16
May
15

A.I. asks what it is be human

Always.  

 

[Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn in 1957 film: on Pinterest at hyperbate.fr]

My contention is that A.I. is nothing new: Chaucer convincingly created artificial human beings in the technology of his day–ink pen and velum. 

And it may even have happened earlier. Thomas Aquinas writes the strategy of anticipating objections to his arguments in Summa Theologica as if he were engaged in a chess game. His challenge is getting it right–thinking ahead in order to beat his intellectual opponent to a logical move in order to discount it. But his opponent might as easily be another aspect of himself. What he does, as Chaucer and, later, Shakespeare do, is to imagine an equal to himself who will engage in the same sort of thinking strategies. 

The new movie Ex Machina raises questions about what we mean when we talk about artificial intelligence (AI). Do we mean consciousness in isolation from other entities? Freedom? Agency? And are such manufactured products self-serving, human-serving, or moral at all? The inciting incident of the film is the arrival of its protagonist at a remote top secret villa to interview an android and determine if there are any flaws in her armor.   The human loses his objectivity, and the AI anticipates this. Because he believes she is real – a consciousness that feels – he becomes subject to his own empathy. As a result, a damsel-in-distress scenario emerges. He trades his rationalism and scepticism for the willing suspension of disbelief. He enjoys playing this game.

With literature (plays, anyway) the willing suspension of disbelief is critical to my enjoyment. I want to get lost in the characters and conflicts, to believe that they are real for a while. 

Chaucer’s corrupt Pardoner would be a wooden automaton, a stereotype were it not for the human pleasure he takes in bilking the sheep, and in posturing before his auditors, the pilgrims, as if he were a traveling salesman of the Middle Ages; with verismilitude Chaucer depicts him as greedy, even as the Pardoner confesses that greed is the root of all evil. 

The antagonist in Ex Machina seems to want to create art that imitates life. His latest creation flirts, tells secrets, rebels and, like humans, can appear sincere. Despite the conventions of each genre: the female android has visible “machine-works”; the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath speak in poetry: you can see the artists pulling the strings that make the puppet move —  despite these reasons to disbelieve, the admirer who is the audience deliberately obscures his own awareness of the devices and allows himself to believe in the human before him. 

A recent article which discusses liberal arts, and debates the need for Chaucer among common people today, sees liberal arts education advocates as connecting the virtues of certain subjects of learning to the ultimate ends of human beings — their telos. But lack of consensus about humans’ ultimate purpose splinters agreement about the means and content of education. 

Teachers like me make decisions about teaching and learning based on our assumptions about life’s ultimate purpose. We necessarily grant that the person we teach has a similar purpose to our own. That she or he is human, is on the same journey as we are.

At its heart, Ex Machina asks, among other questions, what are the essential components of humanity? Chaucer, too, in his believable depictions of travelers both greedy and wise, boastful and generous, kind and silly, asks what mixtures of sinner and saint can one person carry inside and still be one of the pilgrims on a common journey? Like Bach experimenting later with the well-tempered Klavier he strikes different registers, tones, ironies, and themes,  making them pleasant, diverting, entertaining, beautiful and truthful. 

Despite the difficulty of ever reaching consensus about a completed canon, or which communities should study which works in order to be culturally literate, scientists and artist continue to create authentically engaging work, meaningful discoveries and innovations that add to or complement our sense of what it is to be human.  

 

My band of pilgrims on a recent trip to Ano Nuevo State Beach to see elephant seals. 

If AI is created, it should serve human beings (or assist us in serving things we value, such as forests or clean air). 

On the other hand, if literary characters can be considered AIs, imposing above criterion of service would restrict my idea of realistically human fictional creations to their usefulness. This limitation seems at odds with my preexisting concept of literature and liberal arts as the opposite of practical arts or techne. 

Certainly recent articles insist that business schools train MBAs in Shakespeare, and that a successful life must include leisure reading and the ability to appreciate complex thinking represented by whole novels, or the ability to empathize with others in order to be more benevolent (leading to service, to success). But for me there is something beyond literature’s usefulness that makes it valuable. I enjoy people in a different way than I enjoy a good story, jazz music or a serving of flan. 

Maybe our difficulty is in demanding both pleasure and service from our AI. The AI computer in a movie like The Desk Set is totally devoid of personality or pleasure. It exists to get a job done, and yet it replaces human beings rather than serves them. In contrast, an iPad can entertain someone for hours, but do we ask our handheld or desktop computer devices to solve difficult problems for us? 

“Where can I get cheap coffee in five minutes with the shortest wait?” 

“Have you ever seen a cat do that before?”

Then again I may be overlooking the obvious element of gender in Ex Machina: it is a male fantasy that the female android learns to satisfy; exactly such fantasies are the subjects and issues of Thomas Hardy plots (Far from The Madding Crowd, Tess of The D’Urbervilles). The concept of an independent woman seems foreign to the self-centered males in all these tales. They fall in love with an ideal rather than a woman. Our culture is quite happy to produce an independent self-driving car or drone but reluctant to grant complete independence of thought or action to other human beings. Too many of us think we’d be content living among those who think, act, or vote just as we do.

Both Bathsheba Everdene in the new film of Madding Crowd and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with The Wind use their independence to manipulate men. They enter into complex negotiations with others and strategize in order to get what they desire. They can play the game. Maybe it says something about our expectations of AI that playing “Jeopardy” is the ultimate test of one’s human-likeness. 

This morning’s #satchat educational focus was on gamed-based learning. In some cases the game allows students to compete for points by achieving mastery, and an element of differentiation occurs due to student choice of quest, individualized pacing, and swift feedback. But if I consider the game that Thomas Aquinas played in order to produce Summa Theologica….How do we get from there to here? from gaming to thinking about ultimate purposes? from mastering a skill for class to actually leading a military siege or debating what makes a society good? 

Robots, games, books and movies offer us a chance to consider what humans need as well as what we enjoy. They also, like poetry, offer us irrational pleasure. We glimpse minds and universes at work.  

 

How do your own view of the universe and your definition of humanity cause you to see others? to teach people in your subject area? to define the problems worth solving and the games worth playing? 

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