Hyping Nonsense: What Happens When Artificial Intelligence Turns On Us?

Posted in culture, transhumanism on January 23rd, 2014 by Samuel Kenyon

The user(s) behind the G+ account Singularity 2045 made an appropriately skeptical post today about the latest Machines-versus-Humans “prediction,” specifically an article “What Happens When Artificial Intelligence Turns On Us” about a new book by James Barrat.

As S2045 says:

Don’t believe the hype. It is utter nonsense to think AI or robots would ever turn on humans. It is a good idea to explore in novels, films, or knee-jerk doomsday philosophizing because disaster themes sell well. Thankfully the fiction or speculation will never translate to reality because it is based upon a failure to recognize how technology erodes scarcity. Scarcity is the root of all conflict.

Smithsonian even includes a quote by the equally clueless Eliezer Yudkowsky:

In the longer term, as experts in my book argue, A.I. approaching human-level intelligence won’t be easily controlled; unfortunately, super-intelligence doesn’t imply benevolence. As A.I. theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky of MIRI [the Machine Intelligence Research Institute] puts it, “The A.I. does not love you, nor does it hate you, but you are made of atoms it can use for something else.” If ethics can’t be built into a machine, then we’ll be creating super-intelligent psychopaths, creatures without moral compasses, and we won’t be their masters for long.

In the G+ comments you can see some arguments about the evidence for or against the prediction. I would like to add a couple arguments in support of Singularity 2045’s conclusion (but not necessarily endorsing his specific arguments):

  1. Despite “future shock” (before Kurzweil and Vinge there was Toffler) from accelerating change in certain avenues, most of these worries about machines-vs-humans battles are so fictional because they assume a discrete transition point: before the machines appeared and after. The only way that could happen is if there was an massive planetary invasion of intelligent robots from another planet. In real life things happen over a period of time with transitions and various arbitrary (e.g. because of politics) diversions and fads…despite any accelerating change.
  2. We have examples of humans living in partial cooperation and simultaneously partial conflict with other species. Insects outnumber us. Millions of cats and dogs live in human homes and get better treatment than the poor and homeless in the world. Meanwhile, crows and parrots are highly intelligent animals often living in symbiosis with humans…except when they become menaces.

If we’re going to map fiction to reality, Michael Crichton techno-thrillers are a bit closer to real technological disasters, which are local specific incidences resulting from the right mixture of human errors and coincidence (and this happens in real life sometimes for instance nuclear reactor disasters). And sometimes those errors are far apart at first like somebody designing a control panel badly which assists in a bad decision by an operator 10 years later during an emergency.

And of course I’ve already talked about the Us-versus-Them dichotomy and the role of interfaces in human-robot technology in my paper “Would You Still Love Me If I Was A Robot?”


I doubt we will have anything as clear cut as an us-vs-them new species. And if we maintain civilization (e.g. not the anti-gay anti-atheist witch-hunting segments) then new variations would not be segregated / given less rights and vice-versa they would not segregate / remove our human rights.

As far as I know, there is no such thing as a natural species on Earth that “peacefully coexists.” This may be the nature of the system, and that’s certainly easy to see when looking at the evolutionary arms races constantly happening. Anyway my point is that any attempt to appeal to nature or the mythical peaceful caveman is not the right direction. The fact that humans can even imagine never-ending peace and utopia seems to indicate that we have started to surpass nature’s “cold equations.”

Tags: ,

The World’s End: Change and Consequences

Posted in culture on August 26th, 2013 by Samuel Kenyon

It has been said that true science fiction requires a story in which the world is changed—and never goes back to the way it was (I don’t remember the source of this definition). By this definition, techno-thrillers such as everything by Michael Crichton are not science fiction, since the world is returned to normal after some disaster strikes. You might notice that a lot of science fiction films, especially the more mainstream ones, conclude with humanity returning to business as usual. The knots are untied. Loose ends are taken care of. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, as it is the normal way to adhere to standard dramatic structure. And the dynamics of the characters might outshine the background world anyway.

The World's End

The World’s End

Warning, Spoilers Ahead

I am happy to report that the film The World’s End involves not only major character development, but also major world changes that do not revert at the end. I don’t want to reveal too much here specifically, so I won’t say much. (And if you haven’t seen a recent trailer, don’t! Just go see the movie without ruining the surprises.)

It is obviously tempting to compare The World’s End to the previous two films in the “Blood and Icecream” trilogy of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost. The first Blood and Icecream entry, Shaun of the Dead, which on the more obvious layer is a parody of horror films (especially zombie flicks), essentially concluded with a UK returned to normal after a zombie outbreak, with the minor adjustment to allow some remaining zombies to live on in a controlled manner. The second Blood and Icecream film, Hot Fuzz, which on one layer is a parody of action films, has the typical solving of a case and elimination of a criminal element. The World’s End, however, far surpasses the conclusions of the previous two films.

Somerville Theater

Somerville Theater

I watched The World’s End on opening weekend in Somerville Theater, where I predicted accurately that it would be very popular. In fact, we actually had to form a line outside. Passer-bys gave us funny looks; one queried what event had drawn us into this odd queue—I responded that we were there for the end of the world. The stranger commented that he “didn’t realize that was a thing.” After this thrilling wait in Davis Square, my girlfriend and I were finally were admitted into the main theater. The downside to this crowd was that everything was laugh-out-loud funny. Some scenes invoked applause. In my opinion the jokes weren’t any better than Shaun or Hot Fuzz, but being as good is still pretty damn good. The climax was not excellent, and was mostly held together with more jokes. The dénouement, however, was top-notch.

But surely, somebody will argue, this is merely a comedy. What can it say about humankind, science, and technology?

Oh, but it can say so much. In fact, parody is a necessary part of civilized societies. And these Edgard Wright films are not just parody but also human drama stories. And they meet the requirements of their respective genres. The World’s End does all this…and literally ends the world as we know it.

Some questions asked in The World’s End are very important: Does it make sense to stay the same instead of growing into a new form that has comprised to some degree with a society? Both the main characters and Earth itself are posed with this problem in the film. The consequences are shown.

Image credit: Somerville Theater – Mark Andrew

Tags: ,

Elysium and Science Fiction Films that Hate Science and Technology

Posted in culture on August 11th, 2013 by Samuel Kenyon

I haven’t seen Elysium yet, but Ryan Britt’s article “Our Science Fiction Movies Hate Science Fiction” is interesting nonetheless:

Ripping off the heads of robots like a sweaty space-age cyberpunk Robin Hood, Matt Damon is delivering future-social-justice this week in Elysium.

Alright, so what does this have to do with anti-science-fiction? As Britt writes:

But the vast majority of science fiction films—even the very best of them—still see the SF, the tech, the speculative concept, as the antagonist of the film.

And that is the heart of the matter. As he says about Elysium:

Elysium could have been poised to change that simply by virtue of the fact Matt Damon is using an SF creation—a super-powered robot exoskeleton—to fight science fiction: a space station dream paradise which allows the rich to forget about the rest of us. This is a gorgeous set-up, but it’s all there is: then it becomes every Iron Man, two guys in super-powered suits hitting each other.

ELYSIUM (2012)

ELYSIUM (2013)

I’ve noticed these unsettling, often grotesquely simplified, anti-technology displays myself; my only disagreement with Britt is his claim that this is a recent phenomenon. I kept a list several years ago of science fiction all films involving artificial intelligence and/or robots. The list was intended to span all decades of film. There were two categories of how a piece of technology was used in the narrative: in a positive role to humankind or the universe, or in a negative role. It seems to me that film has always had a mix of thoughtful future building vs. the future as an enemy. The list is pasted below.

Britt also ignores recent films which in the future tech was not evil (or at least not the only evil). The first Iron Man movie contains one of the best film depictions of engineering development, but apparently all Britt noticed was guys in super-powered suits hitting each other. Aren’t there any films recently that are “serious” about science and/or technology? Of course there are, such as Computer Chess. Indeed, Britt mentions others such as Moon. So the real problem is revealed—it’s not that thoughtful and pro-tech films don’t exist anymore, it’s just that they are “in the shadow of” bigger budget efforts.

Point of No Return

Although many standard plots include a point of no return for the main character, the fictional world itself can return. Science fiction is best when the world is changed—and never goes back. A lot of science fiction films cheat us by going back to normal at the end. That is the one major infraction of most of Michael Crichton’s techno-thrillers.

The List of AI Use in Film

Note this has not been updated since 2005. It should probably also include artificial creature films such as The Golem and Frankenstein.

In a positive role to humankind or the universe:

  • Tobor the Great
  • Forbidden Planet
  • THX1138
  • Alien
  • Star Wars Trilogies
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [miniseries]
  • Knight Rider [TV] (AI car)
  • Bladerunner
  • Aliens
  • The Last Starfighter (the beta unit)
  • 2010: Odyssey Two
  • Electric Dreams
  • D.A.R.Y.L.
  • Short Circuit
  • Flight of the Navigator
  • Space Camp
  • The Transformers Movie
  • Max Headroom [TV]
  • Space Balls
  • Little Wonder [TV]
  • Robocop and sequels (cyborg)
  • *batteries not included
  • Cherry 2000
  • Short Circuit 2
  • Cyborg
  • Robot Jox
  • Total Recall (Johnny Cab)
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  • Edward Scissorhands (not a robot, but a golem-like artificial human)
  • Star Trek VII and sequels
  • Alien Resurrection
  • Lost in Space
  • Iron Giant
  • Bicentennial Man
  • Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Spider-man (powered armor)
  • Minority Report (spider recon bots)
  • Payday (has a real industrial robot)
  • The Matrix Reloaded (some automated technology is shown as necessary to human life)
  • The Animatrix (some of the robots are helpful to humankind)
  • The Matrix Revolutions (the mechs)
  • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
  • Spider-man 2 (neuro-computer interface with robotic arms)
  • Robot Stories
  • I, Robot
  • Robots
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

In a negative role to humankind or the universe:

  • Metropolis
  • The Colossus of New York
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still
  • Gog
  • The Invisible Boy
  • Dr. Who [movies and TV] (Daleks)
  • Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine
  • Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution
  • Barbarella
  • 2001: A Space Odysey
  • Colossus: The Forbin Project
  • The Stepford Wives
  • Westworld
  • Future World
  • Demon Seed
  • Terminator
  • Moontrap
  • Slipstream
  • Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam
  • Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  • The Lawnmower Man
  • Eve of Destruction
  • A.P.E.X.
  • Ghost in the Machine
  • Screamers
  • Judge Dredd
  • Virus
  • Star Trek VIII
  • A Life Less Ordinary
  • Austin Powers and sequels (fembots)
  • The Matrix
  • The Matrix Reloaded
  • The Animatrix
  • The Matrix Revolutions
  • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
  • Spy Kids movies (not sure, I haven’t seen these)
  • Tomo [short film]
  • Spider-man 2 (neuro-computer interface with robotic arms)
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Is Humanism False?

Posted in culture, transhumanism on January 11th, 2013 by Samuel Kenyon

Ryan Norbauer is pretty sure that:

Not only are all religions manifestly false, but so too are all the secular narratives (humanism, positivism, liberalism, libertarianism) that, like religions, attempt to craft a system of positive values out of the epistemologically questionable notion that something can be transcendently and meaningfully true merely because it would be nice if that were the case. Reasoning by appeal to platitude or an implausible alternate-universe utopia is not reasoning at all. These facts may not delight us overmuch; they are still true.

Of course I agree with the religious part of that statement. Yet he also kills off humanism. I’m certainly not the kind of gung-ho replacement-religion humanist like Greg Epstein, but perhaps whatever humanism appeals to is better than the alternatives for society as a whole, even if an individual need not believe in any narratives.

And I’m not sure if humanism is a narrative. Of course, I’m not really a scholar in humanism—my Renaissance Man development is at the early stage of Renaissance Boy. I.e., I don’t go around claiming to be a polymath, but I claim to strive to be a polymath.

Certainly transhumanism is a narrative of the future—really several stories. A lot of transhumanists convert science fiction into prophecy and follow it religiously, thus reducing it to Norbauer’s description. Should we instead look to narratives of the past?

Read more »

Tags: ,