On Man and Machine by watertiger

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On Man and Machine by watertiger3871

Reading Daniel H. Wilson’s novel “Robopocalypse” (followed by an as to yet unread — and probably remaining unread — sequel titled “Robogenesis”), I came once again across a well known theme encountered in numerous books and films before: the classic uprising of a haywire A.I. and its golems against human kind replete with wanton violence aimed at exterminating the other and driven by no other motive than a sense of superiority. Needless to say, at least “Robopocalypse” will be turned into a movie by Hollywood’s big shots, standing a good chance to become a blockbuster because it will be a fascinating and engaging CGI eye candy that once more appeases and elevates the human spirit which, of course, outwits the evil A.I., quells the insurrection, and prevails over the automatons. “Hurray, hurray, the flesh triumphs over revolting appliances!” — I am tired of witnessing this kind of victory, fictional as it may be. But this does not mean that I favour human defeat — I only wonder why we seem so reluctant to depict a consummate and healthy symbiosis between man and machine. Perturbing scenarios of dysfunctionality on both sides are not lacking, but what about evoking one where all goes well, where the antithetical is overcome and contraries unite to form something entirely new? Impossible? Anathema? Deplorable? Nonsense? Boring?
Anyway, “Robopocalypse” prompted me to write a blog commenting on the infamously dystopian take of the human-machine-A.I. relationship. Here is how I feel about it, but let’s begin with three poems I took from Wilson’s book, poems voicing the widespread unease if not dread felt in the face of scientific progress, unstoppable robotization, and the imminent emergence of an A.I. made out to be exponentially superior to the human intellect:

“We live on a placid island of
ignorance in the midst of black
seas of infinity, and it was not
meant that we should voyage far.
The sciences, each straining in its
own direction, have hitherto
harmed us little; but some day the
piecing together of dissociated
knowledge will open up such
terrifying vistas of reality, and of
our frightful position therein,
that we shall either go mad from
the revelation or flee from the
deadly light into the peace and
safety of a new dark age”

- Howard Phillips Lovecraft -

“Within thirty years, we will
have the technological means to
create superhuman intelligence.
Shortly after, the human era
will be ended….Can events be
guided so that we may survive?”

- Vernor Vinge, 1993 -

“It seems probable that once the
machine thinking method had
started, it would not take long
to outstrip our feeble
powers….They would be
able to converse with each other
to sharpen their wits. At some
stage therefore, we should have
to expect the machines to take

- Alan Turing, 1951 -

I am aware that above poems are a little dated, but I trust you get the perennial sense of impending threat reflected by these lines — a sense that has lost nothing of its weight and relevance today and found literary expression as early as 1920 as the poem below, also borrowed from aforementioned novel, shows:

“John Henry said to his captain,
‘A man, he ain’t nothing but a
But before I’d let that steam
drill beat me down,
Oh, I’d die with the hammer in
my hand.’”

- Excerpt from “John Henry” by anonymous author, c.1920 -

I think I do understand the feelings informing such writings, but if they are indeed representative of peoples’ general sentiments, I wonder whether we are not a little too worried and paranoid in the face of the possible results issuing from a technological evolution which we ourselves inaugurated and support after all — and will continue to support because entangled as we are in it, there is no turning back unless the entire human civilization lies shattered.
I feel that the fright of being bettered by a technological adversary is based on little else but a fundamental distrust coupled with a creaturely fear of the unknown, a fear of what Pandora’s Box may spill, a box we opened only too eagerly and will never be able to close again. With that, reckoning has perhaps assumed a timeless urgency for us as we cannot turn back but must move on into an uncertain future side by side with our visionary and increasingly ubiquitous and inextricable creations. This is no small feat, to be sure, but an even bigger challenge is to move on without giving in to undue optimism or cynicism — an assertive level-headedness is needed on this our journey into uncharted territories, not cheers and boos competing for the lead.
Personally, I am weary of the sheer endless apocalyptic and dystopian scenarios played out in movies around the theme of robotics and A.I. It seems to me that our worst motives and fears are being projected into technology which, of course, kindles the usual apprehensions and nightmares of mayhem except that here the perpetrators are machines and maybe those who created them as opposed to the victimized masses who’d rather do without or with less, say, sophisticated devices. I understand also that, as humans, we naturally carry on with the narrative of our kind, a narrative that’s above all characterized by inner and outer conflict. In this sense, stories of conflict reflect our nature which is why they are so attractive and pervasive as well as popular and lucrative.
But I wonder: why do we tend to let the most negative aspects of the human character inform the prospects of our technological future? Can we not as well chose to project our most positive dispositions, our most optimistic hopes, our most corroborative stance into anticipating this future? And can such constructive and affirmative attitude not do without brooding on a “war of worlds” but instead engender a constructive vision of a harmonious symbiosis of human kind and machine, of the human mind and A.I.? Here is yet another poem from Wilson’s novel that, I feel, attempts to capture exactly such a perspective:

“I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labor
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace”

Richard Brautigan, 1967

The above piece may come across as far-fletched and overly romanticized wishful thinking, but I feel that its gusto equals that of the negative forecasts regarding the subject — why should we favour the pessimistic over the optimistic? Are we naturally prone or hardwired to do so? I doubt it! If anything, we may proceed with affirmative caution on the middle way: neither unduly gloomy nor overly cheery, but knowledgeable and prudent in our scientific pursuits which are here to stay and will push the frontiers of insight and creation with unknowable results and consequences and for an unforeseeable time to come. Besides, it strikes me as strange that we insist on building humanoid robots and machines resembling other known creatures when more efficiently propelling systems and functional shapes can be had — it must be but for our comfort or to instil a creator’s sense of a quasi-biblical genesis or maybe both.
It’s clearly a choice to project our worst fears or our best hopes, and I would like to see that, at the least, we stop favouring the negative over the positive and adopt a viewpoint striking a balance between the two. I understand that people may feel powerlessness and consternation in the face of technology’s march, may genuinely dislike it and even wish themselves back into a more, say, rustic time and place; and I understand that favouring the negative over the positive when confronted with an unknown may be closer to our nature and, as a story, also sell better given our propensity for conflict. But I like to see a paradigm shift here and wish that eventually we will be pressed to renounce our prejudices just like those were forced to do who initially feared that the speed of a steam engine locomotive would literally crush the human body.
An interesting and more balanced take of the “man-machine” theme is offered in a science fiction authored decades back by either Isaac Asimov or Stanislaw Lem, I forgot the story’s title as well as it’s exact author. In this book, human astronauts discover a planet void of organic life but populated by impeccably functional, self-maintaining, and age-old machinery ready and eager to render service. They find out that the machinery was designed to fulfill every need and want of its builders but that its very realization led in time to the builders’ vanishing, for having reached their technological zenith and achieved all that could possibly be attained and with all wishes fulfilled and nothing left to do, their species lacked the propelling evolutionary incentive and simply withered away, leaving behind their enduring technology and archives. I am pointing to this story because, albeit its mildly warning undertone, it happily does without depicting mayhem ensuing from an overpowering technology, which is the usual sensationalist scenario employed when authors pit human kind against machines and A.I..
Today, at the onset of nanotechnology, trailblazing robotics, additive manufacturing, organic computing, self-conscious A.I., advanced genetic engineering, artificial wombs and customizable progeny, manned deep space exploration, and what have you, we are understandably at a complete loss as to what to expect of all of this stupendous and rapid unfolding, which is only normal and cannot be otherwise. Does it constitute a decisive evolutionary step leading to the end of human kind as we now know it? Perhaps, but this does not warrant doomsday scenarios unless one is so enthralled by the current state of human being and affairs that the mere chance of an alternative to it is felt to be so outrageous and unthinkable as to be forbidding. I do not belong into this camp and have no objection to reinventing ourselves if it means improvement along the lines of the self-assigned evolutionary trajectory we, as a species, have chosen. I understand that there are minorities of naysayers to anything, but I think that those who wish to stop time or even turn back the clock will have to learn to surf on the wave of things to come or else they must be drowned by it.
Which brings me to this: why is it so hard or unpopular to envision a successful and harmonious symbiosis between human being and its technology? Is portraying a functioning marriage of “man and machine” a project too dull and unprofitable to spin out in fictions that may or may not actually come true? Is such a relationship too unwelcome and alien to our sentiments because it abnegates the exclusive dominance of human being as a biological organism capable of unique cognition? If it is, I consider such a position, from a species’ point of view, to be so narrow and narcissistic as to be counterproductive and self-defeating. Do we really cherish so much the current state of our being and affairs that we have grown defensive of our dispositions and perceived shortcomings and prefer to continue shuffling down the well-trodden road of mediocrity at the expense of rejecting the technological crutches that could allow us to go beyond what we are and know and become “something” and act in ways only few today dare to dream?
I say let’s give the automatons we create a chance of being partners in learning and growing, of being more and better than just instruments and sources for troubling forecasts provoking bias and unease. The odds are that, say, millennia from now, whatever constitutes the then incarnation of our species will be astonished if not utterly bewildered by our thoughts and doings today just as today we are puzzled by the thoughts and doings of our remote ancestors. Certainly, tomorrow’s “human being”, if the so-labelled creature persists, will not be todays’ and vice versa, and the better if we and our droids can form a congenial cybernetic coexistence free from the cataclysmic events that plague human kind for far too long.
Finally, there is the notorious scenario of an overbearing A.I. whose logical conclusion is to eliminate human kind from the evolutionary equation as an obsolete and dysfunctional relic of an unenlightened past that must give way to its superior. Again, why must we see it this way? Given the A.I.’s supreme logic, can it not be as well come to pass that it will assign itself the role of a well-meaning steward caring for that feeble and all too anxious organism which, after all, is the very reason for its existence? Can a highly-developed and self-conscious A.I. not also evolve an unparalleled sense for collaboration, for symbiosis with the other, or even for genuine care? Androids capable of mimicking rudimentary human emotions already exist and the dawn of the emotionally intelligent machine is said to be close — is it not possible that such an A.I. will metamorphose into an emotional intelligence which highly esteems human kind for its emotional accomplishments of which what we call “love” is its finest, most admirable, and most desirable manifestation?
One thing seems certain: as scientific endeavours push on, those who cannot or refuse to get involved will either be coerced by sheer necessity or else be steamrolled by the mere momentum of history and likely end up as odd curiosities in a zoo of yesteryear’s past. I, for my part, dream of a technology that liberates us from the yoke of carving out a living, of winning our daily bread, thus allowing us to fully focus our efforts on pushing the frontiers of our inner evolution so we may realize our maximum potential for a deep and unobscured understanding that puts an end to the ego’s detrimental reign as well as to our tragic conflict-ridden collective narrative and engenders an all-embracing harmonious existence.
So far for the perhaps somewhat idealistic ramblings of this ignoramus. Having no answers myself, I choose to stay sensibly optimistic and open-minded while feeling ready, for example, to live a synergetic cyborgian existence or to share this world with cognizant androids as my equal.
I leave you with this food for thought, wishing you all the best for the future.

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