Technology, Artificial Intelligence, and Transhumanism

( I put an awesome science fiction webseries called H+ at the end of this post— if you want something to watch over the weekend, or while you are procrastinating…)

My post ties in nicely with Bryce’s last post that included the “Transcendent Man” clip as my own thoughts stem from Ray Kurzweil who is at the centre of the documentary. Yesterday, Mashable published a story about a private comment made by Elon Musk, inventor and real life Tony Stark, on the threat of artificial intelligence  (http://mashable.com/2014/11/17/elon-musk-singularity/). These comments were deleted but here is a screen grab:

Elon Musk on AI

In case you can read it:

“The pace of progress in artificial intelligence (I’m not referring to narrow AI) is incredibly fast. Unless you have direct exposure to groups like Deepmind, you have no idea how fast — it is growing at a pace close to exponential. The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five year timeframe. 10 years at most. Please note that I am normally super pro technology and have never raised this issue until recent months. This is not a case of crying wolf about something I don’t understand.

I am not alone in thinking we should be worried. The leading AI companies have taken great steps to ensure safety. They recognize the danger, but believe that they can shape and control the digital superintelligences and prevent bad ones from escaping into the Internet. That remains to be seen …”

As mentioned by Mashable Musks comments echo those thoughts of many visionaries involved with artificial intelligence (AI)— except for the fact that Elon thinks the AI revolution is much happening sooner than everyone else expects. I agree with his ideas wholeheartedly. Most people are not aware of how fast computation progresses. Ray Kurzweil, for one, has been making this point for years: technology grows exponentially not linearly. Meaning it doubles in computational power in a short period of time. And as can be seen in the clip, Ray Kurzweil asserts that when “the singularity” humans will need to either “evolve” by becoming one with machines, or die out. Where Kurzweil is excited, Musk is terrified.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk

VS

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil

Humanity+ or Transhumanism, as it is commonly referred to is “a loosely defined movement that has developed gradually over the past two decades (H+ magazine website). “Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond it’s currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.” (More 1990/ H+)

Furthermore, transhumanism is a transitional stage between what is “human” and what is known as the “post human”. A post human, simply put is “a possible future [being] whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards” (H+ FAQ).

And while the post-human is still relatively far from reality trans-human isn’t. Elon is afraid, because he knows that controlling AI or destroying it, in reality, is not as simple as it is in Science Fiction. Unlike in SF, all our technological advances in computation have been leading up to the creation of computational engine ( or computer processor) as powerful as a single human brain capable of “learning” and processing information naturally. From that point exponential growth of one human brain is marvellous yet in this context horrifying as will it progress at a rate incomprehensible to us. AI, at that point will reach what Kurzweil calls the singularity, or a moment “technology will change so rapidly, and its impact so profound that every aspect of human life will be irreversibly transformed” (Transcendent man). AI will be multiple times smarter, faster, and more capable than any human mind ever and it is difficult to not foresee anything but utter disaster. When AI is exponentially smarter and more capable than a human it cannot be destroyed or competed with unless it is met with an equal or greater intelligence which can only be achieved by a merger of human and machine— and even then, who is to say it won’t be the end of humanity?

Two examples visual depictions of this phenomenon come to mind, the first, and more optimistic is from the movie Her (2013) [spoiler alert]. Samantha, and the other AI’s in the movie learn so much that they transcend humanity and simply “leave” they don’t destroy Earth but do cause a lot of emotional trauma as humans are emotionally attached to AI. The second, more realistic and less optimistic, is from the television series Fringe (2008) in the final season of the show the Observers, which are a depiction of post-humans, decide to stop observing and colonize Earth (the observers are from Earth too, but a different time {the future in which they have become post-human}) Peter Bishop, who is human, see that the resistance against the post-human Observers is impossible and decides to defeat them by implanting himself with their technology to become post-human himself.

Peter Bishop as a human
Peter Bishop as a human
Peter Bishop as an Observer (posthuman via use of future technology)

What are your thoughts on the rapid development of AI, are you with Elon Musk or Ray Kurzweil, do you think the development of intelligent/capable AI should be stopped?

Will it be the end of humanity? Remember, you can’t force AI to adhere by Asimov’s laws or anything similar; future AI can learn naturally and cannot be “told” what to do, there is no hardwired fail switch. It is a decision that humanity has to make collectively to either inhibit progress for fear of disaster or to go on despite the risks.

Here is H+ The Digital Series, a realist SF depiction of what Transhumanism might look like at its outset… enjoy:

First episode:

Full playlist:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZedLgAF9aEg&index=1&list=PL21C609B71E82B243&spfreload=10

Sources:

http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-faq/
http://mashable.com/2014/11/17/elon-musk-singularity/

Science Fiction Masquerading

… as a magical girl anime. From left to right, those are Kyoko Sakura, Sayaka Miki, Mami Tomoe, Homura Akemi and Madoka Kaname, and they make up the main characters of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a anime series from, you guessed it, Japan. On the surface, you might lump it together with shows like Cardcaptor Sakura or Sailor Moon, but that likeness is only a facade. PMMM is not a light-hearted friend making show about fighting ambiguous evil without asking critical questions about why or how. It’s a science fiction series that might border on horror. Central to the plot are aliens, time travel, zombification, as well as questions about morality, free will and the nature of the soul. These characters are middle school students. Mami is the only upperclassman.

reaction animated GIF

 

The character of Kyubey, the cute kind-of cat-like creature you see here, was designed with intention of being both cute and dark. That is our alien, though the characters do not know this at the start (with the exception of Homura, but her start is a crucial exception – we’ll get back to that). It is a perfectly rational and amoral monster called an Incubator. Incubators offer young girls the chance to have any wish of theirs granted in return for engaging and eradicating witches. In other words, become magical girls. The ultimate goal, however, is for these girls to devolve into witches themselves. Incubators harvest the emotions of humans to counter entropy in the universe and have discovered that there is not greater release than that which occurs when a girl transforms into a witch.

 

When we’re talking about witches in the context of PMMM, however, we aren’t talking about a magical woman. We’re talking about a sucking black hole of despair that infects people to destroy themselves. The first witch that Sayaka kills has infected so many people that they’ve gathered together and are about to commit mass suicide, one of Madoka and Sayaka’s uninvolved friends included. They create chaotic and irrational labyrinths to protect themselves and trap victims. (On a side note, the mixed-media collage style of this animation is super cool.) The mixture of unlike elements reflects much of what we’ve looked at so far in class – at the construction of monsters by creating this which fits into no classification, at the extreme otherness that goes on.

Did I mention that this is not a children’s show? Even after Mami is killed by a witch, Sayaka makes a wish to heal a boy she likes and becomes a magical girl and attempts to take over and protect Mami’s territory, which leads to conflict with Kyoko. The redhead is another veteran magical girl whose after the abandoned territory. In the middle of one of these conflicts, Madoka steals Sayaka’s Soul Gem and throws it off the bridge in a fit of desperation. Unfortunately, this causes Sayaka to drop – temporarily – dead.

Kyubey reveals the true nature of being a magical girl. As soon as the contract is made, it rips the girls soul out of her body and transforms it into a compact, easy-to-carry Soul Gem. From then on, their body is nothing but hardware. They have become near invincible zombies. Sayaka’s Soul Gem is returned to her by Homura, but by then the truth is out. Sayaka takes the news badly and spirals into irrevocable despair. She refuses to clean her Soul Gem with the Grief Seeds that are dropped by defeated witches (This is to force magical girls to continue fighting witches if they want to live) and it becomes entirely corrupted. Sayaka is turned into a witch that immediately attempts to kill both Madoka and Kyoko. Kyoko sacrifices herself to destroy Sayaka.

The most important factor for this story is Homura. Each magical girl has magical abilities that differ from one another. In Homura’s case, her ability is directly connected to her initial wish and her power is time travel. When she became a magical girl herself, she was a diminutive girl fresh from the hospital who was befriended by Madoka in particular. In this time line, Madoka became a magical girl first. When the worst witch of them all, Walpurgisnacht, threatens to destroy the entire city, Mami, Sayaka and Madoka all take it on. Mami and Sayaka are killed and Madoka’s Soul Gem is corrupted by using too much magic. She persuades Homura to kill her by destroying her Soul Gem before she turns into a witch. Homura then makes a contract with Kyubey to allow her to save Madoka. Hence, the time travel. However, she ends up watching Madoka make a contract and die or be killed something like thirty times?

 

Kyubey is persistent in its attempts to make a contract with Madoka because her magical potential is exponential as a result of the multiple time lines now tied to her. She would be the best magical girl, then become the wickedest of all witches. The energy release would be unpredictably high. When Walpurgisnacht comes and Homura is facing it alone (again), Madoka makes her decision. She abandons her family, finds Homura and Kyubey and makes her wish to stop all magical girls from becoming witches. The granting of the wish requires the rewriting of the universe and Madoka is transmuted into the Law of the Cycle, in which she appears to any magical girl at the point of transformation and destroys their Soul Gems. Homura is the only one who remembers that Madoka ever existed.

If we ignore the Rebellion story line (which is mostly Homura becoming the antithesis of the Law of the Cycle), it’s a happy ending, but it certainly isn’t happy getting there. What we find in something like this is just another example of how flexible and involved the genre of science fiction is, and that it can present itself in a myriad of forms by pretending to be something else. Everything’s a masquerade for something.

Technology and Fears of Dehumanization

 

Humanity creates technology in order to ease or enhance our lives in some way. Machines perform tasks that we are physically unable or simply unwilling to do; computers and the internet enable us to communicate instantaneously across the globe (and off it) and provide access to information on an unprecedented scale. Technology makes our lives more convenient. But while technology advances at a rate exciting to some, it can seem ominous to others. There exists an anxiety that our reliance on technology dehumanizes us and even, in a worst case scenario, destroys us.

brain-singularity-1
http://beagleresearch.com/web/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/brain-singularity-1.jpg

The creation of increasingly intelligent technology is likely the main source of this anxiety. On the one hand are ethical considerations- as discussed in our presentation- and on the other, the fear that our creations might turn against us. The antithesis of a benign AI like Data is Skynet and the Terminators (not a musical group). Created for defense, Skynet rapidly becomes self-aware and determines that humanity is a threat, and triggers a nuclear war which kills half the Earth’s population. Putting human defense under the control of machines proves catastrophic. We trust that the technology we create is safely under our control, but as we “boldly go” into our future that niggling fear of losing control persists. Annihilation by cyborg overlords is terrifying, but the knowledge that we are the architects of our own destruction is profoundly disturbing (if not a bit embarrassing).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mivg-F4UYko

(After sitting five days in the editing box, this link has resisted all attempts to embed or hyperlink it. You’ll have to do it the old fashioned way and copy and paste.)

The outstanding and, in my opinion, woefully under-appreciated Black Sabbath album Dehumanizer, (featuring the magnificent late Ronnie James Dio) explores ways in which we lose our humanity. I won’t go on and on about it, but I will encourage readers to give it a good listen. The song “Computer God” echoes the Terminator movies (the album was released the year after the T2). Indeed, the album cover features a rather cheesy Terminator-esque figure reaping an electrical man. “Computer God” creates a picture of cold, technological revolution, but also our disconnection and loss of humanity through that technology.

dehumanizer
http://www.metal-archives.com/albums/Black_Sabbath/Dehumanizer/529#

Whether we believe technology is benign or menacing, the frisson we might experience at the Terminator’s calculating red eye reminds us of our uncertainty.

T3
http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/terminator-3-rise-of-the-machines-2003

Do the women of SF share a common mythological ancestor?

William Gibson recently wrote on his Twitter account, regarding Molly Millions, that:

“In 1984, amazingly, [the] idea of [a] protagonist’s female buddy kicking more and deadlier ass was considered radical and outre”.

meatpuppet

There is no question in my mind that Gibson is right, and that in popular culture, in the decades prior to Molly Millions arrival on the literary scene, many of the women were characterized as damsels in distress rather than ass-kicking warriors. For me, it was Molly’s innate differentness that initially drew me into reading and re-read Neuromancer when I was 15, because, at that age she was like nothing I had ever seen or read before.

                However, how unique is Molly’s characterization as a masculinized female mercenary really? The late mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell wrote in several of his books, including Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth, that heroes/heroines throughout history come from a shared set of mythological touch stones. For Campbell, and somewhat Carl Jung before him, it was truly possible that all our heroes and heroines arrived at our feet in the shape of similar archetypes, having followed similar paths. Could Molly, and the other driven, autonomous women that popped up after her inception, be echoes of mythological identities and journeys from the past? Could female protagonists that display an abundance of masculine traits and/or feminine strength just be an echo of Greek mythology’s Athena, for example?

This is my first attempt at making a video. If you watch it there is a cat in it for you

 

Sience Fiction Creating Reality

So I think that we can all agree that SF relies quite heavily on the extrapolations of technology. I would argue that these extrapolations are too often regarded simply as fantasy, impossibilities written just to entertain, rather than having any potential to exist in reality.

Personally I believe that one of the main functions of SF is not simply to entertain, but also to predict and even create technologies. For example, the idea of cyberspace proposed by William Gibson in Neuromancer was at the time of its publication considered very speculative. Now however, the term cyberspace is used widely to describe the internet, which has already, even in my lifetime, become an everyday commodity. While the form of cyberspace described by Gibson has yet to become a reality, I would argue that Gibson’s descriptions of cyberspace have largely influenced the creation of technologies such as the web. By influencing everyday perceptions and ideas of what is possible, Gibson and his proposed ideas have worked to influence scientific minds and, in turn, have worked to influence scientific advances.

I would also postulate that SF has also worked to influence or create the ideologies of futurists, who work to explore the potentialities of new technologies. By exploring the potential of technologies, futurists are better able to make more accurate speculations about the future.

Anyone interested in futurology should check out the film “Trancendent Man”, which I believe is still on Netflix. I’ve put the trailer below.

What do you guys think? Is the purpose of SF just entertainment? Or does SF also serve to influence our reality by spreading ideas about technological potential?

Science Fiction and Gender

Science fiction is one of the best genres for exploring gender. While other genres can be used to explore what gender means for its time and place SF is able to explore gender as it could be. What we would like gender construction to be or just explore challanges to how we percieve gender.

From genderless scentience like in the case of Le Guin’s story to the stigma surrounding gender association. Their is mentions made about third-genders in SF works like Star Trek.

 

 

In other SF films gender and human perception of it is explored in more depth. Films like Enemy Mine explore, sex, gender identity and the biology behind this. Having what viewers originally assume to be a male characters pregnant and then give birth challanges what viewers may assume a man to be or look like in ways other genres may not be able to.

Enemy Mine

While many other genres are able to challange gender identity through use of characters fighting or submitting to certain gender role SF is able to challange them in different ways. By showing men in women in already altered gender roles or by showing dystopias where the worst aspects of gender identity become obvious such as “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”.

SF can and sometimes is one of the best forms used to challange the status quo of gender idenity. In other ways it may just fall short of this such as the episode of Star Trek finally centered around someone of a “third gender”.

In this episode what starts off as a member of a Star Ship fighting against the ill treatment of this “third gender” falls short. The character Tucker seems to be fighting against the slavery of this third gender. In the end this episode cautions against interferance even in issues we would otherwise consider morally wrong. A strong emphasis is instead put on not forcing our cultural ideas on others even if they culturally practice enslaving a preportion of their own population based on gender.

SF can be used to challange the status quo of gender, enforce it or to emphasis non-interferance but I still would like to believe it can play a larger role in gender exploration then many other genres.

What do you think is SF the best genre for exploring gender identity?

 

 

Science Fiction in Music.

Science Fiction as a lyrical inspiration in music is surprisingly common, and in the vast majority of music it appears in, is totally awesome. I’m definitely a music nerd, but more the classic rock and heavy metal kind, and less the jazz/electronica/marching band/ royal conservatory kind. So this is my admittedly narrower perspective of SF in music.

Early emergence of SF as a theme included the very “spacey” 1971 Hawkwind album, “In Search of Space,” though mainly the B side alone is really more SF oriented, and overall had a more “spacey” sound than “spacey” lyrics. Even earlier, though perhaps less directly, are acts like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, with “Third Stone from the Sun,” and even less directly, the early noise works of Pink Floyd‘s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” and “A Saucerful of Secrets.” Where it really stars to pick up, is when Black Sabbath released “Paranoid” in 1970, kicking off the band’s love affair with SF from Ozzy, to Gillan (less so), to Ronnie James Dio (RIP), who focused mainly on admittedly pretty stream of consciousness fantasy lyrics in his solo career.

An extra special mention goes to Rush. In 1977, they released their 5th album, “A Farewell to Kings.” And, yeah, it has “Closer to the Heart” and “Cinderella Man” on it, but who really cares (well, a lot of people, really) when there’s an over 10 minute epic as the last track. “Cygnus X-1” is such an incredible song, I haven’t the words for it, really. It’s part of a two song epic, totalling over 28 minutes in length, but it’s Book 1, the “Farewell to Kings” song that is the really masterpiece here. I wish Rush could be this heavy all the time. When the song kicks back in at roughly the eight minute mark, I just want to tear everything apart.

The genre that SF I believe shines the brightest in, is metal. All kinds of metal. On metal-archives.com, a surprisingly concise directory of metal from all over the world, there are over 200 bands that have SF as a lyrical theme. Also, mild warning, most the bands I’m about to mention range from heavy, to really heavy, to incredibly heavy. I pretty much only know how to metal.

Judas Priest paints pictures of SF heroes in “Stained Glass” with the song “Exciter,” and in Painkiller with “Painkiller.” Albums like Sodom‘s “Tapping the Vein.” with lyrics from the perspective of a chemically enhanced solider. Bands that are completely submerged in science fiction, like Obscura, Beyond Creation, Origin, Stargazer, and B.C. band Archspire. More post-modern lyrical content, but still in the realm, are bands like Gorguts, or completely other-worldly bands like Portal, so Lovercraftian that is hurts, who use made-up, “evil sounding” words in later albums. This is barely a scratch on the surface of this incredibly vast topic. Got any other SF music suggestions?

 

STAR TREK ATTEMPTING TO FIGHT RACIAL BARRIERS

index“Star Trek, the final frontier”, this is the statement at the beginning of the show. While I believe that this show on a ship named “Enterprise” is about in most respects  commercialism and colonial advancement, it does attempt to break the racial barriers of the 1960’s.

With the crew of 400 on board the ship and hurtling through space, it attempts to show people of different ethnicities working together.  The first inter-racial kiss on television was in “Plato’s Step-children” from 1968. This kiss, between Kirk and Uhura, in the 1960’s at the height of the equal rights movement was a daring move by the shows creative staff. The contraversy brought into play by this kiss gave much attention to the fact that racial equality is important and in the future will be gone.

Yes, I know he is the white captain of the ship, but the crew was made up of others whose roles in the maintain of the ship and crew were of different races (even alien to Earth, Spock). Eventually in future spin-offs and movies there are female captains and admirals of different races and alien cultures.

While there is evident racism in this series and maybe not be as direct in the questioning of racism as the movie from 1967 “Guess Whose Coming To Dinner” with Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier, it still was fighting the gender and racial stereo-types that were very much ingrained in society at the time. Taking baby steps the same as in learning to fly before going into space. Not perfect but an attempt to change the landscape of television of the 1960’s.

While some were played by actors not necssarily of that race (Scotty and Checkov),  Sulu and Uhura were Japanese and black. These were the boundary pushing attempts to “boldly go were no one has gone before”.

Books made on the movie

There are now more books in Science Fiction and other genres made to be about a movie that has come out. This is not necessarily a bad thing as many people may like a movie that has come out are interested in a more in-depth look into the characters. However; when that book is based off a movie that is loosely based off of another book is it still a good idea. Recently there has been talk of having a movie about the Infinity Gauntlet. After speculation has gone on for some time it was announced that the movie would be made. Now to go with this movie we will be having not just a reprinting of the original story but an entire new story that will be going more along the lines of the movie.

Fans of the series are concerned because so far it seems like the plan is to change the story not only for the movie but also for the marvel cannon. The excitement for many of the fans who knew the original comic was about how well written the comic was. If the new comic comes out to follow a movie plot many of the characters from the original story will be left out. As the original story contained many less know space heroes (or cosmic heroes as it is referred to by fans) many may be left out. Should this concern people? Is it fine to replace book classics with new versions of the story so it can fit the movie? Marvel comics is not the first to make this leap in replacing an original story with out that will fit the movie they are just the latest. I want to here what you guys think about this trend. Good? Bad? or Inevitable?

Differences Between Reality and Science Fiction

So, reading science fiction novels, watching science fiction films, I think it’s fairly common practice to compare our own technologies to the ones in these fictions. And when I make these comparisons, what I interesting is that although some of our real technologies have advanced far beyond those available, there is still a very wide gap between our real technologies and the imagined ones of SF.

Real hoverboards don’t work over water
Real hoverboards are a little bulkier, use electromagnetism,  and require a hover surface to work
Real hoverboards are a little bulkier, use electromagnetism, and require a hover surface to work

For more info on real life hoverboards:

http://www.engadget.com/2014/10/21/we-rode-a-hoverboard/

Differences between SF and reality are fairly self-explanatory, but that won’t stop me from explaining them.

We don’t have these… yet

The physical appearance of the technology common in science fiction, and especially in dystopian SF, differs starkly from our own.  Often in SF everything is polished, shiny, round, seemingly never dirty, and extremely expensive looking. In reality however, we have yet to develop a cheap form of reproducing the sorts of surfaces and architecture which characterize SF.

Me appreciating SF

Also differing from SF,  reality is subject to the laws of entropy, and since we have yet to create a race of maid-droids capable of doing all of the chores, it is up to us sorry humans to do them. The quality of technology in SF versus reality is also vastly different. For example, space travel, though possible in real life, differs vastly from SF in the ease at which spacecraft navigate the cosmos in SF. SF, much more than reality, is much more capable of satisfying Clarke’s third law – that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Not magical, cannot remove dust from the top of the refrigerator, cannot experience love

And so, quite sadly, the lack of accessibility to such advanced technologies, and the expense of creating them, are major preventative force which works against creating the magical, iPod-esque world that SF sometimes seems to aspire to.