While watching the news report on our president, the image of Raphael’s, “Sistine Madonna” came to mind. Now bear with me for a moment, as this painting is probably best known for the cherubs at the bottom of the image. The thing that made me think of them was not their cheeky demeanor but the fact that the cherubs are downright chubby. Like many representations of cherubs in paintings of the time, they are notoriously well fed. Later I discovered that the reason for that was that in a time when most people were starving the idea that there might be more than enough food in heaven did add a certain level of interest that a blushing Madonna’s or pious saints wouldn’t have- the elusive robustness was to be valued, prized even idolized. In this time when we think of social media as a new form of religion, why are we surprised to see the parade of characters cast before us every waking moment? From the earliest days in television, we were presented with ideal visions of family and life that were far from anything most people had known or were even possible. Today we watch the Kardashian’s in the hopes that we could also be famous and valued for absolutely no reason. We watched “Friends” living in an absolutely amazing New York apartment with they paid for with jobs and paychecks that they never seemed to work for projection a similar fate might be possible for us too. Perhaps we should not be surprised that we have projected our most precious desires into a world that seems real and yet attainable only through a miracle or some miraculous transformation. It seems we look to these media icons to allow us to dream a world that we cannot or don’t live in. A world where we will be fed to the point of plumpness, rewarded with adulation and attention for no reason, or be able to act and say whatever we want, no matter how hateful, contradictory or detached from reason. Perhaps it conceals a certain desire in all of us to act as if our actions had no consequences, other than those that would be resolved by the final credits. I mean, wouldn’t we all like the opportunity to act like children – even if only chubby children with wings?
While it seems that we seem to closer and closer to making artificial intelligence that more and more human it seems that we only want to create this sort of perfect version of what we can be. We assume that the robots that we create won’t forget to turn the stove off or where we left our car keys. These shiny new versions of ourselves would be the perfect versions of what we can be. With that in mind, there was a bit of schadenfreude tossed about when we learned that Sophia, the humanoid robot, had arrived in Ethiopia for an appearance missing a few of her parts. It seems that a bag containing some of her parts were lost in the airport in Frankfort. While it does raise questions; we give a robot citizenship but does it fly in coach or in baggage. How are we going to manage these new ”humans” when we can cant figure out how to deal with differences that we have between people today. But most of all, what is lost when we make a robot to be like a human that has none of the flaws that make us human?
Igor Stravinsky liked a challenge. In his pieces, Octet and L’Histoire du Soldat he takes instruments that should never go together and makes them work in unlikely and strangely beautiful ways. He seemed to need the diversity of sounds to force him to be creative and to push himself beyond what he had done before. The same is true of musician Chad Lawson who works with a piano and I pad to create new sounds from a familiar instrument. Anyone who has had children knows the importance of setting limits or boundaries in our lives. Not limits on what we think or how we perceive ourselves but we need challenges to bring our creativity to life. When everything is available, what is there to discover, what is there to explore for ourselves. What would you do if you had to find the definition of a word and there was no internet, or bake a cake with no recipe or mix? In finding all of this information at our fingertips, let us hope that we never lose our natural curiosity and desire to explore for ourselves for finding answers is one thing but learning how to find answers is another. Let us not become too willing to accept what we find and still be willing to challenge ourselves working within limits to set our creativity free.
Of course, you know the old story, to boil a frog, you don’t drop it into a pot of boiling water but put it in cool water and slowly turn up the temperature to boiling. The same seems true of the ongoing debates over privacy and net neutrality. Lulled into a false sense of security or blinded by naiveté, we allow corporations to mine who we are and what we choose to treat us like horses with blinders on, seeing only what they want us to see, and now we want to give them the ability to fast track the online content of their choice while allowing other content to linger in the slow lane. It seems odd that the same legal bodies, corporations, that created the financial crisis in the savings and loan and mortgage industry, not to mention the opioid crisis in this country now want to create a world where they control our access to information for their personal gain. In an economy where the bottom line is at best the shareholder (or more frequently the executives) payout, why should we think our best interests are a concern. The entire point of the internet seemed to be to allow everyone accesses to knowledge for the betterment of all. If we allow our access to the free flow of information to be restricted, we will be no better than frogs in warm bath water on the stove.
In everyone’s life, in some way, you come to a place you say about something you are doing or not doing- is this really worth it? Malcolm Gladwell calls that the tipping point, or “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” at which change becomes either obvious or inevitable. It happens to all of us and in all sorts of situations, that moment when you realize that change is inevitable and perhaps the only choice. It seems that wiser minds than mine have come to this conclusion, as when I read in the BBC that African nations have begun to worry about the risk of job loss in Africa as robots automate many processes that can be brought back to the US or other nations and not depend on the cheap labour force that Africa and other nations have provided. Those who deride the coming economic disaster, suggest that if only the African nations would educate their children in the magic world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), all problems would be solved. These children would rise along with all the other stem fed children to ascend into the light of a technological new day. But don’t worry, for those who are left behind by the ever upward spiral of capitalism, there is always the promise of the universal basic income, a salary for everyone at the cost of social services, so that even those of us who are misplaced in this economic game of musical chairs can receive money to live and, of course, buy things to keep the whole spiral going. Yet, what happens to people with no other purpose than to consume to keep an antiquated and harmful system running? What is the meaning of a life that is only based on our ability to consume? What happens when we reach our tipping point and realize that we are no better than veal calf’s being fattened to make our masters fatter.
It is with a fair amount of interest that I have followed the debate in Europe over the role of AI and how it should be viewed or regulated. Readers of this post may remember the kerfuffle caused by Sophia, the robot that appeared at Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh and caused a stir as a robot, as a woman robot and as a woman robot in an Arab country without a hajib. Well, the discussion has come up again in Europe where the European Parliament, to the outrage of AI specialists, advised that robots be given legal status. Like a corporation, this would not hold the companies that created the robots legally responsible for their behavior. It seems to be step in the Alfred P Newman, “what, me worry?” theology that seems to be the order of the day. If guns don’t kill people, then why should we think that companies that make robots are responsible for what they do. And yet, what about the place of robots as human beings. Would they have all the rights of a human or would they have some fraction like the 3/5 voting rights proposed for slaves by the Constitutional Convention of 1787? We seem to have such a good track record of integration and inclusion in this country, it seems strangely natural that we would not even be the ones having this discussion. Europe is far ahead of us on matters of understanding and regulating the role of this new technology, asking questions that we do not seem yet to acknowledge as issues. We can only hope that the robots that we give human status will be better humans than we seem to be.