Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Transhumanism in the news




While I consume many news and other media stories about transhumanism, two recent ones stood out for different reasons.

Shocker. A Pew research poll has found that most Americans fear implantable technologies such as brain chips and cybernetics. Whether it's brain implants for enhanced intellectual performance or synthetic blood that might give someone a physical edge in terms of speed, strength, and endurance, people just don't seem to be down with it. Color me surprised. When people get scared, they get reactionary. My only hope is that we can have a full and open debate about these scientific/social issues such as CRISPR and sensor implants as well as numerous other transhuman approaches. I won't deny that there are implications that go beyond "I want control of my own body," but if we can approach the issues without either recoiling in fear or smirking in derision ("Oh that technology will never happen")...well, that would be great.

On NPR's Fresh Air yesterday, I first heard about Curated AI. It is a literary journal where all of the short stories and poems are written by artificial intelligence programs. The one at the link is meant to emulate the style of Leo Tolstoy, thus the reason for the writer's name being "Tolstoyish." Is it perfect? Of course not. The technology does not exist to somehow resurrect Tolstoy's brain and then cybernetically interface it with a computer so that an upload may take place. What can happen is that an AI can scan the writings, learn from them, and then render its own version. Even more interesting I'm sure to neuroscientists is that Tolstoyish might able to take feedback (an AI in a writer's workshop?), learn from it, and titivate its writing style. On Fresh Air, the editor of CuratedAI said that her ultimate goal is to have one of these stories published in The New Yorker without the submissions editors knowing the author was a machine. Thus that might qualify as a passing of a sort of "literary Turing Test."

Remember in the previous story where I ridiculed people for being scared? Here's the part where I hypocritize myself (as a professor in grad school once said.) The text churned out by Tolstoyish isn't too bad. It's not exactly smooth and there are obvious problems, but I would not instantly recognize it as being written by a machine. I might instead guess that it's a first semester freshman English student trying to sound like Tolstoy. Given that such an accomplishment was achieved by a machine, that's nothing to sneeze at. Writers today, I believe, are struggling enough to find legitimacy in a digital world. What happens when an AI can churn short stories out too? I used to think that the profession of writing was something safe from the inexorable march of robotics and automation.

Now...I don't know.

Then again, could an AI's ability to express itself creatively bring it closer to humans? Might that not engender a sense of empathy, thereby easing fears of an AI takeover? Maybe.

One thing is certain from both stories: like it or not, a merger is happening. Whether we are becoming more machine-like through implants or they are becoming more human-like through emulation, we're both racing towards a middle point. Don't believe me? Check right now just how far you are from your smartphone or tablet at any given time. Do you sleep with it? I do. We are connected to computers and Internet devices on an intimate level. There is no other technology or media in history that we can say this about, not even television. This merger of human and machine is happening.

Might many of us be too scared to see it's already happening?


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