There was always that one guy in High School (at least when I was in high school) who would go to the mat to try to make you believe that Paul Mc Cartney was dead. True to form, the urban legend states that in 1967 Paul McCartney had been killed in a traffic accident while driving along the M1 motorway. While there was no real proof, only rumors, and hazy evidence, the rumor persisted and still has its followers today. The insecurity of the past, the idea that we can’t be sure of what really happened can take many forms, from a false memory, where a person recalls something that did not happen or differently from the way it happened but the idea is taken to a whole new level around 2014 when a concept “The Mandella Effect” began to take hold. It seems that some people remembered Nelson Mandela’s tragic death in a South African prison, prior to late 2009. (In this reality, Mandela died in 2013.) The idea being that someone had gone back to tamper with the past and re-set our experience of it. While we have often spoken of cyber truth in this blog, this idea seems to take the idea into a much larger and more terrifying realm. While a computer could easily erase our bank records we like to think that we have some memory of what happened and that other people could confirm our story. However, the more terrifying reality is that we could find ourselves in a George Bailey like fate, alive and remembering a world in which he never existed. As we continue to hear more tales of data being stolen, do we not see that the true goal may not be just our data but the very fact that we ever existed?
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 leaped 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.
Perhaps it was unique to my neighborhood, but growing up as we played tag or any other number of games, the place that you tried to get without being tagged was called “ghoul”. Now I am aware that many others may have called it home or safe or maybe even goal but in my neighborhood ghoul meant safety. The sounds of friends saying good night as the summer street lights came on rang in my ears when I saw of Quora having almost 100 million of its accounts hacked only days after Marriott reported that hackers had been penetrating their Starwood network for years, and had compromised the data of 500 million people. It seems that in the cyber universe or cyberverse, nowhere is safe anymore. Indeed, when these instances occur, it seems the those affected are to blame, Quara’s programmers are now forcing affected users to reset their passwords, and it advises them to change these passwords if they’re used on any other websites, as if the blame were on the people for putting their information there in the first place and then not protecting it with passwords that were incorruptible.
While the argument may seem far-fetched, the buck doesn’t stop here. Sexual assault victims are being turned into perpetrators, (how dare they accuse a person of such behavior) school shootings are blamed on the schools; they are not well enough armed or trained in weaponry to defend themselves against the now obvious threat, as if there were protections in place in the past that have been left by the wayside, a childish illusion we have outgrown in this new adult age. Things like going home when the street lights came on in summer, playing outside with friends, or having a safe place which you might call home.
There is an old joke about the performer in the circus who as he gets older keeps falling farther and farther down in the billing. A friend who he hasn’t seen in years sees him cleaning up the elephant dung and asks, “what happened, you were a big star! when the old performer replies, “ Yes but I’m still in show-business!” This punchline came to mind when I read in the BBC that professors at medical schools are finding that their surgery students are losing the dexterity to stitch patients. Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London, says young people have so little experience of craft skills that they struggle with anything practical. It seems that the simple skills that used to be common to us all, cutting textiles, measuring ingredients, repairing something that’s broken, learning woodwork or holding an instrument are no longer common in today’s young people. While we may be learning skills to help us swipe through screens of pixels, we may no longer be getting the training to live in the real world.
Post-apocalyptic television shows, like the Walking Dead and and movies such as World War Z create a fantasy where we test our survival skills by pitting us against zombies, over the top creatures or even other people in a world removed from the modern conveniences. Yet perhaps we don’t really need the zombies to bring us to our knees, we seem to be doing that for ourselves by losing even the most simple skills we need for survival. While its pretty to think we can navigate a world gone mad, many of us can not across town without a strong internet connection. So while we may not be able to stitch up a wound, at least we can do our Cyber Monday shopping in record time.
I believe it was E B White who once said, “When I arise in the morning I am torn between the twin desires to reform the world and to enjoy the world. This makes it difficult to plan my day…”. When I saw the article on how electronic tattoos may be able to be printed on our skin. While this would allow something like built-in thermometer tattooed onto the skin or a monitor a level of drugs in our body. While part of me is thrilled by the possibility of what is to come, there is another part of me that wonders about this new intrusion to our bodies and our own experience. Again, the question arises, who would own the data about yourself, who would possibly own your experiences. When a famous person dies it is their estate that manages their image and has the places and ways it can be used. Is that only the right of the famous? What about the experiences of ordinary people, what rights do we have to our experiences and our stories, indeed the very truths that make us who we are. If we think this data has value does that not also mean that the creatures creating these experiences have value also or can they be discarded as simple tin cans to wear our electronic labels.
While an art auction may not be anything that has major social ramifications, a recent auction at Christie’s in New York did catch our attention. While we like an auction as the next person, this one did have a picture painted by AI . Th piece, titled “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” was created by a Paris-based collective called Obvious Art created an algorithm that can create painted images. They are interested in exploring the boundaries of creativity, computers and AI and pushing the boundaries of what a machine can create. An idea that will be revisited here, the thing that came to mind was the increasing question of what it is to be human and if that is an answer that we really need. We used to try hold humanness out of reach of animals, like a treat from a dog made to jump at an ever higher raised treat, only to find no matter how high we set the bar, animals could rise to and above it. At first, we were the tool making creatures but soon we found gorillas had the same ability. We had a complex social structure only to find that many other animals did too. No matter how we seemed to try to set ourselves above and apart our specialness seemed to be co-opted by lower life forms. Now as we try to maintain our place in the center of our egocentric model (with apologies to Ptolemy) we find it harder and harder to find our ground in the center of the world. As AI and computers advance the Turing test, a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human seems to be nothing more than a roadside attraction we have passed whizzing by to a future which we seem unwilling to consider.
While AI advances make us less unique in the larger sense perhaps it should make us more aware of the things that make us unique as individuals. An algorithm can create a piece of art but only Picasso could create a Guernica, only Joyce, Ulysses, and these things could not exist until these consciousness beings created them just as Portrait of Edmond Belamy could not be created until Obvious Art programmed the computer to create it. Perhaps our uniqueness ought to be the measured by to our communal ability to create and discover, be we carbon or silicon-based than our need to divide and segregate.
“We were making the future…and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making”
H.G.Wells from “When the Sleeper Wakes” (1899)
The Portrait of Edmond de Belamy