Sunday, June 19, 2011

A.I. vis-a-vis Cyberpunk

I told you that I was feeling rather cyberpunk.  In my recent meanderings across the World Wide Web, I stumbled upon this essay from way the heck back in 1999/2000 on the Singularity, artificial intelligence, and how they are viewed through the literature of cyberpunk.  In other words, comparing the fantastic and sometimes cautionary views of AI development with what we are currently seeing in the real world.  
As pointed out in the text, we already live in a world of AI if we can look upon the definition of that as "solving by machine (hardware) or by a program run on a machine (software) specific problems that are precisely defined (which means that the solver, either a program or a machine, is provided with algorithms for solving them or have such algorithms built into itself). A machine (either hardware or software) that possesses such capability would also be called AI. We already have machines that translate documents in real time (like babel fish on the Internet) or play chess and win with grand masters (like the computer Deeper Blue.)"  
However, what is typically implied by the phrase "artificial intelligence" is "a machine that can think as a human does."  What is the definition of "thinking" in this case? The author of the piece wisely chooses the same approach as Turing in that "if you ask an AI a question and its response is indistinguishable from that of human's, then it thinks."  Very Singularity in nature, that notion of human becoming indiscernible from machine.  Our current status might be seen, in an albeit clumsy way, in terms of concrescence as Terrence McKenna refers toAll things considered, AI is an inevitable development in our lifetimes.

Judiciously, the author of this essay, one Paul "nEo" Martin (yeah, you can tell that this was written in the wake of The Matrix), chooses William Gibson's Idoru as a singular cyberpunk text to make comparisons to.  "Idoru" literally means "idol" in Japanese.  One of the main characters of Gibson's book is Rei Toei, a rockergirl idol who is not human but a computer construct.  An AI.  All that she's artificial.  A construct.  In less respects, our mass media culture already has plenty of idorus, celebrities whose entertainment persona exists only on stage/screen but whose real identity is rather far removed in real life.  Examples of this include but are not limited to Alice Cooper, David Bowie, and Gene Simmons.  Interestingly enough, all three of those cited have had or are now having (in my opinion) difficulties resultant from when the artificial construct overlaps into real life.  But I digress...
One principal argument in the nature of AI development is that AIs will ultimately take on the persona and mores of their human creators and perhaps even augment them into a coldly wiser state of awareness.  Martin develops an intriguing comparison with Idoru in that:
"This approach, however, is reflected in neither of the cyberpunk works discussed here [the other being Ghost in the Shell,--J.]. Rei Toei may take the sensibility to human problems after their designers (which is especially shown in her attitude towards Chia), but she surpasses her creators in terms of wisdom and insight and, therefore, seems to judge the events around her with a cold certainty of a superior being that recognizes human emotions, but, as a being practically immortal, is beyond them."

Examples of AI "cautionary tales" are all over the place in fiction.  SkyNet is probably the most widely recognized among them in terms of the current generation.  While it is admittedly outside the scope of Martin's paper (and from experience, I know how tempting it can be to branch out all over the place like a drunk in connecting seemingly disparate ideas in academics), another example, even if in the literary virilocal sense, could be the Otherland series by Tad Williams.  A private, multidimensional artificial universe that is inhabited by the wealthy elite, falls to ruin under the monstrous AI that runs it, an entity known as "The Other." (Be on the lookout for tomorrow's post on "uploaded societies" as it ties into this concept.-J)  It's one of the more intelligent descriptions of an "AI menace" that I have yet read.

But like Martin asserts in his conclusion, I am not so fearful of AI development as the Luddites and the cautionary tales would have us be.  I am never one to eschew the downsides of The Singularity.  Of course they will be there.  They always are even in the most paradisaical of scenarios.  That said, I believe that the advent of AI will not be a dark time for humanity, but one of change.  Change, as we have become intimately acquainted with in my lifetime both publicly and privately, is inevitable.  Every bit as much as AI is inevitable.  Technologically, the genie is already out of the bottle, so to speak and there is no feasible way of putting him back.  More to the point, why would we want to?  The end results of AI could be transformational but whatever they are, they will be the consequence of human decisions, not anything else's. 

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