There be dragons!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Kurzweil's magnificent music machine

I read this article about Raymond Kurtzweil and the imminence of artificial intelligence:

2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal

"The Singularity" it seems to be called and the article blithely tells us that

It's impossible to predict the behavior of these smarter-than-human intelligences with which (with whom?) we might one day share the planet, because if you could, you'd be as smart as they would be. But there are a lot of theories about it. Maybe we'll merge with them to become super-intelligent cyborgs, using computers to extend our intellectual abilities the same way that cars and planes extend our physical abilities. Maybe the artificial intelligences will help us treat the effects of old age and prolong our life spans indefinitely. Maybe we'll scan our consciousnesses into computers and live inside them as software, forever, virtually. Maybe the computers will turn on humanity and annihilate us.

I suppose the possibility of SkyNet taking over isn't as much of a scare to me as the premise upon which SkyNet is based, namely, that man is a machine that can be replicated and improved upon. The initial thought is, of course, if we are a machine only what is the point of our existence? What does one do with purpose? Love, hate, honor, artwork, sorrows, joys, all of it becomes utterly meaningless. Why should we bother if all we are is a machine?

Of course science will then try to patch that gaping moral wound by telling us to enjoy the moment or replicate our species or strive for the sake of striving. But even this is meager food for souls forgot. All our striving becomes a chasing after wind; all our art becomes Ozymandian dust; our loves, sorrows, joys, or but an infinitesimal blip in the grand infinity of simian evolution. God is abolished. Civilization is abolished. The self is abolished. And all that one is left with is the enacting of my will over your will.

This, however, seems to be a problem not just originating in our time - nor in the Enlightenment - but throughout human history. Shakespeare's Hamlet wrestles with the issue saying

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

or writing to Ophelia saying

'Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
'O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers;
I have not art to reckon my groans: but that
I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
'Thine evermore most dear lady, whilst
this machine is to him, HAMLET.'

or when he responds to Polonius' inquiry about what he reads by saying "Words, words, words."

or in his famous speech wherein he wrestles with despair

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more;

Plato's interlocutors Polemarchus and Glaucon wrestle with the issue and Thrasymachus bears striking similarity to Hitler and his "Triumph of the Will". Even the books of the Old Testament seem to stand in contrast to the Babylonian nihilism of their age; steeped in Astarte's hedonism and Seth's dark alchemy.

So what age has had a monopoly on atheism and despair? In what age have we ever had a general assurance that all will be well. I think the answer is, no age has ever possessed such monopoly or such assurance. Poetry, artwork, song, literature, drama, religious ceremony all seem to reiterate this fact. To believe or not to believe is the very choice put forth in Deuteronomy

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.

It is the dragon choice - to choose to be the Grendel or the Beowulf, the Smaug or the Gandalf. And if our modern era threatens to make machines more human than human then our only task seems to be what to do with the time that we are given. When the bombs drop, or the rage is loosened, or SkyNet grows self-aware, I hope that I will have chosen life so that I and my children may live.




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