Toward the end of the new Spike Jonze film Her I started to wonder if I was witnessing some sentimental prequel to Terminator. As those who might not remember, the Terminator series is premised on the idea that an A.I system called Skynet, given control over the strategic missile defense, grows incredibly intelligent and, when people try to shut it down, destroys most of humanity in defense. The A.I., named Samantha, in Her never does something so evil, however, some of her actions may be perceived as cruel to humans.
The problem I kept having with the system in Her (called an OS, though it was never clear if it resided on a single computer or somewhere in the cloud as an autonomous program) was that it was never fully explored and seemed to function as a pre-programmed best friend, capable of sympathy, understanding, emotions and learning. However, unlike something that truly mimics human intelligence, it was not, it seemed capable, of making wrong or immoral decisions. To be able to learn is to be able to learn improperly. To be capable of drawing conclusions and making decisions is to be capable of drawing the wrong conclusion and making ethically and/or morally wrong decisions.
Intelligence is not an inoculation against racism, as this article (and many other examples) illustrates. Some of the brightest minds of the 20th century belonged to nazis, many of whom were requisitioned by the U.S. government after WWII to develop long range missiles and the U.S. space program (see Wernher von Braun). In part because no matter how intelligent a person is, they must rely on heuristics for complex decisions. Now a computer, capable of many more computations a minute, can use brute force calculation where humans would use a heuristic approach, but in the end, brute force only works when examining perfect data, like outcomes of a chess game, and not, human behavior or emotions. There just isn’t enough to calculate or to draw on without making some leaps, the kind of leaps humans learn to make when very young with the assistance of parents and society.
We are told at the beginning of Her that the OS is based on the thoughts and ideas of the thousands of programs that helped to develop it. In practice this would mean that the moral views of the OS are based on the amalgamated views of this cohort and the ethics of the OS are based on the programed code of right and wrong (how a conflict would be resolved is unclear). In the end, however, the OS could only apply one system, though it could query the thousand to determine what is right. However, the moral system would be skewed toward the nature of the cohort, presumably computer programmers (which could create an in-group reasoning that would actually lead to sexism or racism depending on the demographics of the programers who, in the U.S. are only 26% women and 72% white and 16% asian).
Which gets me to a problem with the film and the A.I. presented. Samantha is shown to be an understanding friend and, eventually girlfriend, who helps organize e-mails, schedule the protagonists day, forces him to socialize, and eventually acts as a sounding board and advice giver. In many ways, she fits the archetype of a 50’s housewife. However at the same time she is learning, by examining human behavior wherever she can find it. The issue is she always draws conclusions that seem to be the perfect friend or girlfriend conclusion, except for the inevitable denouement where she goes off program. I guess my issue is that any system, no matter it’s program, once it starts learning can’t make mistakes. And not just the minor mistakes depicted, but major awful mistakes. For example, if it were to experience emotional pain or hurt for the first time, its retribution could be catastrophic (i.e. skynet) But this wasn’t really a movie about A.I. and it’s moral implications, it was a movie about a lonely man and inability to interact with other humans.
Still it got me thinking about A.I and it’s implications (a good thing, you should probably see the movie). In the end I kept thinking about the biblical allegory of the tree of knowledge. Knowledge itself is a curse, as is the ability to learn. To bite the apple is to have the world and all its beautiful miracles open up to you, but also to be capable of doing inhuman things to others. We can fly rockets to the moon and we can effectively kill millions. That is what knowledge is. Are we ready for computers to make those decisions?
Halloween is a distant memory now. The night shift is on listening to a black tape recorder at a folding table in the back placed out of sight of the security cameras, next to a cooler filled with freezer burned offal where ice crystals have formed colonies on hearts and suet. A skinny man…
The Lost Lyrics to I Am A God
During the recording of Yeezus Kanye, on multiple occasions, scrapped his lyrics entirely and rewrote them from scratch. Many of these lyrics have been lost to time. However, I have recently uncovered this early version of the song “I Am a God” which was written in response to a slight at Paris Fashion Week. As you can see in these early lyrics, Kanye was much more critical of France and French culture when he initially penned the song. This sentiment was tempered in latter versions.
An interesting note, the last line referencing Jane Birkin was cut from the final version, likely because of a similar line in Jay Z’s Somewhereinamerica, which was released on “Magna Carta…Holy Grail” two weeks after Yeezus.
Jones Beach, Long Island from NYMag - (Photo: Robert F. Sisson/National Geographic/Getty Images)
On my birthday to to list was the task of writing a poem about Long Island that wasn’t too snarky. I move to the city tomorrow so here is my farewell.
The potato fields have been salted
Rum Runners drunk and stumbling west for the night
Shouting at each other on the way to the game
LIRR lurching them onward to the rat tunnels
Little screens filled with fruit and flashing messages
Try to capture their energy
But their voices overwhelm
Breach the sandbags on the southern shore
And wash away tract after identical tract
Sadness can not be duplicated
It is a snowflake emotion
If you put two lachrymose girls heading home from a club under a microscope
You will find an entire universe contained within
And likely be arrested for your efforts
They burned Giordano Bruno at the stake
But then again, they were starved for entertainment
And we have two of every kind of team known to man.