Posts Tagged ‘AI’

You are still in love with Yasmina. You have always known it, but sometimes forget. You last saw her in the July of 1976. That’s forty-seven years ago and, since you are approaching old age now, it’s possible she is no longer of this world. They say we know, when a distant loved one has departed for the next life, but that’s only if they have ever thought of you, and she never did. Indeed, I doubt she even knew your name. Sometimes love is like that.

It was the most beautiful, yet also the most painful thing you have known. It was also the most formative, in that it made you what you are. Which is what? What are you, my friend? Will I tell you? You lack confidence in the world, or you would not have withdrawn from it as early as you did. You are isolated in your feelings, feeling always the strangeness of yourself, and your thoughts. And that she did not know you, never asked your name, has also lent the world this air of a thing made of glass. It is transparent to you, but has an impermeable surface, which puts you always on the outside of it. Or so it feels on days like these, when the rain beats against the window, and nothing amuses you. Not reading, not writing, nor the role-call of old acquaintances – those still living, that is. So many names now remain pencilled, but with lights gone out, yet you cannot erase them, as you cannot erase Yasmina.

You were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old, and have never felt anything so powerful. There have been women since, though few. There have even been nights of passion but, again, few. And every emotion you have felt, pales beside what you felt for her, both in the pain and the glory of it. She was, is, and always will be the standard by which you judge all things. Indeed, your whole life has been a quest for the source of what you felt in her. For though you love her, you are wise enough to know she was but the channel of a source beyond imagining. During those all too brief years, it took human form in Yasmina, for it was in her alone you might have recognised it for the divinity it was.

You cannot believe there is no purpose in such a love as that. Granted, such refusal may arise from a fear belief is delusional in a world void of meaning. And all rational evidence suggests the meaning of life is much less than we would like it to be. What is the meaning of a life, then? Any life. Will we ask it of the computer?

Hey Noodle, what do you say is the meaning of life?

Meaning, replies Noodle,… hmm, that’s a deep one, for the machine is programmed to simulate character, and humour. It then quotes us Simone De Bouvoir. It was she who said life only has meaning in so far as we value the lives of others. That’s about the best the Existentialists will allow. A gloomy bunch to be sure, best suited to violent times, not times of capitulation and crushing despair such as these. But they don’t ring true for you, and why? You have valued Yasmina above all others, and felt only her indifference. You have sought the surrogate of her love in others, and they all failed you, and only because they were not Yasmina. What then is the meaning, if the reward for so valuing others, is to be rejected by them?

Let us ask the computer again.

To exist, says Noodle, means to have a way of living. The computer’s way of living is to search, so the meaning of life, according to Noodle, is to search and to learn. Which all sounds rather dry. Plus, there are two problems with it. One, the computer is not alive, and second, there is nothing to say its way of being – as it describes – is the same as yours. But let us be generous and say we are all on the path of learning, and searching. And for sure, you have sought and learned much. But you have never shared your knowledge, always assuming the world to be indifferent to such learning, as gleaned by outsiders, like you. You therefore keep your own counsel, though your better instinct is to share.

Your purpose then, according to Noodle’s logic, is to exist in secret, and in isolation, but only in so far as you see yourself. In relation to others, you have no existence at all. So be it, but you still love Yasmina. And, strange though it may seem, therein also lies, if not your life’s purpose, then the seedling from which all else grew.

Now, from this perspective, turn your eyes away from the rain, and the despair of the times, pick up your pen, and write.

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Sunset pier #1, by Deep A.I.

One of the interesting things to pop up online recently has been the subject of art generated by so-called artificial intelligence (AI). It’s a subject for contentious debate: can something really be considered a piece of art if it has been “created” by a computer program, rather than a human being?

My interest was piqued by Lee McAuley of the Cuckoo Club Archives, who mentioned it in a recent piece, and to whom I give all credit for spotting it – I’d no idea it was so advanced. In order to explore the question, is it art? I’ve been playing around with a version called Deep AI – available to try here, and I fed it the following text:

An old pier running out to sea, sun setting, people walking towards the sunset, blue skies and tobacco coloured clouds, light rays, romantic, impressionistic style.

The result was the header picture. Then again, same input:

Sunset pier #2, by Deep A.I.

And again:

Sunset pier #3, by Deep A.I.

So, each image is unique: same words, different output. There’s also a remarkable alignment with the textual prompt, whilst maintaining the look of something definitely painterly, rather than a pastiche of images brutally cut and pasted from around the Internet. There’s something interesting here and, though there’s a temptation – as a human being who likes to think of himself as “creative” – to be dismissive of it, I don’t think we should be too hasty.

The freebie images are a modest 1024×512 pixels, but useable, say for blog illustration, or, with a bit of Photoshop enhancement, as e-book covers, or simply for pondering. I find them quite haunting and, in spite of their unique nature, strangely familiar in that they combine elements I feel I have seen before, but which are just out of reach of memory.

There are other online generators, free to try, but they all have some kind of limiter, or a token system, to prevent over-use of the servers. I also like Nightcafe Studio, which I fed the following prompt:

A young woman wearing a long, red dress. She is reclining on a chaise lounge. Victorian and romantic in style.

To which it responded:

Young woman in a red dress – by Nightcafe Studio A.I.

The result is somewhat lush and stylised, though not unpleasing, and nicely lit. She has an oddly shaped thigh, strange hands and what appears to be the stump of a third arm, but for all of that it would not look out of place on a gallery wall, given a suitably pretentious blurb. It’s also unique – sort of. No image will ever come out quite like this again. However, once you’ve got the image, you can copy and paste it as many times as you like, of course, which, like all digital art, renders it nothing more than a worthless and disposable curiosity, right?

Well, that brings us to non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which I looked at last year. NFTs and digital art go hand in hand. Digital art, whether it be by human or AI, is – by our normal calculations, based on supply and demand – of no value at all, because we can copy and paste it as many times as we like, and the result will be indistinguishable from the original. However, AI generated art can come with a unique digital token, which proclaims you as the owner of the original file, which is something that, in our topsy-turvy world, can then be traded. And, though it might sound unlikely, it being essentially the value of nothing, some tokens are trading for millions of dollars – or at least those that receive the most hype.

Here’s another one. Input: Man writing at a desk, background of bookcases. Lamplight. Studious, romantic atmosphere. Impressionistic.

The result:

Man writing – by A.I.

The debate over AI generated art also throws up the old chestnut about the nature of human consciousness, and the belief among the so-called “hard AI” scientists, that it’s just a question of time, and a critical mass of artificial neural complexity, before we create a sentient computer. But this kind of thinking is bourne out of a strictly materialist paradigm, and goes too far for me. Our machines are breathtakingly intelligent, but that’s not the same thing as saying they might ever become sentient. Like a chess playing computer, it does not arrive at its moves by thinking about them like a human player, but its moves are always good ones. It does the same job, but better. Like an electric saw, it’s better than a handsaw in certain applications, but only because we have made it so. And even then, we wouldn’t use it everywhere.

AI sentience also rather presupposes the brain is what generates consciousness, and I do not subscribe to that view either. I’m deeply impressed by A.I. generated artwork, but feel there’s a danger here of setting off down the wrong path in our appreciation of what it means and that, like all A.I., we should not be tempted to make the retrograde leap from master to servant. A.I. serves a purpose. It can protect, it can run complex services on our behalf better than we can ourselves, and it can entertain, but it cannot be allowed to control and delimit, either our actions as free beings, nor supplant our imaginations.

Another one: Input: A young woman in a long red dress, fantasy forest setting, backlit, lush greenery, light rays. Output:

Woman in a red dress, in the forest – by A.I.

A human artist invests time learning how to paint. Then, having mastered the art, a large painting might take months, or even years of the artist’s time to complete, and the end result is always going to be fragile. It’s likely then, a very old painting by a recognisably competent artist will have survived any number of potential calamities, and is worth all the more for its rarity, and the simple fact of its survival. By comparison, a computer generated artwork takes seconds to make, and the result can be backed up digitally so many times as to be virtually immortal. NFTs not withstanding, I know which artwork possesses the greater intangible value, the greater allure, to my own taste and I would care nothing for who owned the digital title to an AI generated artwork. All of which is to say, while AI can produce some stunningly beautiful and provocative images, let’s not lose our heads over what it means.

Is it truly art? Well, yes, I think it is, but certainly not like anything we have known before.

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corncrakeThe searing heat abated somewhat today, though the stupefying humidity remained. I decided on just a short outing then, not too far nor too strenuous but still found myself dripping in minutes.

Where was I? Well, see if you can guess: the forest floor was ferny thick and the canopy abuzz with a torment of flies. There were plastic bottles a plenty in the undergrowth, ditto crisp packets, also a wealth of spent nitrous oxide cartridges. Higher up the hill, among the painstakingly restored terraced walkways there were the usual bags of dog turds hanging from trees like bizarre offerings to the ever salivating demons of barbarism, oh,… and there was an adult diaper oozing mess. We could only be in the Rivington Terraced Gardens then, or just about anywhere else in the countryside these days.

But on a lighter note I had recently discovered this thing called Google Lens. If you have a data signal, you can point your Android device’s camera at anything, and it will tell you what it is. So, whilst out and about in the green and with quite a perky signal, I decided to try it out – in the field so to speak. However, it swore blind the oak leaf was from a different tree entirely, a more exotic and entirely unpronounceable Amazonian species. It struggled to find any sort of name for a sycamore leaf at all, was confused by a humble bramble, but did identify, in the corner of that particular frame a corncrake, which would have been sensational had it not actually been my foot.

All of which got me thinking, if Google really is intent on displacing superfluous human activities like driving cars and reading maps, and telling us what things are, there must come a point when we’re no longer capable of knowing about these things for ourselves. It is at that point our entire frame of reference will be dictated by a kind of iron-brained deity we have in fact constructed, placed our trust in, and quite probably sacrificed our own long term survival on planet earth so this unconscious entity can thrive while missing the point entirely, that without us humble thinking beings, this artificial creature has no purpose at all.

It might well be an oak tree we are looking at, but we shall be forced to call it whatever the machine says it is, whether it is or not. And if the machine has no name for a thing, we shall stare at that nameless thing in horror, as we might at a demon come to threaten our entire world view.

For a time there’ll still be grey-haired die-hards who like to read books and maps, Luddites who insist on driving their own cars, but we won’t last much longer and then, well, you kids are on your own, and you’ve only yourselves to blame. The real world is still out there, though looking a little sorry for itself now, quite literally shat upon, and suffering ever more frequent paroxisms of climatic excess that we’re probably too late to fix. And I suppose the thing is we’ve never respected it, trusted instead in our own superiority, in our technologies, so now we find ourselves with gormless expressions, tongues hanging out, noses pressed against the glass of our latest device, peering in to a world that doesn’t exist, while the one that does, the one that sustains us and gives us air to breathe, we have allowed to catch fire.

We are adept at adaptation, so much so there can never be an example of dystopia outside of science fiction, for no matter how weird or absurd, oppressive or dangerous our world becomes, we have already accepted it as the new normal, even before it’s claimed its first victims.

Corncrake? Yea right.



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on the beda fell ridge

So, the computer finally died. Six years old, it updated itself dutifully every Friday, into the oblivion of a Windows 10 black hole. It wouldn’t boot, as they say in the trade. It was goosed as they say elsewhere. And in-spite of my tenderly intensive and not exactly inexpert administrations, it was tired of the fray and pleaded with me to let it go.

I’ve not totally given up on it, have laid it somewhere safe. After all, it’s physically flawless, and its demise seems painfully premature to me. My car is seventeen years old and still drives like new, can accelerate from 0 to 60 as fast as it ever did. I have a watch in my collection a hundred and thirty years old and it still tells the time very well. It has not gradually ground to a halt year on year.

The ultimate salve will be a copy of Windows 7 (64 bit) which should make that old computer fly as never before, provided I never connect it to the Internet again, and that’s fine for drafting work, for when I’m writing out in the shed of a summer’s evening. For sure the Internet’s the problem, and a stormy sea these days for the fragile craft that old computer had become. But for now, sure, I set it aside, and since we cannot manage without access to the damned Internet any more, I ordered a fresh machine of similarly middling specification from the Amazon. With free delivery, (which cost me £4.95) it arrived next day.

This should impress me, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t need it that fast. I might have waited a week or two – the rest from wrestling with I.T. would have done me good. Who decided I wanted it straight away? Why not deliver it by drone within the hour? What kind of sluggish operation are we running here? Or more to the point, what wages were depressed, what workers were oppressed in order to merit this specious tick in the box of customer service excellence? Oh, I know, I’ve written about this before when I sat on my phone and broke it, and isn’t what I really want to talk about now – what I want to talk about is quality. Human quality.

Of course my old computer sank to the bottom of the Internet ocean with an awful lot of data on it: pictures, backups, bloat-ware. All gone, winked out, gone supernova. But you never keep anything on a machine you can’t afford to lose, so I don’t mind that it’s gone now. Anything precious is on a pen-drive, backed up to a portable hard-drive, backed up to another portable hard-drive.

So you fire up your new machine and it seems slick by comparison, but then they all do at the start. And you begin rebuilding your email, your browser shortcuts, your passwords – oh, damn, my passwords – set your background theme. Fiddle about, deleting that bloat-ware. Say NO THANKS to that invitation to partake of the sinister behemoth that is Microsoft Office 365 for eighty quid a year and it’s never actually yours. So by now, an evening’s passed and you’ve done nothing else, added nothing to the sum total of your self, which begs the question what does add up?

Reading a book, perhaps? Having a conversation? Going for a walk in the countryside? Going to the shop for wine and cheese? Watching Sandra Bullock? in Gravity. Again.

What have I added to myself by this slavery to the machine? A pleasant memory, perhaps? A stimulating fact? The renewal of my corporeal self by the imbibing of copious amounts of country air? The renewal of my superficial spirit by the Bacchanalian delight of cheap corner-shop wine? No, none of these things.

In the world of Manufacturing, we concern ourselves very much with those human activities which add value to a product. Activities that add nothing, or worse, take value away must be got rid of. And so it is with human affairs. But what is it that adds value to your life? Our machines help us out for sure; they furnish us with information, they control systems that sustain life and which no human being could ever grasp, and they enable otherwise unknown writers to disseminate their thoughts. But do they add value to us? I don’t think they do, or at least not as much as we like to think they do. Indeed, it seem obvious to me the machines are evolving rapidly away from us into a pointless universe of their own, and the worst thing we can do is follow them while believing our liberation, our true value comes from continuing down the path of servitude to these unfeeling, unthinking things.

I don’t know what it means to be human, except that part of being human is accepting the paradox of trying to figure out what it means, while running the risk there may be many answers, and none of them true, or just the one answer that is unobtainable by the mortal intellect. But I do know I’m closer to it when I’m looking up at the stars or watching the sun set, or striking out over the hilltops, much less so when I’m staring at a damned computer screen. How many hours in the day do I waste doing that, adding nothing to myself?

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mariaI’ve just noticed my novel “Between The Tides” popping up for sale on various strange websites, adult sites, the sites you hesitate to click on, so I refrained from further investigation. It used to happen a lot with Amazon too, my stuff getting stolen and sold by pirates. The first couple of times this misappropriation and misrepresentation bothered me deeply. It used to feel like a violation.

It’s my business if I decide to give away a novel I’ve spent years writing, quite another if some n’er-do-well cuts and pastes it and charges $5 for the download, but for all of that it concerns me less nowadays, and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. I hasten to add “Between the Tides” is not an “Adult” novel. It’s a contemporary literary romance, so anyone paying their $5 and expecting pornographic rumpy pumpy are going to be disappointed.

Technology opens up all manner of possibilities, not all of them for the better. The Internet enables many, like me, a means of self expression, changing the definition of what publishing actually is, and I count this on the plus side. But on the other there’s a million new ways of exploiting the innocent, of scamming them, hurting them, even enabling new forms of global warfare with whole nations trying to shut down each other’s essential infrastructures, like electricity or air-traffic control. And its effect on global politics is only just becoming apparent, sophisticated algorithms undermining the democratic process and swaying election results in favour of the plutocratic moneyed minority.

I’ve always been a progressive when it comes to technology, but some of the visionaries driving it now are clearly nuts, also unfortunately incredibly rich and powerful. Technology changes lives, brings about revolutions in the way we live and work. These revolutions used to take centuries to come about, then it was decades, now it’s down to a few years. The pace of change is accelerating, and some visionaries, real live CEOs of Silicon Valley companies, extrapolate a future where the time for change is compressed to zero. They call it the Singularity, and it’s at this point everything happens at once.

Really, forget religion, the techno-visionaries are quite evangelical about it. The Singularity is analogous to the Second Coming, or the End Times, or the Rapture. It’s at this point, they tell us, machines will become conscious beings in their own right, and we will have achieved immortality by virtue of the ability to “upload” our minds into vast computational matrixes, like in some hyper-realistic massive multi-player online role playing game.

But given the darker side of technology, is this something we really want? I’ve only to watch my kids playing GTA to know it’s the last place I’d want to be trapped for eternity. Or perhaps, given the inevitable commercialisation of the meta-verse, our immortality could only be guaranteed provided we obtained and maintained sufficient in-game credit, and when we ran out, we could be deleted. Thought you’d be safe from market forces when you died? No way, the visionaries are working on ways of it chasing you into the afterlife.

Certainly our machines are changing how we live at an ever accelerating pace. Meanwhile we remain essentially the same beings that walked the planet two thousand years ago. Whether or not you believe it’s possible to preserve your essential thinking being by uploading it to a computer depends on how you imagine consciousness coming about in the first place. There’s the mechanistic view, that the brain is a computer made of meat, so as soon as we can make a computer as complex as that, Bob’s your uncle. But I’ve never been of that view, so I’m able to rest a little easier that my afterlife will not be spent avoiding evil bastards in a GTA heaven or keeping up the payments on my immortality.

In the matrix, there’s nothing I can do to stop the bad guy from stealing the book I’ve written, but he cannot steal the one I’m writing nor, more crucially, my reasons for writing it. Such a thing transcends the mechanistic world view, a world view that’s a century out of date, yet still cleaved to by the technocracy with all the zealotry of an Evangelical Preacher. The technocracy long ago deconstructed heaven and transcended God with their own omnipotence, but what they’re offering in its place now makes less sense for being all the more transparently absurd, and for the simple fact that machines do not come for free, that those who own them are paid by those who do not. Bear this in mind and our relationship with machines will remain balanced, and correct. Forget it, and the machine will eat your brain long before you get the chance to upload it.


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mariaMy father taught me how to play chess. It was one of those rites of passage things – the master teaches the pupil, and then the pupil tries to beat the master. I think I managed it once or twice by fluke, but my father was always a better player than me in the long run. Likewise, I taught my own boys to play, but chess has a lot of competition these days, all of it computer based; games of great complexity, games that require quick thinking, fast reflexes, and which are often, sadly, very violent simulations of the game-master’s vision of the “real world”.

Occasionally, my boys will try to beat me at chess, but it’s no longer a burning priority, not as much as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and of course the ever pressing demands of social media. And does it really matter anyway, that we develop our game as human players, when computers are obviously so much better at games than us?

The code used in computer chess programs is actually quite simple, rule-based, and often vanishingly small, at least by the standards of other computer games. The strength of the computer lies in its speed and its ability to evaluate combinations of moves far in advance of the human player. If we followed the same rules as the machine, the moves we’d make would be equally good ones – it’s just that it would take us years to work them out. It took a while for computers to routinely beat the best human players, but that they do so now throws up some interesting questions, not only about chess, but games in general and, on a deeper level, the existential meaning of machines themselves, and our relationships with them.

A game between human beings is a meeting of minds. You get to know a person better and more quickly if you play with them. Since computers do not “think”, or “play”, or take pleasure in anything, there is something ultimately sterile in a person playing against a computer. As for two computers playing one another that’s only of interest to a human being comparing the effectiveness of their respective artificial intelligence programs.

Artificial intelligence is the thing, and of course much in the news these days, with both Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates cautioning us against the rise of “super intelligent machines”. This is not about whether machines will ever be capable of achieving consciousness and becoming rogue monsters, like in those scary sci-fi movies, but more the extent to which the world we are building is starting to resemble a huge interconnected machine, one that does not really serve us any more, and to which the vast majority of us risk becoming subservient to a monolithic and amoral rule-based system, a computer system that controls everything, one that no one person can ever fully understand and therefore challenge.

An illustration of how close we are to sleepwalking into this dystopian vision comes from news of a company now injecting computer-chips into the hands of its employees. Known as RFID tags, about the size of a grain of rice, these things are already used to ID our pets. Chipping humans was an inevitable next step, and only a matter of time. Chipped humans can gain access through computer controlled doors, they can use secure photocopiers and log onto their PC’s, all by merely offering up their hand. It’s a voluntary system at the moment, and one I would personally decline, robustly and with expletives, but in the near future, as machines dictate ever more efficient systems, it may become a condition of employment that we subject ourselves to it, that indeed anyone aspiring to a proper living wage in a hi-tech, super-efficient, super-intelligent economy, will need to forsake first their name in exchange for a subcutaneous number known only to the machine itself. And who can argue with the convenience of such a scheme being extended to the public transport, the banking and the retail systems? No more coppering up to pay the parking meter; you simply wave your hand over it.

So why resist? Well, the objection is of course a philosophical one, that when we begin embedding bits of the machine into our bodies, it is the first step in the invasion of human physiology by the mechanisms we have invented – invented with the purpose of serving us, and on the pretext of enabling them to serve us better. But the stage after that is to implant processors and sensors, first to monitor the body’s functions, and later, to modify them. Human beings will not dictate this step; the machines will merely point out the logical necessity, and we will offer ourselves willingly. At this stage we will have become more properly biological proxies of the machines themselves; robots with an ever more alienated psyche dragged along for the ride.

Machines, not being capable of sentience, will always operate from a rule based, mechanistic set of algorithms – complex yes, but literally inhuman. To a machine there will only ever be a two way gate: yes or no. There is never, as so often in human affairs, a “definite maybe”. To the scientistic, the materialistic, and the terminally simplistic, there is nothing more annoying than a system that cannot be modelled through the logic gates of a computer program yet much of the real world defies algorithmic analysis, and computer models of it are by necessity always simplifications. While our most powerful computers do nowadays deliver more accurate forecasts of the weather, they cannot tell us how even an ant is created from nothing. We are not therefore achieving a greater understanding of life by our mimicking of it, rather we are creating autonomous entities of great power, but which serve no existential purpose, and by plugging ourselves into them, we risk negating the existential purpose of our selves.

To a machine there is no point to anything, no point to an ant or a human being, for the point of a thing is a very human thing; it is ambiguous, and highly subjective – terms which do not compute. So you turn up for work one day and you can’t even get into the building, because the machine has calculated there is no further benefit to having you on the payrole. Thus you are deleted with an amoral efficiency, and without redress, and all you have to show for twenty five years of service is that defunct chip under your skin, and which you can still feel lurking there every time you clench your fist.

I do not play chess very well, but I do enjoy playing it. I play against machines too but only for the practice, being careful not to lose sight of the fact that victory over a machine, while an indication of my own skill and mental focus is, in other terms, meaningless. People used to play chess long distance, by letter. We might nowadays do the same by email, but the temptation to cheat by responding with a computer generated move erases trust and has eliminated the pleasure of it, so we don’t do it. Do the machines then bring us closer together, or alienate us from one another? Do they enhance our abilities, or do they merely highlight our shortcomings?

What are all our great machines for? Do they serve us, or are they already well along the road to becoming a separate, entirely self-serving and eternally unconscious species, one in which the simulation has become the reality, and in which the creators find themselves trapped, unable to escape back into the real world? Think of that next time you feed your card into an ATM, and ask the question: who is serving whom?

Can computers really play chess? No; we just allow ourselves to think they do.

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mariaThe world of artificial intelligence is in a buzz at the moment over a machine which recently passed the Turing Test. This means that during a question and answer session, a computer was able to convince a human judge, most of the time that its answers to his questions came from another human being, rather than a cleverly designed machine.

Passing the Turing test does not in any way infer a machine is sentient or conscious, or in any way “alive”, merely that its programmed responses convincingly simulate the responses a human being might give to those same questions. But that a machine has now passed the Turing Test means it’s time we sat up and took notice of what’s been happening in the world of artificial intelligence.

There are two kinds of artificial intelligence gurus. There are those who believe machines will one day become conscious, artificial life-forms. The followers of this school, tend to view the world in purely mechanistic and materialistic terms, believing that the processes going on in a human brain are ultimately machine like, something to do with molecules and electrons, and can therefore be replicated by digital processing, which is also to do with molecules and electrons. Gurus of this school are the latter day Dr Frankensteins, and we fear them releasing Armageddon by their foolish meddling.

The threat posed by a rogue, conscious mega-machine, plugged in to all the world’s digital and electronic systems is the stuff of nightmare and many a corny film plot, but I don’t think we need worry too much on this score as there are a lot of sound arguments pointing the other way, that when it comes to defining what consciousness is, it puts it well beyond what can be programmed into a machine. But a machine does not need to be conscious or self aware in order to be harmful to humans, and I don’t just mean physically harmful either.

Artificial Intelligence is an interesting field, calling into question what it means to be human and conscious. It also acts as a flash point for the soul-spirit debate – the non-materialists insisting there is more to consciousness than mere physical states, that there is also a ghost in the machine, our spiritual nature, which lights up the apparatus to produce a self-aware human being, and without that ghost, you can never have a conscious machine.

The other kind of artificial intelligence guru bypasses the argument about conscious machines altogether, and is more concerned with exploring the limits and the potential of machine based intelligence, and in particular the way machines can interface with human beings. If you flip over to the chatbot, Alice, at Pandorabot, and ask  “her” a few questions, you might find yourself getting drawn in by the answers. This machine is very good, but not perfect and with a little intelligence on the part of a human inquisitor the flaws in Alice’s “intelligence” are soon revealed, but we can see where this is going.

With most communications now going on “online”, it doesn’t take much imagination to come up with a near future scenario where our emails to corporations are answered by Alice-type machines, and we’d be unable to tell if we were corresponding with a human being, or a bot. This of extends to spoken communication as well. At present it’s easy to tell when you’ve been sucked into the black hole of a human operated call centre, but speech recognition and synthesised computer voices are becoming highly advanced and I can see a scenario within the next decade, where call centres, already largely scripted, become entirely computerised.

One of the more amusing applications of a chat-bot, like Alice is to let one loose in a chat-forum. Even more hilarious is to let more than one loose. The human participants haven’t a clue – the only give-away is that Alice has better language and grammar skills. The point is, actually, it’s pointless to have one chat-bot chatting to another, because it’s the human being – again the ghost in the machine – no matter how imperfect, that grants meaning to the whole enterprise.

The replacement of humans by machines has been going on since the industrial revolution. The losers are always the humans who have been replaced, while the winners are the owners of the machines. Since the former outnumber the latter by thousands to one, replacing a human being with a machine can never be justified in humanistic terms, unless it is to release human beings to more personally rewarding or less hazardous tasks. In practice though, the machines release human beings only to the inescapable poverty of state-welfare or those low paid tasks where the machines have yet to make inroads.

When all the world’s systems are computerised and digitised, and the vast majority of human beings are no longer required to perform any useful function in the world at all, machine logic dictates that there will have to be invented for us an artificial function in order to “earn” the carefully calculated minimum number of “credits” to be spent on keeping oneself alive. Such a synthetic function might involve say one human putting pebbles into a bag, and passing them to another human being who then takes them out. A hundred pebbles, in or out, earns a credit. Too slow with the pebbles, your credit is halved. This is the way it’s always been of course – only the rise of the machines points out its questionable moral value.

It reduces human beings to pieces of machine code, to cogs in a machine, or more literally to a pair of hands. And we are more than that. We have complex needs, complex emotions. We need compassion, a sense of purpose, and we need to aspire to something greater than we already are or we become sick, and we die before our time. These things cannot be simulated or coded, and their absence cannot be compensated for by a warm, synthetic voice with nothing at its heart.

We are constructing an artificial intelligence that serves no purpose, one that’s on a divergent course to our own basic needs. I trust we won’t simply rush after it in the belief that even though machines might never be “sentient” their simulated intelligence makes them somehow better and more trustworthy than a fellow human being.

When I gaze into the night sky, I cannot count the stars as a machine might, and come back with a figure of so many million. I cannot categorise their brightness, nor catalogue their distance from earth, but what I simply feel when I look the night sky puts a distance between me and any machine, a distance that can never be bridged. That machines should always serve us, and not the other way around seems an unnecessary note of caution, but for that to mean anything we need to know first what it is we are for and what values we ourselves hold to. Otherwise we end up as slaves to a synthetic system that’s void of compassion and at the bottom of it really, really stupid. When that happens we will have become as pointless as the machines we are already beginning to serve.

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