear waste for clean energy, and the Earth becomes a nicer cleaner place to live. Soon it becomes clear, after a few hundred robotic evolutions that they are the master race. They have evolved past us. I am reminded here of Shelley’s Frankenstein. We build something that in so many ways supersedes us and it destroys those who created it. And the thing about it is this is something we have already witnessed as happening. I don’t have a solution to this scenario.
5. Isaac Asimov was also a genius, but his three laws were naive.
Isaac Asimov, science fiction writer, devised his famous three laws of robotics, and in 1942 included them in a story called ‘runaround’
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws
The problem with Asimov’s theory is that the of the first and most obvious applications of robots is and always has been the battle field. Unmanned vehicles against humans and other robots is arguably one of the most efficient military uses of robots. It’s certainly something worth thinking about, and has me scratching my head.
I believe in blogging. I am often shocked what other bloggers endure in order to keep on blogging, in a forum wherein one supposedly can engage in some kind of free expression. The most obvious one is that of the Saudi Blogger Raif Badawi who was recently sentenced to 1000 lashes in Saudi Arabia for ‘cybercrime’ and ‘insulting Islam’. Word has it Raif Badawi will now be tried for apostasy, which carries the death penalty. I did not realize Islam was so sensitive to criticism. In point of fact, I do not think it is, that is, normally speaking. Generally speaking any belief system that inflicts this type of extreme punishment against its dissidents is somewhat doomed. History is littered with examples of failed purges. Anyhow Islam is a rather fascinating and magnificent system. Personally I don’t believe a word of it, but some of the finest cultural artistic and scientific advances have occurred within the context of Isalm, including the glorious invention of beer (which came not from Saudi Arabia which is our topic right now, but Iraq 4000 years ago, and developed there from through Islam) But to return to Saudi Arabia, it is not a country a secular atheist writer might feel the warmest of welcomes, seeing as it thinks little or nothing of administering rather brutal punishments on those whose views it violently disagrees with. There are other examples of Islam doing such things on unbelievers, many others like this. According to Sarah Anne Hughes(communications assistant for the American Humanist Association.) She writes “Recently in Bangladesh, the government removed hundreds of online posts by seven atheist and secular bloggers who “defamed Islam and the Prophet Mohammed,” according to the AFP. The country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged to punish the bloggers who spoke against Islam. So far, four bloggers – including one who openly identifies as a “militant atheist” — have been arrested and now face up to ten years in jail if convicted of violating cyber laws.” (read the article in full here : http://americanhumanist.org/HNN/details/2013-04-atheist-discrimination-the-weird-and-serious-ways-no )
I of course have no personal or spiritual interest in Islam, nor any faith, aside from enjoying the Koran the few times I read it. Faiths have been rooted out and destroyed and recreated in numerous indeed hundreds of forms throughout history. But that is another issue. Its also true in my experience that not one of the Muslims I interact with have ever espoused such extremist views as what one reads about. In ways it seems almost like an exercise in Islamophobia to read so many negative stories about the faith of Islam so often in the press. That being said, it’s outrageous to see fellow writers, or indeed anyone persecuted for their basic human right to free expression as freedom is freedom to express the self without harm to another. Given the crooked and labyrinthine world of the internet, it’s inevitable too that divergent views of all kinds will emerge in even the most narrow and repressive of regimes given the rise of blogging, a medium extremely difficult to control, and largely out of the reach of governmental control. Think of how easy it is to respond to, or write about the contents of another blog or post, for good or ill.
Torture, imprisonment, lashes, and religious or political police who take your ideological and doctrinal temperature and make of you a spy upon your neighbour or family is one way of controlling the minds of a population. It is quite effective, and the more bloody and brutal and spiritually inspired, its more justified. During the middle ages, for example, the justification for such torments inflicted upon Christian schismatics and unbelievers was the blessings of confession and forgiveness and as a consequence, the glories of heaven and the joys of God’s presence in eternity. But you can’t have that in the West. Firstly that’s just not legal, unless one whisks a suspect off to a black site injected with some kind of anesthetic and hooded where he or she can be tortured far from the inconveniences of the Geneva Convention, tormented and broken in peace, that is, until they confess their sins. Outside of purely political ‘terror’ suspects you just can’t do that to the general public. People ask questions. If you have them by their minds, their hearts and wallets will inevitably follow. Anyway by an large torture doesn’t work. Torture is an instrument of power. It doesn’t change your mind. Secondly we have the problem of the internet. It doesn’t matter how many people one questions, word spreads at the speed of light. For instance this picture was posted on Facebook and received seventeen thousand views and forty nine thousand shares. Facebook, like the NSA and MI5 and all the other governments involve in the intelligence community, keep count of everything.
Not exactly a political view an establishment superstructure would want propagated through the online community. Of course this is easily dismissible as merely a witty meme filled with politically apt language, giving something of a left of center conspiracy theory on the operations of a worldwide governmental military industrially manufactured control structure, a worldwide governmental conspiracy to spy on our every online move, that and just about every aspect of our lives, generate wars, and manufacture our consent to the status quo, whatever that status quo might be at any given historical juncture. Yes I expect one could dismiss it, if it hadn’t been proven by Edward Snowden’s revelations. If we don’t believe that Big Brother is really watching us, if we don’t believe that enemies are manufactured for the purposes of waging war to increase governments market share, if we don’t believe that we are given just enough education to be controllable, then we are simply ignoring the evidence that has been presented to us. We simply have not been paying attention and the lessons of history are lost unto us.
But surely bad people should go to jail? Yes. But only after a fair publicly accountable trial, not a mafia style hit by Special Forces in the dead of night.
Which brings me back to the importance of us all keeping talking to each other. Blogs help. Online communications help. The idea is that ideas matter. We need something to change our minds, and each of us has a unique perspective and that unique perspective has the ability to open other people’s minds. The best communication of all is face to face, physical meetings and physical confrontations, not that the gift of the internet has not been a good thing. So belief systems should be harmed by these blogs. And the more the merrier. Lets keep talking.
EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE HEARD OF ALEXANDER GERSHENKRON
ALEXANDER GERSHENKRON (1904-1978) was a Harvard Professor of Economics from the late 1940’s to the 1970’s. He was known particularly as a historian of economics and among other things postulated the ‘Backwardness Theory’. His paper Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (1962) was and is to the best of my knowledge, unsurpassed in its clarity of argument and groundbreaking perspective. The essay, which is grand tour of European History, Culture, and Economics (among other things), postulated that the more backward an economy the more it will pass through certain marked stages of development, in other words that there would be a heavy reliance of banks and state funding and that general consumption in such an economy would be restricted because of the necessity to invest in capital projects.
Gershenkron was a man of letters. His writings and essays were lauded as masterpieces of erudition and powerfully concise writing, and his lectures were simply legendary in terms of scope, breadth of learning and entertainment value. He actually rewrote them from scratch year ofter year as his knowledge increased and sheer memory for detail and statistics required revisiting the substance and essence of what he had been teaching (primarily economic history)
I started reading about Gershenkron, when I came across Nicholas Davidoff’s memoir of his Grandfather (who was Gershenkron) – called THE FLY SWATTERwhich is beautifully written, and though a memoir of a beloved family member and someone who profoundly influenced him, does not stint to give a complete picture of a complex and profoundly fascinating character.
An emigre from the Russian Communist and the Nazi regimes, and truly world class intellect who, because of history was deprived of an early academic fulfillment, he found a home for himself in the US, strongly identified as an American, and with his family made a life for himself as a Harvard man.
Gershenkron, known as ‘Shura’ to his family, was a polyglot’s polyglot. He spoke 20 languages, read hundreds upon hundreds of books a year (he had for instance devoured Charles Dickens in five different languages) and filled his days and for that matter nights with the pursuit of knowledge. His light was invariably on, and when he did sleep, he rose extremely early to resume his work. In THE FLY SWATTER, Davidoff talks about Shura’s attempts (p.193) with Erica his wife, to find about 100 different translations of Hamlets quatrain to Ophelia ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire’.
Everything fascinated him. He was an intellectual butterfly, flitting from one subject to another as he devoured facts, figures, novels, poems, and articles. So wide ranging was his knowledge that he was offered chairs in three different departments at Harvard, something that probably caused a bit of a shock in the departments concerned despite the fact he turned the job offers down. This is because Gershenkron was a difficult person. He was an intimidating, overwhelming, exacting uncompromising personality. He was capable of using his abilities to dismantle an argument or a thesis from the root and leave his debating partner flattened, the ground taken from under them. And this he did – a lot. To put it mildly he did not suffer fools – at all.
For Shura (Gershenkron) the pursuit of academic and intellectual truth was the ultimate ideal and nothing came in the way of that. Those who were shoddy with their facts or bad with their statistics or did not work as hard as they should received from him a verbal spanking they would never forget.
But this pursuit was flawed. Shura was excessively competitive. He had to know more. He had to have read more than you, be more accurate, more dedicated. His work was peppered with obscure quotes in obscure languages because no one would have that range of knowledge at their fingertips. And he knew that.
The double experience of exile, from Russia, then Austria, and particularly the loss of his exceptionally brilliant little brother, had damaged him – perhaps more than he or others even realized. He became excessively defensive and insecure, a kind of prisoner of his own need for exactitude but his capacity for competitiveness actually inhibited his development. His books were collections of essays. This was a form he preferred to a full length work for a few reasons. Shura feared death because of his bad heart – in fact he had been told by his doctor once he had only a year or two to live. Nevertheless its also true that lots of thinkers and writers have worked on large tomes despite death beckoning. Anthony Burgess wrote three novels the year after being told he had an inoperable brain tumor. Looking at the essay form it is easy to see it is more controllable. It has a definite end in sight and holds none of the pitfalls of a lengthy work’s capacities for bad avenues of argument and wrong conclusions and pedestrian styles of prose hidden inside lengthy chapters. This would be something unthinkable for Alex Gershenkron, the consummate defensive perfectionist.
Instead of the big books he produced brilliant essays replete with facts figures and obscure quotes and references sometimes in a dozen languages.
Gershenkron never produced the ‘great work’, the summation of his career. This big book was something friends, colleagues, and rivals were always looking for. He was one of those few minds well capable of producing groundbreaking ideas, a Marx, a Keynes, producing world shifting theses. But no one outside rarefied academic circles ever heard of him. Underneath that towering ego, that ruthless frankness, those cutting critiques, that devastating capacity for thought and recollection of facts, figures, and whole tomes, was an enormous intellectual timidity.
It is a truism that the more one knows the more one longs to really know. Or to put it another more conventional way, the more one knows the more one knows one does not know. In other words as knowledge accrues, there is an increasing consciousness of all the gaps in what one knows, all the suppositions that fill the holes where truth and certainty lies. Truth, if it can be defined, if it exists, is an infinity multiplied by an infinity. We are constantly operating on the edge of the unknown, trying with our little knowledge and our enormous capacity for error. all our knowledge is marked by a great horizon of finitude. Its marked by the edge of our lives and the fact that we will never really know everything, and we are going to die.
Gershenkron, through the many losses, disappointments and bereavements he suffered knew all too much about human finitude. This led him to a kind of writers block from which he never escaped. It was almost like the novelist who never finishes his or her novel. He was the thinker who never knew enough to start or even finish his great book.
A kind of humility is needed to really work at creating something new, whether in the field of economics or history or poetry or physics. Uncertainty and ignorance and groping in the twilight between ignorance and knowledge one tries to work and make something anew from what we know, and more to the point, what we know we don’t know.
The implication from this is a kind of negative judgement on what Gershenkron achieved in his life. Not at all. He was known as ‘The Great Gershenkron’ for a reason. Revered, feared, and honored, he was as I said, the polyglot’s polyglot. Everybody learned from him. And everybody should have known his name.
which is clearly not the case. Here is a picture of my ten week old puppy and she is zipping round our rented cottage like a pixie on amphetamines.
Charlie never so much as laid a tooth on the little creature. To accuse him of doing such a thing (as I implied in the title) is to cause Charlie grievous offense as Charlie is an animal lover and he used to regularly play with my puppy, who is quite the looker and is extremely well socialized, gentle and very playful, thanks to Charlie. In a sense I am way out of line accusing Charlie of puppy eating. I know the truth about Charlie. I know he is a good man, or I thought I did. And here I am flagrantly violating his ‘good’ name, and knowingly doing so, which is a low blow. The idea that I am free to spread lies about Charlie, to upset him with impunity, to ruin his life, simply because I have the power to do so is horrible. It is a monstrous act, especially because Charlie knows I write for a living, and I can sit here and fabricate things about him that might even sound credible. So I guess I am not free to do what I please. In fact I know Charlie spends his time rescuing animals and is a militant vegetarian. He believes deeply in animal rights. This of course adds hugely to the insult I am perpetrating on him if I were to write the Charlie Hebdo Puppy Eating Story. I think over the damage I am doing to his good name. I am attacking one of the pillars of his ethical stances. Its simply not on. I cant use my freedom to exploit another’s personal space, right to a good name, or in any other way hurt him, simply because I can. There is a core of natural rights belonging to Charlie Hebdo (and everyone else) that prevents him from being subject to my puppy eating accusations.
But then something happens in my long and warm friendship with Charlie. There is a room in his house I can never get into. Its always locked. I am a curious man. One day I find the key. Its filled with Nazi Paraphernalia. I discover current membership cards for extreme far right organizations espousing xenophobic, racist political views. I make copies of the room and the cards and whatever else I can find just for the sake of having evidence. But it doesn’t matter. Deep down I am crushed. My bitter disappointment in my friend leads me to write a novel about him, this warm hearted charming fascist racist bigoted friend of mine. It sells five million copies and I am rescued from complete financial disaster.
But success is not without its suffering and its cost. Charlie sues me for defamation of character and loss of income (he lost his job after his party membership was revealed). Charlie and I are no longer speaking of course. He has put up his house for sale as he used to live near me. He wrote me a long bitter letter telling me what a terrible egomaniacal person I am and how little I care who I cause offense to so long as I can profit from the views of others. These views are private Charlie tells me. These views, Charlie says others have the right to uphold. After all, he says, he wasn’t hurting anyone holding these views. Millions hold these views. My novel sparks a huge debate. I didn’t actually think very much of my novel. I thought it was rushed and written with fire brigade emotions in my heart.
Oh, I forgot to mention the death threats. Charlie’s friends are going to kill me, my family, and my puppy. They are part of the same far-right groups Charlie was a part of. They nailed a dead cat to my door last night. Maybe Charlie had a right to his views. Maybe I should have left well enough alone. Maybe I will survive this attempt on my life. Maybe the next time I write something, it will get me killed. I don’t know. I am not writing anything that is untrue. I am an enemy of extremism. I use my gifts to pillory the stupid, the bigoted and the downright dangerous. I cant help myself. Its who I am. I don’t discriminate between who I choose to satirise and those I exclude. After all Last time I wrote about Charlie Hebdo. And Charlie Hebdo was a long term friend of mine.
“100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing!”
GOOGLE’s BOOKWORMING EXPERIMENTS AND AI DEVELOPMENT
I love reading. I read about 3 books a week. I know many people who read more, much more. Reading and writing goes back about thirty thousand years. The act of scribbling things down in various formats, from stone walls to tablets to wax to wood to paper to print to computers forms a method of recording everything, from casual notes to high culture to science. Its is one of the essential elements for a species’ survival and advancement. Without text civilization would suffer failure. In other words civilizations that don’t record things, pass on technology and skillsets and develop, well they simply collapse. Equally true is the fact that a society with superior technology and recorded skillsets will rule others. Knowledge is power. Its a cliché, but things become clichés for a reason.
One of the more under-discussed, under-reported and unexplored things that I have frankly been haunted about is the fact that in recent years the multinational Google are big readers. They have surpassed their goal of reading every book that has ever been written and making it available online in Google Books. Google say that 129 264 880 books are the total on the planet. I think its into the billions myself, not to mention the exponential speed of text growth since the inception of the internet. More to the point Google’s reading experiment, no doubt hugely successful, has changed our civilization forever. It’s not simply because all the reading and scanning of all of those millions of books without the permission of the copyright holders resulted in a much publicized lawsuit. Its because knowledge is the most valuable asset and the most useful currency available. If it is, as I hold it to be, then why do this? Why would Google want to read and store every book available? What’s so interesting about reading every book ever written? I was intrigued. Then I read how Google had gotten into robotics and artificial intelligence.
Put this way, a book represents the most complete representation of a human thought process, the most comprehensive working out of human interactions in the world as recorded in language in fiction history, geography, poetry, maths, philosophy, science and the arts. One mirrors the human experience through reading, especially books. A book comprises an approximation of a complete act of consciousness, moving from premises, accumulating data, putting forward arguments, telling a narrative, drawing strands of various objections to opposing arguments, reflecting on emotions and human and non human interactions at many levels of complexities, and finally reaching what we understand as a satisfying conclusion to the book. Added together in all the books we get something approximating the deposit of recorded human experience. From there we move on into music, the plastic arts, painting and so on. So, one of the most perfect sources for a schematic of human consciousness and intelligence’s grasp of the many problems of life in constructing Artificial Intelligence is in reading.
Reading is not so much an obligation, but for the most part, enjoyable. Wonderfully enjoyable. In fact it can become an addiction. I would go further and say that people who read little or nothing except what their work demands or the daily tabloids are missing out on not only one of the great pleasures of life, but one of the truly great consciousness expanding experiences possible for anyone. Regarding the act of reading as something that is the purview of students or academics or nerds is simply a type of anti intellectual prejudice about something that is essential for living. I shudder to think what might be the effects of this kind of attitude if were to become more widespread.
But to get back to what Google might be working on. If they build a working AI, which seems a little more than likely, then it will become an essential component for all high functioning robots. If this happens, then the technology will undoubtedly become cloned and copied and cheaper and widespread very quickly. AI technology will then become part of what we now know as the internet, but will transform the internet utterly into something we no longer recognize as the web.
AI will do everything we do. It will perform all automated functions, will run departments, do accounting, become part of scientific work, build roads and ships and planes, look after our children and run our hospitals and operate our transport systems. AI will be field tested in battle and become the indispensable weapon for every modern army.
In fact as predicted in so many science fiction novels, AI will grow exponentially in sophistication to such an extent that they will probably be regarded as people at a certain point, that is if and when they pass something akin to the Turing Test. Some wont, of course and will be left in another new sentient life form classification.
As so much work will be done so much more efficiently by AI, populations will drop hugely because it will become economically unviable to have anything more than two children, as there will simply be no work for them and average incomes will drop as work done previously by humans will now be done by AI. Its hard to believe that it could happen but AI will sadly increase even further the gap between rich and poor, and will lead to more wars.
New missions to find habitable planets will increase in effectiveness exponentially with the use of AI, and it won’t be long before people will begin to ship off world to find new places to live. New colonies and new sources of wealth will be discovered off world and life will be discovered on other planets. All this is speculation on my part. I know that.
I also could go on. The possibilities get wider and wider and wilder and wilder. My views are also pretty dystopian on this AI development. But I am not going to speculate further. But from all this one thing is highly likely. It is this: like so many revolutions before, the act of reading as a mirror for all that we know, all that we are, has become yet another key starting point for a new technological revolution.
Ursula K. Le Guin accepts the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.
A Brief Riveting Speech by a Mistress of Letters about the difference between writing for a market and writing for art.
A few days back a brilliant writer, someone who was somewhat relegated to the genre of science fiction and fantasy, was hugely honoured at the U.S. National book awards. This is in itself a matter of considerable significance. Ursula Le Guin has been re imagining our possible futures for decades in her novels and poetry, and science fiction, a genre which never really got the kinds of recognition it deserved as an art form ( I am a huge fan of same) is now beginning to be really recognized, because we are now living in the age of science fiction. As Videos tend to disappear from You Tube,I quote Le Guin’s speech here in full. She received the award from Neil Gaiman.
“Thank you Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.
Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)
Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.
I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.
Its probably due to just how complex and increasing complex a society it is, but very year in the United States, thousands of new laws are added to the statute books. There are so many of then no one could really know them all. Actually it would require such an exotically savant- like level of understanding of the law that either one becomes a kind of barrack room lawyer or remain forever at the mercy of an un navigable matrix of rulings and amendments that goes into the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of pages, a kind of unknown the likes of Google might be able to consume. Speaking of Google and many Google like search engines consider, if you like, the legal implications of the fact that the entire digital world is currently being rebuilt simulacra like inside computing systems, which help run search engines. Every person, place, and thing—and all the relationships in between—are being catalogued. According to Stefan Weitz (the director of Bing – Microsoft’s search engine) in his very badly titled book Search: How the Data Explosion Makes Us Smarter (Green House Collection) Hardcover – November 4, 2014. It’s nearly 4 Zetabytes this year alone. That’s enough to fill 130 billion 32GB iPads. So if everything is being catalogued, virtually and reliably, then it is a matter of time before everything pertaining to you becomes potential evidence.
Thus the experience of being stopped or questioned by a policeman (who can now legally search your ‘smart’ phone) puts any average or indeed not so average person in a vulnerable position. (Its a staple of so many cop shows that the panic stricken citizen is stopped by the hardass cop and intimidated into some kind of admission of guilt.) Legally speaking, it seems that the citizen is always at a disadvantage saying anything to a police officer. For example: given that though anything you say may be taken down in evidence against you, equally anything you say may not be taken down to exonerate you, a very strange and seemingly unjust thing. Furthermore if you do say something and it is misrecorded, the fact that you may later deny what you said has no validity – it apparently is what is referred to as hearsay. That is but one example. There are so many others.
Despite its endless complexities, the USA is a country whose laws and justice system fascinate us. Millions of books are written about it and every night hundreds of cop shows demonstrate the dynamics of American law. Its also equally true that whatever one might think of the justice system in the United States, no one on the planet remains unaffected by it. I came across this interesting video which talks about the dangers of overcriminalization of American society how, when too many laws begin to detract from justice (where one can, for another example, be arrested for importing a lobster that is too small or to eating a French fry in a subway), the best course of action is to never ever speak to a police officer. For myself I have had lengthy conversations with police. I talk endlessly and ask too many questions. Also I have on many occasions naively answered all questions that were put to me and never for a moment felt I was in any way shape or form incriminating myself. But I live in Ireland and have a rather unadventurous lifestyle.
Anyway, this is a highly entertaining, well presented, funny, informative, and thought provoking video. It also paints a foreboding picture of the relationship that possibly exists between regular citizens and the police. I regret to say I have not been able to find out the name of the law Professor who gave it. But still, a great lecture.
When you are stuck in a Cafe in Newtownmountkennedy an hour or two before an appointment, one can become intolerably bored. Being a bit of a bore myself, I start talking to complete strangers, who for the most part have come in for a quiet time by themselves and don’t want a strange hairy talkative man discussing economics and brands of coffee with them. The other possibility, being the one I found myself doing after talking too much this particular Wednesday morning, was to ensconce oneself, read too much, and start making notes, too many notes, notes on a book that is quite brilliant.
Peter Watson, in his truly wonderful unputdownable Ideas, a history from fire to Freud (Orion Books ISBN 978-0-7538-2089-6), which deals in one thousand odd pages the development of ideas from the emergence of the first Chimpanzee/proto-human (about six and a half million years ago, give or take) to around 1933 just as the Nazis began to turn Germany into a war economy. I picked up this particular tome after I came across the second volume of this series (it deals with 1933 onwards) from seeing and reading bits of it years ago in a friends library and desperately coveting a copy of it myself. The second volume is called A Terrible Beauty – The people and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind,which, as I said, takes us from 1933 onwards to the late 1990’s. I read it and think I may have either lost it or gave it away.
The first volume (Ideas …) glides swimmingly through the millennia of history and deals deftly with vast tracts of ideas and cultural shifts with élan, clarity and compelling prose. Its definitely worth a look. Think about it as a Christmas gift for readerish friends.
In the last hundred or so pages, the area of the book I found myself in that Wednesday morning, Watson begins to talk about the flowering of German Genius, an event that happened between the years 1848 and 1933. The picture on that sits oddly on the top of this web page is a photograph of page 906 of Ideas I took on my phone. It gives one and idea of just how many rather clever German individuals were around at that time.One or two names, however I do take exception to. For instance I notice Franz Kafka’s name is on the page, about midway down. Kafka was actually a Czech. He subsequently lived in Berlin and died in Austria- so he kind of barely makes the list. Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Austro Hungarian Vienna in 1889, and spent a lot of time in Cambridge, England. Also the photo of p. 906 is of a list of most but by no means all the rather clever individuals that came out of Germany between the aforementioned years. This flowering is an event that runs parallel but is not necessarily inextricably linked with the development of the most repugnant scientific racism (pseudo scientific if one looks at it closely) that was gaining momentum during the time, also in Germany and surrounding countries. The scientific racist, whose logic hides to my mind a profound bigotry that seeks rational defensible explanation, believes (borrowing an idea taken from the Enlightenment) that being human is a biological rather than spiritual or theological or metaphysical fact. This belief, coupled with Primarily Western European historical contact with other races and a firm misapplication of Darwinian Principles of Evolution, led some thinkers to believe that not only are all races not equal, but equality doesn’t come into it. Some are just not as evolved as others. The misinterpretation of Germany’s Renaissance, (if you might like to call it that) was misinterpreted. It gave us a huge advance in so many disciplines. Yet it was also used a proof of racial superiority. This racist thinking, backed with jackboots and weaponry was a kind of poacher-turned-gamekeeper thinking that leads nations to impose their versions of democracy and/or religion on others, believing they to be the one in the right and all others by default in are in error.
However if one looks down the list in the photo of page 906, one sees how few of those artists and thinkers would for a moment hold such views. I would like to very quickly single out one name and point out that Nietzsche was not one of those aforementioned thinkers. He was not a racist in any way, shape or form. He split with Wagner for instance because he loathed, among other things, Wagner’s racism. Moreover Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth who looked after him during his years of dementia was a racist. She also married a fascist, someone Nietzsche loathed and despised and would have nothing to do with. Elizabeth Nietzsche’s subsequent associations with Hitler, and her poisoning of her brother’s writings and legacy has done much to distort the reputation of one of the greatest philosophers, prose stylists and psychologists that ever lived, and its a deep shame that such a thing happened.
Anyway – so many exceptional artists, philosophers, scientists, engineers, musicians, painters, sculptors, writers did not emerge in a void. Something had to have triggered it – for instance the unification of Germany in 1848, without question triggered events. Indeed to crib lines from Fawlty Towers – there is ‘enough material for several volumes’ trying to tease out the causes of the German Renaissance. One thing that Watson points out as a big cause is the profoundly interesting and dynamic German concept of what constitutes cultural activity. German Kultur came to stand for intellectual, spiritual, or artistic activity – but not to the same extent political, economic or technical life.
Kultur was a synonym for societal manifestation for a type of creativity of a higher order, perhaps the highest, one of the profoundest expressions of the German Spirit. Thus for a person to engage in such intellectual, spiritual, or artistic activity, ones work was more than welcomed, but seen as central to the furtherance of the nation’s well being. This is somewhat different to how such work is seen now. It is the province of universities and study groups paid for think tanks and the work of vast multinational corporations who invest huge sums in universities and trawl for talent across the world for those people to work in vastly well stocked labs on projects that are deemed useful mainly fiscally attractive rather than good in themselves. It is a sad truth that novels are written for sales now more than anything else. If one decides to become a writer or a poet one is really talking about someone who teaches college and gives creative writing classes and as a side project writes. They operates so cohesively within the system as to never have an opportunity to adequately critique the world they live in. Other than that they either become part of the one percent who write a best seller or remain forever on the fringes of the golden circle, giving readings at open mics and getting their work published in small presses. An artist needs an audience, and so many gifted artists work shrivels on the vine of rotted potential simply because the world we live in views the creative thinker as something extraneous to what is central and most important, being economic viability. Painting and sculpture is a huge business and viewed as such. As a consequence has thus far completely lost its teeth with the exception of a few labouring in isolation. Academics in universities are, as well as teaching and publishing duties, are expected to bring in money from corporations and perform studies for a price as part of their contract. There thus is a world of difference between the use of genius ( an unpopular word I admit – perhaps giftedness is a less controversial word) as a commodity and the pursuit of artistic and intellectual goals as a good in itself. The irony is that the rather romantic view of pursuing such goals as a good in itself has a massively beneficial effect on society as a whole. The post 1848 Germany for all its many many faults, was a place where such work went on precisely because of such values. And we are happily living with its many benefits since. The chapter that covers our present age is in real terms remains unwritten. The commodification of skill sets tends to more benefit the needs of the corporate thinker, the organizational psychologist, the investor, and the team leader. The irony of the lessons of this Watsons chapter in German prewar history seems to be this : the more the truly creative person works/writes/paints/builds for themselves, the more they work for others. This is not egotism, which goes nowhere. This is the selflessness of true creativity, which transcends not only the bounds of egotism but says something about what it is to live in the world.
“Killing a Priest on a Sunday, that would be a good one.”
A Catholic Priest, especially on a Sunday, while he celebrates Mass, acts In Persona Christi (in the person of Christ) transforming the bread and wine in to the body and blood of Christ, re enacting the transforming healing and redemptive act of Jesus through his life death and resurrection, all focused on the moment of Crucifixion and resurrection, which is were the point of Mc Donaghs title Calvary comes from. This is a movie about death and resurrection, about the death of an old order, the condemnation of corruption, and the on-going self analysis and self questioning Irish Society must go through in order to resurrect itself. Its also funny.
Dealing with more issues relating to contemporary Irish society than one could shake a stick at (the decline of faith, the corruption of bankers and their non subsequent imprisonment, the consequent increase in affluence and education on the population, bankruptcy, the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Clergy and its devastating effects on belief in the Church, the erosion of a cohesive sense of identity in Irish Society, the decline of Catholic Culture, Suicide and its after effects, the meaning of marriage, forgiveness, love, sex) starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran and Isaach de Bankolé, this is a must-see despite its flaws: for the writing is as excellent as are the performances by the actors.
I use the word flaws because the movie gives a somewhat unbalanced view of both society and clergy in order to make its many sharp edged points. Set in a small Sligo town whose windswept countenance truly gives an uncomforting feel to every encounter with its population, one experiences a portrayal of the Catholic Clergy, with notable the exception of Gleeson’s warm wise and lovable character, as idiots or corrupt, which is unfair. The other problem with the film is its reduction of the society which Fr. James mixes in as representative of archetypes rather than real substantial people, mainly for the purposes of portraying the black comedic elements in the film. One has the atheistic doctor scientist, the sensitive daughter of the priest who has tried to kill herself because of her despair at an unloving world, the depressed soulless self loathing corrupt property owner, the furious bankrupt pub owner, the world weary writer finishing his final masterpiece on a lonely island and the victim of horrific sexual abuse. Where are the mothers and the fathers and the cinema goers and the ordinary shoppers and the tourists and ‘the lonely men in shirtsleeves leaning out of windows’ (to crib T. S. Eliot) who comment and chat and come and go and for whom life goes on as it always has? This is a film filled with intellectual pyrotechnics and lacking in a touch of everydayness.
So in the first moments of the movie the aforementioned victim of horrific sexual abuse confronts Fr. James in the confessional and says he will kill James the next Sunday, because James is a good man and it would be worse for the Catholic Church than killing a bad priest. The other point being that the real criminal, the true abuser, is dead. This is Fr. James’ personal Calvary. James has seven days to his death. He knows he will die in seven days and though he can get out of it, he doesn’t. Just as Jesus knew he was going to die for others’ sins, so James too will accept death for the purposes of atonement for the crimes of others. He goes through his week seeing his church burned down, his dog killed, his sobriety wrecked, his integrity and authority as a clergyman treated with disdain, and the final awful moment when he too is treated by a worried father as a possible paedophile simply because he is a priest. Its too much. James goes on to his Calvary on the beach. And there in the final moments of the film we reach a kind of resolution. The incalculable psychological, spiritual and personal devastation that child rape leaves upon its victims is played out in the final scenes of this film, the betrayal, the pain, the loss of selfhood, the loss of power, the bleeding and the horror, are beautifully portrayed in the moments as the movie closes.
Watching it as someone who long long ago lost his faith but understands the mythology and the poetry of this cult of death, this is a powerful and beautiful piece of work, a call for honesty and truth and reconciliation, and most of all the imprisonment of those who abuse children.