Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Two Books I'm Reading

I feel like blogging about two books that I'm currently reading. The first one is Volume One of Ray Monk's biography of Bertrand Russell: Spirit of Solitude. I'm glad I check it out of the library.

I knew that Bertrand Russell had been an atheist, an opponent of the Vietnam War and even a vocal opponent of World War One. I'd read several of his essays and bits and pieces of his History of Western Philosophy. His "A Free Man's Worship" was a big influence on me. I also know he'd written a huge book on mathematics Principia Mathematica that is famous for being so widely known but so little read. I was a big fan of his political philosophy, especially "Proposed Roads To Freedom" and "Power: A New Social Analysis." Oh yeah. I had a house-mate from China who told me that Russell was a big deal over there due to a famous visit in the 1920s. And, finally, I was impressed and delighted that my home town's university, McMaster, possessed the Russell Archives.

But I didn't know much about him as a person. What did he do in China? Why did he protest against war? Why was he an atheist? Monk's beautifully written book tells the story of the development of Russell as a man, a philosopher and an activist. I've a couple of chapters left to go but I can't wait to read more.

Russell, disappointingly, was highly unstable. His mathematical philosophy and his philosophy of logic appear to have been half-baked semantic arguments. He had a terribly repressed childhood, treated women abominably (even while fighting for their right to vote) and was, in my estimation, highly immature and selfish.

But here and there, often in fact, the brilliant mind does something amazing.

The other book is Martine Rothblatt's Virtually Human: The Promise - And The Peril - Of Digital Immortality. It's a big disappointment. I'm one of those people who believes that human beings are going to start altering our bodies in major ways. I think we're going to combine DNA alteration, nanotechnology and robotics and become mutant cyborgs. I also believe that the brain, being a combination of chemicals and electricity can be replicated by powerful enough computers. We could transfer this activity to a computer and "live" enormous lifespans.

Rothblatt's book was supposed to discuss the social and ethical implications of one aspect of this process, as well as the technological feasibility of it. Sadly, the book is a repetitive set of assertions about how this will all be technologically possible in coming decades, combined with very brief discussions of very deep topics about the Mind, personal identity and human rights.

Essentially, we will upload photos, writing, social media presences, and other information into a computer program and it will create a "clone" of our personalities that will interact with us as a "Max Headroom" kind of avatar. After we die, our families can talk to our clone instead of looking at pictures of us.

That's it. That's the entire description of the mind-clone. How does all this work? What happens to the mind-clone after you've died and your children and grand-children have died? Do we really expect four generations from now, people are going to want to spend a lot of time with this mind-clone? What will it be doing for all eternity? Rothblatt has established that being sentient, and human, it will have rights. It can't just be turned-off because that would be murder. So, what?

I'm on page 153 of a 310 page book and I have no clue as to what exactly is supposed to happen. She's just finished saying that our mind clones will learn new languages and that, as a result, "we" will be multilingual. (And won't that be nice?) But why would "I" be multilingual because a computerized facsimile of my personality is? Rothblatt manages to point out that the question of personal identity is a vague, incoherent concept and that, at root, we are all stardust. Fine and dandy. But to leap from there to assert that our mind clones are therefore "us" is not justified. If we don't know who "we" really are and we're all related as the stuff of the universe, what's the point of pursuing "immortality" via a "mind clone"?

I'm so bored I'm thinking of giving up and returning it to the library half unread.

But I do want to share something funny. In a section about whether these computerized humans will go rogue and (somehow or other) attack us, Rothblatt says:

There are sure to be rogue "evil genius" mindclones and bemans, just as there is no shortage of rogue human bad guys. These mindclones are as smart as us, or much smarter. While good social policy would be to identify and fix their problems early with cybertherapeutics, this will not always work and some will fall through the cracks. But these anti-human mindclones are a job for law enforcement, not a reason to ban all virtual humans. Society will have plenty of tools at its disposal for tracking down fleshophobic vitology, including legions of citizen mindclones as adept in the vitological niche as were the cavalry's Native American guides on America's Wild West frontier. (Italics added.)

Given the fact that it's been four decades since we've admitted that the Wild West and "settling the frontier" involved the brutal displacement of the First Nations people, in some cases reaching levels of extermination and genocide, I found it a bit odd to seeing that metaphor of the Native American guides assisting the US cavalry in such a fashion. Then, on the very next page, in a discussion about how the mindclones' humanity and morality will help to check potential anti-social behaviour, Rothblatt admits that humans are not always humane and moral:

It is of course true that spouses kill each other. Hatfields kill McCoys and people who are "folk" one day, like German Christians and German Jews, or Rawandan Hutus and Rawandan Tutsis, can rapidly be deemed nonfamily vermin. Yet these situations are exceptions rather than the rule. They startle us because they are exceptions. These killings occur because of an abandonment of reason, or faulty reason, rather than an exercise of sound reasons. Proof of that is the outcome: The Nazis committed millions of indescribable atrocities and attempted to put its boot on the throat of civilization, yet they lasted barely a decade, and the Rawandan genocidaires shorter than that. Killing is a noproductive strategy. It does not advance our prospects for life, but only appears to, in an illusory fashion, when assessed over a very short period of time.

Amazing ain't it? Rothblatt uses a metaphor involving a process of genocide, to assert that we'll be protected against rogue mindclones, and then on the very next page refers self-righteously to the failure of other cultures' genocidal acts to show how rare such occurrences are! I'd say the USA has profited immensely from exterminating so many Native Americans and stealing their land and resources. Such ignorant and superficial arguments from one of the leading proponents for the creation of digital sentient minds is troubling.

I'm still not sure HOW a mind clone could attack us anyway. What does it DO? Surfs the net for its own amusement and talk to us about what it has found out? Does it set the thermostat in our homes for us? Will it yell at us? (Couldn't we just turn down its volume control?) It's so vague it's absurd.

Rothblatt is right to say these computer programs are inevitable. Indeed, she's helping to make it so. But here we see a case of scientists forging ever ahead with no real understanding of the implications or the purpose.


Tal Hartsfeld said...

One of the earliest fictional stories written about the subject of (what we now refer to as) "Artificial Intelligence" was none other than Mary Shelly's 1818 novel FRANKENSTEIN.

thwap said...

i gotta think about that ...