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.