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.
I couldn’t tell you exactly what year it was, but one new years day I woke about 2 in the afternoon realizing that someone had been using my head as a gong and had knitted tiny booties for each of my teeth. The only reason that I woke up is that somewhere someone had turned on some music to greet the new year, playing the Bob Marley song, “Three Little Birds”. Those unfamiliar with the song should know the refrain goes, “Don’t worry about a thing because every little thing is going to be alright” While that was small solace to me at that moment, it seemed to sink into my memory and become a touchstone for the entire year, an island of hope which I often returned to. Listening to the news in the past few days reminded me of that song summoning me from a stupor and giving me hope. These days it seems like newscasters seem to be falling over themselves to tell us how the world is coming to an end. Not that there are not serious things going on in the world, it seems that each new media brings with it a new form of creative destruction. While the printing press brought the newly printed bible to the masses, it also created the Reformation; television brought the world into our homes allowing us to see racial segregation, carpet bombing and a Viet Cong officer during the Tet Offensive as well as Bernstein s Omnibus and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Those of us who remember our philosophy classes in college and Hegel may remember the dialectic, how each thing creates its opposite or what Taoist philosophers call Self-Manifestation through Contraries. While this process can be destructive, perhaps the only way to face this disruptive innovation is to think of the hopeful words of Bob Marley or these days a better choice may be the coping suggestion here from Bette Middler. Perhaps if we don’t face the music and dance, at least we can laugh.
Please take a moment to listen….
While largely about training horses, Allan Hamilton’s “Lead with your Heart” had some startling ideas about how we relate to new technology and the internet. It seems that in Hamilton’s mind, horse’s behavior is related to the fact that, in the wild, they are essentially prey. While a horse could easily trample us, it has over thousands of years seen itself as an animal of prey. Our approach to the horse must be as one who is non-threatening, moving in slowly and respecting the space of the animal, learning how to gently show our dominance of the animal with the respect it deserves. The thought that our behavior is, in a way, determined if we are predators or prey seems to have affected how we see ourselves on the internet and in social media. We frequently speak of internet predators that prey on children or the unsuspecting, uninitiated and yet, even knowing this, we seem unable to be aware and change our behavior. Each day brings more news of cyber-attack to businesses, but instead of taking action, many hide the problem and try to cover up the issue. In the wild, humans have the rare place of being both prey and predator. We can be killed and eaten as much as we can fight for survival. Somehow in the electronic frontier, we have dropped this ability to fight back, to realize that we are not babes in the woods but noble animals who deserve to be approached with respect.
There is an old joke told by Woody Allen, “A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.” This joke seems to highlight our growing dependency on social media. As much as we seem to demonize people looking at their phones everywhere, in lines, while driving, at the dinner table- it seems that no place is safe. It seems this electronic narcissism has taken over our consciousness and has invited a response asking us to be mindful of our screen time with the Bored and Brilliant program launched by the Note to Self NPR radio program. It seems that the only true response to the galloping monopoly of our face time is to turn away completely as Allan Curtis suggests. As much as we protest this media creep, perhaps we have to either do without the eggs or admit our powerlessness before our new media god.
It has been interesting watching the ever-growing value of a bitcoin and it causes me to pause and consider what it is about them we find so alluring. In a nod to previous precious commodities, bitcoins are not generated but are mined like gold, which as you may know was the backing for US currency until President Nixon took us off the gold standard in 1971. So we think of this cryptocurrency as we do gold or other precious metals or at least use language to give it that allure. Earlier, President Eisenhower passed a law that stated “In God, We Trust” in 1957 must appear on all currency. It seems that this is another step in the long, withdrawing roar, moving from belief to belief. Recently, in an interview, an expert in cryptocurrency said that people are putting their money and hope in bitcoin due to its ever-changing code- supposedly unbreakable and secure- more secure than government-backed securities or gold. It seems we have found a new impenetrable mystery in which to place our faith. While we move from God to Gold to code, I am reminded of a line from Lori Andersons “O Superman”
‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice
And when justice is gone, there’s always force
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom!
Perhaps, today, when God is gone and Gold is gone, there is always code.
While looking for information on several companies I did what most people do, I read the reviews and was surprised to see that the trend for most companies was predominantly negative. Then I was reminded of a phrase of Jaron Lanier, in an interview on NPR, that “Outrage provokes engagement”. We are much more willing to complain loudly than to sing someone’s praises. Think of the last time you had a conversation with someone about how badly you were treated versus the last time you spoke about a kind or loving interaction. Whereas network news once had the rallying cry,” If it bleeds, it leads” that seems to have been replaced by the need to outrage viewers in order to stir them up, get them to tweet, comment and generally justify their existence. It seems that the purpose of media has become provocation and not communication. Twitter and the use of it by our “president” is a perfect example. While a substantive discussion of any issue would be difficult in 120 characters, it seems as though Mr. Trump seems more intent on kicking over the beehive and generating buzz (pardon the pun) rather than inviting a discussion on what needs to be done and how to get there. This is no surprise for a reality star turned politician who has learned that manipulation of the media is easier than manipulation of policy. The beast needs our attention and will do anything to get us to look at it. Perhaps our best response is to turn away from the media’s childlike tantrum and hope that it will someday realize the promises that it whispered in our ears when we allowed it in our lives.
The thought that some things are too complex to be explained simply is one of the reoccurring thoughts in Adam Curtis’ brilliant “HyperNormalisation”. It seems that now we find ourselves in a world where everything must be able to be explained in 140 characters (or better 120 allowing for the precious retweet) and that the idea of complexity must be shunned at all costs. How else can we explain the prevailing descriptions of antagonists on the world stage as, Bad Dudes or Bad Hombres? It seems that our current rush to the latest technology is creating an inverse colorization in our world. We seem to have to take vibrant colorful issues and reduce them to simple almost childlike realities so that we can regurgitate them on our Twitter feeds. And since when did a tweet become an appropriate media for a condolence letter? Have our emotions become so bite-sized that they warrant no more emotional room than a postage stamp? The world is a complex and colorful place and will continue to be so in spite of our tweets full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The world will not reduce itself to meet our small-minded needs and will only leave us behind with a handful of tweets, unable to understand.