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.
Having been one of those people who wonder why there are 60 minutes in an hour and 24 hours in a day, I found a lot of answers in Daniel Boorstin’s, The Discoverers. The question to me has been why not find a Base 10 or denary system based on a decimal system with integer divided by 10’s; a sort of metric system for time. It seems that there are other people have had the same idea. The other day I was surprised to see that Facebook had invented an new measure of time called the flick. Basically, it allows one to divide units of time that break down into round numbers, for example, 1/24th of a second, for instance, is 29,400,000 flicks. 1/120th is 5,880,000 flicks. 1/44,100th is 16,000 flicks. While this is a great boost to those who work with fractions of seconds in film and computing I find it brilliant that we are still able to look at our world with fresh eyes and see things in a new way. Time is a human construct as is much of our life and what we have created we have the ability to re-create and re-define. We need only remember that we have the power. We can see wonderful new realities only if we look for them.
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.
If I remember correctly, in the closing lines of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote, “we hold these truths to be self-evident”. Now, while the quote goes on, I find it interesting this idea of somethings Self-evidence; the idea that something is known to be true by understanding its meaning without proof. It seems self-evident that people have rights though we may argue as to the breadth and depth of those rights and that machines, as non-human, non-feeling entities do not. This notion was challenged when I saw an article in the BBC about the appearance of a woman robot in Riyadh Saudi Arabia at the Future Investment Initiative conference. Sophia, as she is known, was given Saudi citizenship but she was allowed to appear without the traditional headscarf and abaya, the cloak that Saudi women are obliged to wear in public. Of course, social media pundits leapt to their keyboards noting that not only had this electronic “woman” not only been granted citizenship but had rights that Saudi women only dream of. Here was a woman speaking alone on a stage where under the Saudi Guardianship system every woman must be accompanied by a male companion who has authority to act on her behalf. It seems as if Saudi Arabia had become the Manor Farm for the day where all women were equal except that those women who were silicon-based were more equal than those of a mere carbon base.
While it may seem laughable now, it is not impossible to imagine that we could create a world in which computers would have more rights than some or maybe even all people. We seem to delight in ways that we can segregate and remove ourselves from those who we deem somehow different or less than us but now we seem to have taken that talent to a whole new level. We could create machines to look down on us- maybe outsource our racism so that we would be free to pursue more noble goals? While it may seem absurd, there are some of us who remember when the idea of an actor as president was a punchline and not a reality.
It was an honor just to be asked. I was a first-year masters student in the opera program and a very well respected accompanist asked me to sing on a recital of the songs of Hugo Wolf. The songs had been selected and I was ready for what was to become a pivotal event in my musical education. Among the songs was one, Abschied (there is a link to a performance below) that described a critic coming to the poet’s house and criticizing everything from the shape of his nose and going on from there. The poet listens and nods until finally he has had enough and on showing him out, kicks him down the stairs as the music turns to a waltz celebrating the speed to which the critic rolled down the stairs. This uninvited criticism has been on my mind for while with the incidents of body shaming that seem to be everywhere on the internet. Now, I firmly believe that everyone has the right to express themselves and if that means putting a large body into a very small swimsuit and posting pictures of myself on the internet- that seems to be my choice and by putting myself in the public sphere, I invite public discussion. However, discussion seems to be beyond the pale when people suggest that for my act of public exposure that I should instead, kill myself or be so horrified by my own existence, that I should somehow know better than to allow myself to be seen or exposed. How did we get to this point where everyone seems to have the right to say exactly what they feel whenever they feel it but no one has to take responsibility for their actions. It seems that we can say all manner of hate speech but that it is negated and indeed made all better when we apologize or in the case of 45 keep saying it more and more forcefully until it takes on the mangy robe of social media truth. Have we come to a gradation of truth- truth with a small t that can be altered with the shift of a hand like a magician making the ace of spades disappear. Indeed, perhaps we are at blame to give anyone’s words the mantle of truth. In the works of the Burton and Learner song, “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?” perhaps we must take everything with a proverbial grain or block of salt, believing only what we can confirm either in person or by volume of critical sources. Maybe the best approach is that taken by Wolf (and by extension Eduard Mörike the writer of the poem) that while we allow such comments to come in the front door- we also have the choice of which window to throw them out of.
It has been interesting watching the Janus faced march of the internet; on one hand offering us a new world of information and entertainment as well as the possible downfall of our democracy our social order and our idea of privacy. It seems that we have forgotten that each new innovation has both positive and negative aspects. And in the case of the internet, we seem to be shocked at each new turn- how can our wonderful new technology allow our elections to be hacked, our private information made public, our companies brought to their knees by cyber attacks. While computers work in a world of 1’s and 0’s we seem to have clung to that worldview also, being stuck in a worldview where things are either all good or all bad. We can’t seem to tolerate any variation on our singular thinking. You are either all for us or all of us- there is no common ground. Any deviation from the zero or one is not acceptable and must either be ridiculed or shunned. Recently, the term non-binary (NB), is a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—identities which are thus outside of the gender binary and cisnormativity. Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction and we can begin to see colour where now we only see black and white not only in our future but in our relations with each other. Perhaps we are bound to live in a world of gods and monsters forever be chasing innovation in technology and as human beings with torches and farm implements until we discover the diversity between the zeros and ones.
In James Whales, Bride of Frankenstein, a character toasts the idea of Dr. Frankensteins creations saying, “To a new world of gods and monsters!”
While taking a break from the news of the day, I found myself reflecting on the amazing changes that have been happening in our world and how much technology has changed our lives. It was then that I felt the rising tide of skepticism that seems to seep into every aspect of our thoughts. It seems that every new triumph in technology is greeted with a chorus of naysayers prophesying the end of civilization at the hands of technology. as if everything we create is hell bent on destroying us. While it is true that everything poses a risk, what ever happened to the joy of discovery, the excitement of what the future might bring? Growing up, I remember seeing the Jetsons and the promises of the new frontier while being too young to know the menace of Hal or those damn dirty apes. If we see what we look for, maybe we could look once again for the sheer wealth of amazing in the world. When things look the worst, perhaps that is the moment to take a step back and realize that, yes the world is full of challenges but with each challenge, we create new wonders with which to solve them. I believe it was Charles Kettering who wrote, “there will always a frontier where there is an open mind and a willing hand”. As we approach a new frontier- let’s not forget that the journey can be fun. Remember, the Jetsons was a comedy.