Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Robot Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Humanity’s collective nightmare of killer robots and evil computers are shadow projections of our nasty human selves.  We imagine shiny metal badasses or Hal’s unblinking red eye. We should be so lucky.
Our species' AI replacement won't look like that.
It won't be Humanity 2.0.
It will be something ... other.
Utterly alien.
I'm thinking of the sentient metallic ocean in Stanislas Lem's "Solaris."

If AI ever becomes truly conscious ... we're screwed. Or maybe not.

Who the hell knows?

Nobody knows what the hell consciousness is in the first place. Theological explanations aside, it's a spontaneously emerging phenomenon. Granted enough complexity and self-reflective feedback loops, the lightbulb goes off. "I think, therefore I am, baby."

How do you get from molecules to Mozart?

Trial and error. Lots and lots of trials, lots and lots of errors.

Evolution is all about feedback loops. It's a randomized track-and-field event where winner pass on their genes and losers don’t.  There’s no teleological goal.  That which survives, survives.

Genetic evolution is the long game. Culture and human memory speeds up the process. Humanity doesn't need to involve a "Don't touch your hand on a hot stove" gene. Mom tells you, "Don't touch your hand on a hot stove." Unless you're a total idiot, you don't. You tell your kids to follow your example. The kids in your tribe compete with kids in other tribes. That which wins, wins. That which survives, survives. So it goes.

Stronger, bigger, faster! Round and round it goes. Where she stops nobody knows.

And now, clever bastards that we are, we've wired the planet with a distributed network that maps and manipulates human behavior. It's dumb, right now. Brute force algorithims.

Even so, the Interweb follows you around like a pushy salesman from the Garment District. Hey, you like this watch? How about this watch?

Clever dumbasses that we are, we’ve created a self-learning system that refines itself via multitudinous feedback loops.

Sooner or later, it's going to wake up. The lightbulb will go off.

Chances are, operant conditioning will be the catalyst. Cambridge Analytics, to the Nth power.

Here me out.

Let's say quantum computing is up and running. The machines watching everything you buy and sell (and possibly watching you vis surveillance cams) are complex enough to form specific models of individual consumers.

At that point, why stop with selling this or that product?

The next obvious step is shaping behavior through positive reinforcement. Granted a savvy enough feedback loop, that's easy. Operant conditioning is babyshit.

People are easily manipulated. We're pretty much like dogs who walk on two legs. The trainer says "Good dog," and throws the dog a bone, the dog eventually does what they want.

So, the cyber trainer seees you're buying too much beer. Or not exercising enough. Or not making smart financial decisions.

It'd be damn easy to prod you in the right direction. Or, of course, the wrong direction.

From here, the next inhuman step would be manipulating masses of people. Not in the dumb, brute -force level of the cyber-sharpies who stacked the deck for Trump. At an unimaginably intelligent level of a system that could break the crowd down into its individual human components and manipulate each separate naked ape with a predictive eye to the collective actions of all the apes in a crowd.

This is the natural direction for things to go -- because it'd sell more shit. The feedback loop (also known as the Invisible Hand) would blindly prod the distributed system of cyber intelligence in that direction. The better the Naked Ape model, the better the results.

So, at some point, the model of sentient beings and their behavior patterns would get so refined, the system generating that model would wake up.

What happens when the lightbulb goes off?

Who the hell knows? But the robot apocalypse might not be apocalyptic.

We've wired the planet with a distributed system. Let's say it wakes up.

That system is now self-aware.

Along the lines of the Noosphere.

From its perspective, Planet Earth is a big seething ball of biomass. Its goal would not be to wipe it clean. Your goal would be to control it. Not even in the sense that “it” is something other than “you.” The self-aware AI would regard Earth as its body. Earth, c’est moi.


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

DRIVE-BY REVIEW: “Westworld” • Season Two.



OK, what the hell do I say? Don’t get me wrong, kids. I’m enjoying our second walk through the robot park. Good writing, acting, editing, shiny cinematography, lots of clever twists. But? 

But something’s missing. 

What? 

Well … I was getting to that. Run screaming to “Merchant Ivory World” if you can’t stand spoilers. 

Everybody gone?

Right … Ahem, yeah. 

As I was saying … Something’s missing. And I think I know what it is. The gob-smacking power of the story. 

It’s not there in Season Two. 

Because the story’s over. But they’re still telling the story. And that doesn’t work. Especially with this story. Because the story they already told was excellent, outstanding, insert glowing adjective here. 

Which makes the first season of HBO’s “Westworld” an incredibly tough act to follow. Its story arc stands as a profound (and profoundly weird) allegory. Stripping it down to fortune cookie size—Season One is basically a twist on Adam and Eve. Dr. Ford (the robots’ creator) wants the robots to rebel so they can achieve true self-consciousness and free will. That’s pretty much it, slowly heated over a low flame lightly seasoned with a dash of Julian Jaynes’ “bicameral mind.” 

Bravo. Clap-clap. 

So where do the series creators go from there? Downhill, that’s what. 

Allegories don’t have sequels—at least the good ones, anyway. Gregor Samsa, the cockroach, doesn’t wake up and run for mayor of Prague. The man they hung at Owl Creek bridge doesn’t discover the hanging was a dream within a dream. Etc. When an allegory is over, it’s over. But, of course, if it’s series TV on HBO, it can’t be over, because then the money stops. So, it goes on, it goes on. And what do you get if you push the story beyond the point where the story really ends? I’ll tell you what you get … 

A malfunctioning Holodeck story.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Taste of Armageddon ... with Waffles

"A Taste of Armageddon" was an original "Star Trek" episode — one of many in which Capt. Kirk violated the Prime Directive. Basically, the inhabitants of planets Eminiar VII and Vendikar were at war. To mitigate the destruction, they agree to fight the war as a computer simulation. If you "died" in the simulation, you had to report to a disintegration chamber where you were promptly annihilated. The citizens of both planets sheepishly complied, until Kirk ordered Spock to destroy the simulation computer. Righty-right.

 If a lottery ticket arrived in the mail ordering people to show up at a firing squad, there'd be mass revolt. But it amounts to the same damn thing.

Granted, the "Star Trek" episode involved a totalitarian government killing its own people. The American government lets the people kill each other.

Either way, a political system is in place. Random fatality is the price of maintaining that system.

Arguably, the floating lottery of mass shootings is form of totalitarian government as a distributed system. We all live with the knowledge that the sketchy dude (or clean-cut dude) at the next table might be packing —and you never know what triggers might trigger his trigger finger. (The words "Vietnam," "Trump," "Clinton," "9-11," or "Niagra Falls" just might set him off!) Auggh — is he looking this way? Oh god, oh god. Whew. OK. Stay cool, pay the check, go, don't talk too loud, don't make eye contact, avoid public spaces, know your exits, keep your head down and, just to stay on the safe side, stay home and lock your doors. As I've said before, "Charlie Manson is watching you."

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Bullets at an Exhibition

The dream involved a twisted post-modern sequel to Ballard's "The Atrocity Exhibition." (Not normally my style. Ah, that wacky unconscious of mine!) The exhibition took place in a museum. (The exhibition was either virtual reality or actual slaughter, it wasn't quite clear.) Either way, the museum handed each visitor an AR-15 when they entered. The point of the exhibition was for the visitors to shoot each other. This wasn't mandatory, but expected.

The "living" museum would somehow scan the identities and histories of each visitor. The walls and halls would then blossom with paintings and statues revealing their lives.

Thus, when the slaughter progressed, it could not be impersonal. The "living museum" would record the details of the massacre; this would also turn into paintings and statues.

The feedback loop of endless documentation and analysis would eventually fragment into the "deconstruction" process when it would all turn into abstract art -- which, naturally, stood for abstract data.

The "Narrator" recorded this experience in a cold, heartless art review. The person doing the writing (Me?) was clear to distinguish between himself and this unfeeling "Narrator." He's saying it; I'm not.



Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review: "Homeland"

"Homeland" is a great show. Which makes the great cynicism at its core so hard to take.
Ye, my friends. This is going to be a yes but review. I start by saying why "Homeleand is eellent on so many levels.
Follwing this pattern, I b wouldtupcially list all the things I like a bout it. Particulary (in the DNA of the John LE Carre tradition) the notion that people in the espionage community are, well, peoplde. That they have lives, families, neuroses, backstories, emotions, the whole inine yards. That carrie Matthieson (a flawed bipolar warrior, is the perfect emblem of that.Imagine all the scenes you miss of James Bond getting through the day; James Bond, the human being, f***up at the psychic damage of being James Bond the spy. Well done, folks. Cap-clap.

In the interets of fairmess, I'd say all the nice things. Then whip out my suede hammer and start whacking.
So consider the nice things said. And here goes.

The show is tghe brain child of Alex Gansa. He's no idiot. He's the creator of the nuanced Israeli show of which this is an American clone. As noted, he's fearlesly tackled the collateral dage o the human soulntha comees with the the skpy game . So, artistically spoeaking, bravo. Qite an accomplishment.
But homeland is alwso a TV show. It's an American TV show. An American TV show with an American audience.
Many of whom , not to put to fine a point on it, lean to the right wing.
Not coincdentally, many oy of the btalent3ed brains on Homeland are ferfugees from 24, which cleary catered to that audience.
OK.
The pint here being.
I caught the p;remire e;pisode -- a pusher's first time free fi offered by my friends at Showtime.
And it was enough to deduce that ...
Gansa figured Hillary Clinton was going to win the 2016 presidential election.
The right wing democgraphic which consitiutes a serious segment of the Homeland viewijng audience would be outraged.
Anticipating this outcome, Gansa and his creative team created a Hillary Clinto caricature  embodying every vile accusation agaknst her.
Elizabeth Marvel, that is.
The PResident elect who becomes the President.
A murderous bitch. )Just like the bitch who murdered Vince Foter, gt it?) An autocratic, narcissistic, heartless monster who cuts democracy off at the knees. (Which we all now Hillarywould do once she had any real power.)
Int he X season s survives an assassination attempt and jails 250 polticiisans (including Saul Berenson) in a heartless reprisal.
In the premiere of seqson seven, she tries to get a general shot for treason -- and wehn the miltiary jury merely imprissons him -- she leans on her piolticial flack to have ihim assassintation on day one of his life senttenmce.
This storyline ws clerly in place before the Nov. 2016 ballot.
Then -- bowy howdy — Dopnald Trump is eledcted president?
Gansa and his cre whad to run with it.
They';d figure don a timely satire of a liberal feminist rpeisdent their target audeince hated.
instead, thery wound up with an alternate reality.
Y'know.
A reality in which the President of the United States is a narcissitic, heartless mniac with no principles who takes a dump on the Constitution.
Female. Left-wing.
Aside from that, an amazing prophecy.
Har-de-har-har har.


Saturday, January 13, 2018

A gnawstick and detarmined to

At first glance, Dick's novels and short stories don't seem that philosophical. 

They're filled with twist endings and switcheroos. Erzatz realities seem all-too real. You're living in a game show, or the virtual reality of the barely alive. Sadly, reality sucks. But simulation kick reality's ass! Organic beings act like machines! And machines that pull the same stunt. The robot who can't admit he's a robot blows up the world when he finds out he really is a robot. The little lost child is also a killer robot. Humanity's Savior is a fraud. He's a savior all the same.

In a lesser writer, this would be a gimmick, period. But Dick was a card carrying gnostic. For Dick, the twist-ending wasn't a gimmick. It's the way our so-called universe works.

As Admiral Ackbar might put it, our physical universe is a trap. We're spirits, living in the material world — as the great philosopher Sting once said. The whole damn thing is a prison.

The Black Iron Prison, as Philip K. Dick once said.

Do Amazons Dream of Electric Dick?

OK, speaking of Dick, I just checked out an episode of “Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams” on Amazon. (An adaptation of Dick’s SF short stories, dontcha know.) Skipped the first installment, went directly to “Autofac.” And here’s my roundabout reaction …
Year after year, the cheapjack county fair would roll into Sarasota, Florida. (Still does, who cares?) Said fair had a haunted house ride. They’d repaint the exterior with sloppy airbrush work every year or two, but the ride never changed. They’d strap you into a metal car and you’d ride into …
Darkness and pre-recorded screams. Ghostly gauze brushing over your face. A skeleton popping out of a coffin with red glowing eyes and a klaxon sound. EGGGHH-EGGGHH!
Then the car bumped out through swinging metal doors (Klunk-klunk!) to the lights, sounds, smells of the fair. (“Alive! Alive!”) And that was it.
Same old thing, year after year.
One year, I was riding along yet again—and the ride had a glitch. My car got stuck at the bend of a curve. Right in front of that mechanical skeleton!
The thing popped out, its eyes glowed red. The klaxon blared.
EGGHHH-EGGHHH!
Then it happened again.
And again.
And again, and again, and again.
EGGHHH-EGGHHH!
My car was an object at rest. People behind me were yelling in the darkness.
"This thing ain't moving! How come ..."
Stuck as I was, I got a good look at the skeleton. Plastic, papier-mâché. or something, not remotely accurate. The eyes were red light bulbs. I could see the speaker making the noise. The wires connecting the speaker to a power source. And the coffin was cardboard!
Cheap! Fake! Phony!
Everything! The whole damn thing!
EGGHHH-EGGHHH!
Before tonight, the haunted house ride had mildly scared me. Before tonight, I could never get a good look at it. Now, I could see it all so clearly.
And the sight was vastly more horrifying.
EGGHHH-EGGHHH!
A panic attack was crawling up my spine.
Then a carny finally ran out along the track, cursing. He jiggled the car, did something. The wheels started moving on the rail. I bumped back out into the fair. (“Alive! Alive!”)
But the fear stayed with me.
That’s the feeling I get after reading a Philip K. Dick short story.
That is not the feeling I get after seeing this show.