Tuesday, March 22, 2016

How Do We Change Now: The Fine Line Between Sentient Growth and Non Sentient Evolution

I am in the process now of re-reading the "Culture" series of books written by the late Ian M. Banks. I am doing this because, for some time now, I have been struggling with why the movie "Ex-Machina" left me feeling so angry at the character Nathan Bateman (played quite well by Oscar Isaac). As you might imagine this combination was chosen for a number of reasons.

First, of course, is that I have been wanting to do a tribute to what I have always felt was one exceptionally good author for some time now. And in that vein his culture series of books have always been one of my all time favorites. The interesting point in this, however, is that one of the main features in these books is the established ability of the Culture to create artificial minds; intellects so vastly powerful that they are able to control "Orbitals" or "General Service Vehicles:" engineering constructs to rival moons and small planets, and able to create whatever physical environment desired for very large populations to live in as the ships traveled about.

This has been interesting to me because these minds, as well as the smaller scale AI's that live amongst the human populations, are virtually all caring, positive influences on their human counterparts, despite the fact that they can think so much faster than them. They are made to seem, in fact, as almost angelic muses for humankind to lean on in times of need; giving the Culture great advantage as it spread its influence throughout the Galaxy. So much advantage, in fact, that many species encountered take great umbrage at a society so seeminly controlled by machines.

As you can no doubt see now the contrast with "Ex-Machina" becomes obvious. We aren't enlightened as to how the "ship minds" in the "Culture" series were able to be made so beneficial. In "Ex-Machina," however, we see some disquieting aspects of how the devil can be in the details.

My anger for Mr. Bateman stems in no small part from the archetype of brilliant scientist/developer he represents.  An archetype too often emphasized by an ego as big as the mind that supports it. An ego that makes keeping a sense of humility for the unknown quite unlikely.

You know this type. They seen things that have never been done before as simply stepping stones for the further enhancement of their reputations. A mind set that makes asking the question "just because I might be able to do a thing, does that automatically mean I should?" quite improbable.

You need only ponder what has gone on in Mr. Bateman's bunker of a research facility, and home, for a short time to wonder at what he was thinking he was doing. Forgetting for the moment the stretch assumed in this movie as to what he was able to engineer in not only fine motor control, but new neural circuitry, the very idea that you could cram ability, facts, and pseudo motivations, into that new circuitry, without the long correspondence of visceral associations that growing into maturity, with nominally caring caregivers, as well as with the give and take interplay of contemporaries, imbues, is the height of engineering arrogance.

To be sure, you might well be able to create a near perfect mimic of a human, but as to what would then be in that entities mind as to what it would want, or even that it might bother to consider what it should want, beyond the mimicry to ensure survival, would be nothing more than the throw of some monstrously large dice. And even with that, at the end of the movie, Mr. Bateman seems quite surprised that his creation would turn so violently on him.

I start with all of the, however, as merely preface to a much larger questions. Is some new machine intelligence only the inevitable next step in the evolution of intelligence? Is intelligence itself the only aspect of our being now worthy of further development? Too many of the luminaries in this field seem to think so, at least in my opinion.

Could it be that we're looking at this incorrectly? Given our bias towards all things evolutionary it should be no surprise that we might tend to extend it beyond what is truly useful now. And therein lies the reason for the title of this post.

We haven't, I think, given enough consideration to the need to change how we view further human development. And I believe this because we give so little weight to the human capacity to choose what it will do at each moment of new opportunity. That we can make our environment be the aid to positive growth, and not continue to allow the environment to change us as chance would have it; something that Teilhard de Chardin's vision of the "Noosphere" tried to get us started on.

The question then becomes: What does this mean in practical terms. And for that I would suggest that we start being very careful how we go about any further developments in AI (already echoed by others of course, but without much depth of understanding). In my view the emphasis should be in what it takes to raise better humans generally, and then what we can do about giving them enhanced faculties, as well as an other augmentations. Such faculties could well be of great benefit but we must approach them with patience and caution. After all, ever greater ability must also come to mean ever greater wisdom, and responsibility, in using them.

I'd like to think that a futuristic human would be one who, despite having better interfaces to greatly expanded stores of knowledge, even being able to manipulate that knowledge in virtual think spaces, would still have the deep connections to life in general, as well as to other sentient beings, as we might aspire to now. And perhaps that is the metaphor of the "Ship Mind" we should take away from Mr. Banks books. Perhaps such minds will be the new children of carefully augmented sentients still comfortable in nominally physical bodies. Parents who will see such children, and raise them accordingly, to become the timeless explorers of all of the other galaxies of our reality; taking with them the love of life, curiosity and wisdom to every corner of existence. That is what I choose to believe in any case.

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